It’s a bit like getting to the top of a sand hill. You take a few paces back and then run at it. As you climb, the sand gives way under your feet and every step you take barely gets you higher. Exhausted, eventually you reach the top only to find a group of people there who had climbed up before you. None of them looks the least bit breathless. You ask them their secret and they tell you they used the steps. In your eagerness to climb the top of the hill, you never checked if there was an easier way to get there.
You may believe in the ethos of hard work and live by it every day. If you do, you’re probably successful. Yet, how often do you ask yourself these two vital questions: First, what is the purpose of all your hard work? Second, could you achieve the same result by working less, but working smarter, and, in that way, give yourself more time for other things?
It’s vital that we regularly ask ourselves those two questions because they make us take stock of our lives. The answers are even more vital because they tell us whether our lives are on the right track and whether a few changes would make them significantly better. The answers may trigger other questions: What’s the point of gaining X, Y, or Z, if after getting them we find they don’t contribute much to our lives?
Successful businesspeople all work hard, but not all of them are smart. The smart ones work as hard as the not so smart ones, but achieve twice a much. Before they climb the sand hill, they make sure the payoff at the top is worth the effort; then they find the most efficient route. If the payoff isn’t worth the effort, they find a different sand hill.
This metaphor is a good guide for almost every endeavor in life. No matter how motivated we are, we have only a finite amount of energy, so it’s essential to spend that energy wisely. Most of us don’t. Some of us work ten hours a day, six days a week to finance a plethora of possessions like cars, extra-large TVs, the latest tablet computers for the kids, maybe a bigger house in the suburbs and even a holiday home, as well as regular visits to expensive restaurants, club memberships and foreign vacations, etc. Is the effort worthwhile because our happiness truly depends on having all those things, or do we have many of those things mainly to impress others?
Large corporations that understand the value of smart work use it to increase their bottom line. Sadly, those kinds of corporations are exceptions. Take recruitment: most big companies spend fortunes looking for the right staff. They advertise, employ consultants, check résumés, hold interviews, hold second interviews, etc. Eventually they hire someone. Straightaway, the new employee needs induction training because he or she is unfamiliar with the ways of the new company. That usually means allocating existing staff and other resources to bring the new recruit up to speed. If, after all that, the person doesn’t work out, they start the process all over again. Smart companies turn this process on its head. They first look for the ideal candidate in the ideal place: among their workforce, because existing employees understand the way the company operates better than any outsider. In recent years, this kind of internal search for the right person has been made infinitely easier and more efficient because of talent management software. Companies that use this kind of software are doubly smart. First, they can easily mine their own workforce databases for star employees by using a variety of criteria, including ongoing performance, reports of superiors, unique qualifications and special achievements, and so save a fortune in recruitment costs. Second, the same software easily identifies slackers who would otherwise hide unnoticed behind some obscure desk, slowly wasting the company’s resources and demotivating colleagues. That kind of software is indispensable, not just by making the jobs of recruiting new staff and assessing existing staff more efficient and cost-effective, but also by reducing the number of people needed to handle both. Very smart executives introduce that kind of software to their company. That’s smart work and its value is enormous.
Smart work has huge implications for all of society. Imagine the impact on the country if most of the work practices in the public and private sectors were just a fraction smarter. Imagine the result if every employee was incentivized to suggest real improvements in all aspects of their work, so that with the same effort they could achieve more. For one thing, the country’s financial fortunes would be transformed; for another, work would be less of a chore and more of a challenge. And people would be happier.
The famous American systems theorist and futurist, Richard Buckminster Fuller, used the metaphor of a ship’s trim tab to illustrate how a tiny, but “smart” effort can achieve enormous results. The trim tab is like a mini-rudder at the edge of the main rudder of a big ship. It takes a lot of energy to turn the main rudder because of its size and water resistance, but it takes just a little to turn the tiny trim tab. Yet, when it turns, the force of the water pushing against it helps turns the main rudder. The trim tab’s work is tiny, but it achieves immense results. That’s smart work.
Our bottom line in life should be to work hard and get the most value out of whatever effort we put in, whether it’s parenting, working for ourselves, as employees, doing charitable work, or just playing. It goes without saying that smart work is about getting the rewards that matter to us – not just any rewards. Strangely, working smart and getting more of what matters to us from that work makes us work harder simply because the work is much more satisfying. So, climb to the top of that hill, but first, check the most efficient route and make sure the view from the top is going to be worth the effort.