Top 10 Tips for Working Smarter, Not Harder

Back in my law school days I had a pal who had it all figured out. Well, maybe not “all”, but he sure did have the work stuff down pat. Although not the best student, he nevertheless had his pick of the best jobs. Employers loved him and co-workers liked him. Upon graduation, he had multiple offers from great law firms.

What was his secret? Did he work hard? Yes, you bet (“especially when I first get a new job so that they will always look at me through that hard-working lens,”) but more than that, he worked smart. He used his time extremely well, made it a point to be technologically advanced (people would actually come to him for help), he was positive, personable and smart, he read books on efficiency, and he especially didn’t waste time on things that didn’t matter.

I have often thought of his attitude in the years since, especially recently as the time demands on all of us seem to continuously grow, but damn if the length of a day never does.

Especially today, working hard is not enough. And really, how much harder can we work, anyway? No, these days, working smart is the new currency.

Here are 10 great ways to do just that:

  1. Make a “To Not Do” List: Jim Collins, author of From Good to Great, observed that highly effective people and companies worry as much about their “to not do” list as their “to do” list. What are those things that you do that you would be better off not wasting time on?

In his amazing book, The 4-Hour Workweek, author Tim Ferris says that he almost completely outsourced email. Impressive, yes, and maybe impossible for us mere mortals, but the idea is a sound one: Re-think how you spend your time and stop doing those things that don’t move the needle.

  1. Make a MIT list: Speaking of lists, one you might also want to start is a list of your Most Important Tasks (MITs). The way it works is this: Every night, make a list of the top two or three things you need to get done the next day. Write it down. And then stick to the MIT.
  1. Stop multitasking: Try this instead: Block off a chunk of time – either mentally or using the stopwatch on your phone or computer – and work on one task, and only one task. Don’t answer email. Don’t surf the Web. Don’t call your spouse. Don’t do anything else but that one thing.

Try it for 30 minutes and see how much you get done.

  1. Turn off the Wi-Fi: While everyone seems to hate flying these days, personally I quite enjoy it. Among other reasons, I get hours with no Internet interference. Turn off the wireless.
  1. Learn your software: The people who make the apps and software that you use to run your business have spent an inordinate amount of time, money, and resources to make them really, really useful. The problem is that most of us only use a small percentage of what these tools can actually do because, usually, we know what we know and we don’t want to be bothered learning more (guilty as charged!) But if you take a few hours to really learn what that app has to offer, you will save a ton of time down the road.
  1. Get help: You should be using your time to grow your business, not mailing packages or whatever, and if you are doing the latter then it’s time to hire some help, get an intern, outsource, or do whatever else it is you need to do to get the help you need.
  1. Use the Decision Box. President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision box made making decisions much simpler and faster. As he said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” Do, Decide, delegate, or delete.
  1. Begin with the end in mind: In the seminal book on this topic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says that the key to doing a project right is to begin by knowing what the end should look like. This will force you to use your time on the things that matter instead of those that don’t.
  1. Sharpen your saw: From the same book, the idea here is to keep your skills sharp. It is much easier to saw down a tree with a sharp blade than a dull one.
  1. Know when to say when: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and Jill a dull girl. Even the almighty took a day off.

Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is the senior small business columnist at USA TODAY, the Editor-in-Chief here at Small Business Connection, a speaker and spokesperson. He can be reached at

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