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How to Work Hard and Work Smart

Don't double-down when overwhelmed at work. Reevaluate your habits.

Key points

  • If you are working hard but ineffectively, it's time to pause and reexamine your work habits.
  • Don't discount the basics: maintain a time log and keep notes on your work progress.
  • Plan effectively in advance so you can adjust your schedule and remain flexible when conflicts arise.

You knock yourself out every day giving 110 percent to your job. You have good relationships at work. Yet, despite your best efforts, it feels like your work is just not good enough. The quality of your work is not what it should be, or your productivity is too low. You just are not getting enough work done given the time you spend on it. Every day, I hear from talented, hard-working people out there in the real world who are scrambling to get more work done better and faster, but they are still not getting the results they need.

Take this example of a talented professional who is now about to become a partner at a medium-sized consulting firm. But it almost didn’t turn out that way. He has impeccable credentials and had acquired significant experience in one of the bigger consulting firms in his field before landing a job at his current, medium-sized firm.

Even the most talented, skilled, or knowledgeable people fall into habits that drain quality or productivity.
Source: Pexels/cottonbro

“When I first started working at [the current company], I was like a fish out of water,” he shared with me. “There was much less structure to the work than I was used to from my years working at [the bigger firm]. At [the bigger firm], I would work with a pretty good-sized team on a client engagement for months at a time. Everyone was expected to maintain their individual work-plan and schedule of deliverables. We had a checklist to guide us through the work to make sure we were faithfully following the procedures. We had a team meeting at the beginning of each week where each of us would go through our key priorities and our to-do lists for the week.”

“At the new firm, there was much less structure. The client engagements were smaller and it was common to get pulled off of one client matter and thrown onto something else entirely for a while. Depending on who was in charge of a particular client engagement, there would or wouldn’t be an overall work-plan. It was a lot harder to keep my priorities straight and stay organized and focused.” In that less structured setting, he continued, “I was having a really hard time being as productive as I was used to being. I kept finding I was going in the wrong direction on one thing or another, sometimes for days at a time before I realized it. I was getting to work earlier and staying later, but I was wasting time, working a lot more hours than I ever had, but impressing nobody.”

The situation kept getting worse until he had a long heart-to-heart conversation with one of the partners: “He basically told me, ‘Look, I’ve been there. I know exactly what you are going through. You are used to having a lot more structure. Here, nobody gives you that structure. You have to create that structure around your own work for yourself.’”

The lesson: “I realized I was going to have to get organized and start making better use of my time. I was going to have to develop good habits to keep track of my own work and maintain my focus. I had to set and keep track of my own priorities, work-plan, schedule, to-do list, checklists for quality control. That helped a lot. It was pretty much the turnaround moment that made it possible for me to do as well as I’ve done here.”


If you find yourself in a similar scenario—working hard, but still not being as effective as you should—then you might reconsider your work habits, specifically your habits related to organization and focus. Regardless of where you work or what you do, if you are going to get a lot of work done very well, very fast, day after day, you need structure, and the following good habits to succeed.

Use your time wisely

There are 168 hours in a week. How do you use them? Most people waste endless hours without ever realizing they are doing so. Keep track of your time so you can eliminate time wasters and stay focused on key priorities. One of the best gifts you can give yourself is maintaining an old-fashioned time log to understand how you are using your time and to identify and eliminate time wasters. Each time you change from one activity to another, note briefly it in your log. Here’s an example:

  • 7:00 a.m.—Sat down at my desk, read over to-do list, set priorities for the day
  • 7:10 a.m.—Got up to use the bathroom and got coffee
  • 7:45 a.m.—Sat back down at desk, opened e-mail.
  • 8:30 a.m.—Started preparing response to e-mail from manager
  • 8:40 a.m.—Incoming phone call from Friend Smith
  • 9:15 a.m.—Continued preparing response to e-mail from manager
  • 9:25 a.m.—Got up to use bathroom and get another cup of coffee

The time log is useful only if you faithfully record every activity precisely. Used properly, three or four days is all it takes to get a reality check on how you are spending your time and when you are wasting it.

Set priorities and revisit them regularly

If you have limited time and too much to do, then you need to set priorities—an order of precedence or preference for your tasks—so that you control what gets done first, second, third, and so on. Make sure you are devoting the lion’s share of your time to first and second priorities. When it comes to setting day-to-day priorities, postpone low-priority activities until high-priority activities are well ahead of schedule.

Plan your work every step of the way, but be prepared to adjust as needed.

Before you can make a realistic work-plan, you have to know how long each task is actually going to take. Break big projects into manageable tasks, estimate accurately how long they will each take to complete, and set a timetable based on those realistic estimates. Of course, no matter how great the plan, you will always be subject to interruptions. Emergencies and distractions always spring up and disrupt a perfect plan. Don’t be thrown off. Pay close attention and be prepared to revise and adjust your plans every step of the way.

Take notes, maintain a to-do list, and create and refer to checklists

Note-taking is a process. If you take notes every step of the way at work, then you can use them to maintain your to-do list, track progress, and revise and adjust your work-plan as needed. Also, use your note-taking to create checklists to help you ensure quality and completeness of your work. Checklists are common in workplaces where there is little room for error: operating rooms, airplane cockpits, nuclear weapons launch sites, accounting firms, and so on. There’s a reason for that. Checklists are powerful tools. No matter where you work or what you do, taking notes and rigorously using to-do lists and checklists to guide you will cause your error rates to go down, quality to go up, and assignments to be completed on time.

Take action and keep moving forward

Nothing gets done unless somebody does it. In this case that somebody is you. If you have one hundred phone calls to make, you start with the first one and move on to the second and then the third, and so on. Each call is a concrete action. Every concrete action can be broken down into smaller components and each small component is, itself, another concrete action. If you get bogged down with the feeling that you are “not getting anything done,” break every task into its smaller components and start tackling them one at a time. You will start moving forward.

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