Working smarter, not harder

March 14, 2019

Work smarter, not harder!

Do you fancy working smartly, rather than hard? This sounds like a great proposition to someone as busy as me. But what does it actually mean? And, more importantly, how can I apply it in practice?

Essentially, we could all work as many hours as there are in the day – and as a small business owner, this is a huge temptation. There is often more than enough work that could be done at any given point. But is this really the best strategy? And, will it actually get us to where we aspire to be?

I consider a number of different components below that contribute to working smarter rather than harder.


Begin with the end in mind

First and foremost, we need to understand what we’re aiming for. It’s essential to understand what our end goals look like and our definitions of success (or other).  Are we aiming to grow by X%? To become profitable? To attract new clients? To sell our business?

It can also be useful to consider this across multiple dimensions e.g. work and financial goals, work-life balance and health. Without this insight we could ultimately end up working blindly and, regardless of the number of hours we put in and the sacrifices we make, we’ll never fully make it.

“Begin with the end in mind” is Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Essentially, if we define our end goal, it will give us the direction to aim for, the ability to course correct, if required, and to actually know when we get there!


SMART objectives

Many of us are familiar with the SMART mnemonic that’s used in objective setting. There are a couple of variations but I like Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time based. In theory this makes perfect sense, but how many of us actually use this in practice? Especially if we’re setting our own objectives.

Taking our broad goals from above and aligning smart objectives to these is critical to ensure we’re focused on doing the right things to get us there. This can also help in breaking goals down into an appropriate level of detail to make them actionable and achievable.



Let’s not stop at creating goals and objectives. Once we know what we want to do, we need to decide what to focus on first. There are two things I find useful here:

Firstly, Stephen Covey’s Habit 3 “Putting First Things First”. In particular, the Importance/Urgency matrix helps me to categorise and prioritise tasks. We should focus on addressing the important tasks (above non-important ones) and ideally before they become urgent. This can serve as a great, yet simple, tool as and when new info and tasks crop up.

Secondly, “The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. The key theme here is based on the question “What’s the ONE THING you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”. This is repeated throughout the book and can be applied to different areas of your life.



Once we know what we should be doing, it’s useful to establish ways that allow us to monitor progress against our objectives. They say “what gets measured gets gone”. This could be an app or other tool that monitors progress automatically for us, or it could be as simple as a to-do list or sticker chart!

The other one I like is “Fail fast, fail forward”. Monitoring can give us early warning signs and allow us to course correct accordingly.

It’s time to ask ourselves some questions:


Am I doing what I said I’d do?  If so, how’s that working for me? If not, why might that be? What could I do to move forward on this?


Is what I’m doing having the desired affect? If not, why is this? What else could I do as well / instead?

We’ll probably need some kind of data to answer all of these and it should be linked to the ‘measurable’ elements of our objectives above.



Boundaries can be a tough one. Many of us chose to go it alone to escape corporate constraints or other people’s boundaries.  Some things may remain outside of our control but there are always some elements within our control. It’s important that we understand and set some boundaries of our own for the components that are in our control:

Time – how much are we able / prepared to work in any given day / week / on average?

Time – how much time are we prepared to give any particular investment, initiative or strategy, to see if its working for us or not?

Money – how much can we afford to invest or risk? How much do we need to make as a minimum? After financial commitments, how much ‘disposable income’ do we have to play with? What options and trade-offs can we make?

Working out our hourly earning rate can also be useful here i.e. how much we earn divided by the number of hours worked.

Values – it’s also important to have a good grip on our personal values, in case we find ourselves in a position where these are tested.



I use the word resources quite broadly here. This could include processes, systems, other people, apps etc. Given all of the things we have to do - and as an entrepreneur our remit could be very broad - are we optimising our use of available resources?


  • Doing everything ourselves v delegation v outsourcing – this includes asking for / accepting help or support.
  • Networks - Who do we know who could…?
  • Collaborating with others – joining forces – mix of skills or complementary services


  • Ad hoc processes – bespoke processes – standard – starting from scratch etc.
  • Apps – should be facilitating, if they’re not, then ditch them and consider alternatives
  • Freely available resources – workshops, training guides, etc
  • Membership of professional bodies – Institute of Directors, Federation of Small Businesses etc.
  • Bartering and sharing – is there any scope for swapping resources e.g. coaching v admin services
  • Are we using the best tools for the job? There may be different ways of reaching the same outcome, with pros and cons



I use the term environment in the context of setting ourselves up for success. What works for us may have a huge impact on the ability to achieve our goals, and could also be very different from other people around us.

  • Timings – time of day and work patterns – we may already know our optimal work times, but maybe not. It’s worth considering as it could be outside the normal 9-5 and could bring us some additional productive hours for ‘free’ with no incremental investment in time
  • Last minute v planner – some of us work better with a longer lead time, others work best with the time pressure of a deadline, this may also differ by task. Identify our own preferences here for optimal effect
  • Quiet v hubbub – do noise levels affect us? Does this vary by task and the amount of pressure we’re under? Experiment to see what works best
  • Independence or collaboration? Maybe a mix depending on the task at hand? Consider peer groups or mastermind to keep motivated and accountable
  • Physical space – where do we work best? in a tidy / messy / organised chaos / home v external office space
  • Exercise, food, temperature, light, space etc. can all play an important part.

It’s important to know what helps us to operate optimally to give us the best possible chance of success. Some elements may be more within our control than others, but it’s worth giving some serious thought to them and experimenting to find what works best for us.



Unfortunately, despite best efforts, life doesn’t always go to plan. Obstacles crop up along the way. People don’t react in the way we’d expect. We’re dependent on others and their timescales. Or we fail to attract customers with our offering.

These factors (amongst many others) can have an impact on our best laid plans. But often we’ve just got to pick ourselves up and keep going.

  • Safety net – this could be financial e.g. having a rainy-day fund, or it could be something else we can turn to if required e.g. a quick way of generating some money or turning to an activity we’re skilled at to build confidence.
  • Contingency plans – having alternative plans than can be executed if required can be a great comforter as well as the more practical application if they are actually required.
  • Accountability partners – having the support of others that we can share our plans with and that will hold us accountable for our goals can be very powerful
  • Change tact – sometimes we may need to tweak our plans or take a different direction. As long as we’re still focused on our end goal, there can be more than one way of getting there
  • Knowing we have choices – there are always option, no matter how trapped or stuck we feel. Sometimes we just need to step back to see them, or need some support via coaching or other.



There are different ways in which many of us could all benefit from working smarter rather than harder. This could provide more time for other things in our lives, like family or working out.

First, we need to be open to trying something different and some self-awareness. Then:

  • Be clear where we’re aiming
  • Break our goals down into manageable steps
  • Prioritise what to work on first
  • Put monitoring tools in place
  • Establish boundaries
  • Optimise the resources available
  • Select the optimal environment
  • Stay resilient!

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