Smart Work also involves Hard Work

“I am not smart, I pay attention.
I am not considerate, I listen.
I am not patient, I make time.
I’m not lucky, I work hard.” — Mark W. Boyer

One of the most fashionable statements to be heard in the annals of Corporate truisms is “do smart work, not hard work”. In my experience, I have seen that no matter how often or who makes this statement about smart work, most people indulge in largely meaningless hard work anyway, creating no particular value for anyone. At the risk of sounding outrageous, I strongly believe that between 50% to 90% of what one does at work does not create meaningful value. This means you are wasting 4 to 8 hours at work everyday. I’m convinced that some portion of this meaningless work is an inevitable aspect of bureaucracies — i.e., it is a feature and not a bug. So, not much point exasperating overly about it. However, some of it can be addressed and addressing it could make a big difference. If you are frustrated about lack of meaningful progress in your careers despite delivering high impact projects, acquiring technical, process and managerial certifications, going well and beyond what your immediate boss asks you to do, all that you may be missing is the “smart” mindset.

Resorting to my usual two-mode view of looking at such items, here are things to think about to make your work “smart”:

Outside View (also, “external” view, “functional” view etc)

  • Questioning when things don’t make sense as opposed to just doing things because they have been handed down by your boss
  • Clarifying requirements of your task as opposed to just filling the gaps yourself
  • Making your assumptions explicit and validating them
  • Understanding the bigger objective of the task — ideally as it relates to the mission of the organization/business unit, to the clients and/or to the shareholders

Inside View (also, “internal” view, “structural” view etc)

  • How does your current work contribute to your personal long term objectives/goals
  • What capability will it help build or hone (patience, long term mindset, resilience, perseverance etc)
  • How will it help in building a meaningful skill (Machine Learning, Cooking, Bar tending etc)
  • If not a skill and/or a capability, how else is it meaningful to you — building important relationships, making money, relaxation, fun etc

“You need to constantly examine your life, inner and outer, to see where you are losing and gaining power.” — Frederick Lenz

What is not necessarily “smart”, by itself?

  • Working on the latest trends: Trends normalize or die and new ones come up
  • Doing that which makes most money: in the pursuit of money, many a people are compelled to live trapped and borrowed lives
  • Doing that which gives you most satisfaction: satisfaction is a double-edged sword — it is important but can also degenerate into smaller ambitions
  • Doing that which enables most learning: Learning a few things very well is more important than learning a little of many things
  • Doing that which makes you most critical: being the most critical, means you may be dissuaded from taking up other roles, you may get trapped into a golden carriage, you may be called upon in your off hours and weekends and during your vacations (if your vacation is approved, that is)
  • Doing that which makes you most visible: “Right” visibility is more important than “most” visibility. Right kind of projection with the right kind of people should be the goal
  • Doing that which gives you most free time today: Many times, today’s free time is acquired at the cost of tomorrow’s (longer) free time
  • Thinking that “external/visible effort” leads to results: No doubt, more often than not, action eventually leads to results but only when preceded by the right amount of thinking. Also, on many occasions, doing nothing leads to better outcomes

I have been running for around ten years now — this included over 15+ full marathons, three ultra marathons and a number of half marathons. However, despite having done a number of full of marathon events by then, the first seven years of my running was not smart running. It was largely mindless hard running. I relied on sheer mental strength. All my ultras were also run during this phase. The last three years were what I would like call “smart” running years. I hired a running coach which helped me put structure and accountability to my training. I engaged with a strength training coach and she helped me with building strength and incorporating flexibility. My race performances improved significantly. I was able to run faster marathons and run them with more control. I was able to predict my performance (both in races and in training runs) and reconcile actual results against forecasts. This enabled critical feedback that resulted in improvements, adjustments, changes etc which ultimately led to overall improvement.

“I’m not in a hurry to do a lot of projects. I am very resolved in each project I take on.” — Maya Lin

“Smart” as a mindset

“Smart” is not something you acquire but a “way” of doing things. In this sense, “smart” is not so much about intellect or efficiency or productivity, it is about consistency and discipline of applying a certain basic approach in everything you do. Smart is about acting over theorizing, learning from doing over learning from classroom, incrementally progressing over spectacular jumps, empiricism over speculation, compounding activities over transactional work.

Smart work comes down to:

  • Long term orientation
  • System approach: Right planning and execution
  • A way or method to (even if somewhat) objectively analyze efforts and results and incorporate feedback/lessons learnt
  • Accountability partner(s) particularly because most important things cannot be objectively measured

“Smart” is not a monopoly of the cerebral or the privileged lot. It is a structural attribute that can be cultivated by anyone. Cultivating smart mindset allows you to focus on the controllables and makes progress incidental. “Smart” is well within your grasp right now — what’s stopping you?


Thanks for taking time to read this article. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that can help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals and desires. I share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile, please do share it with others — of course, only if you do not mind it.

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