A monthly newsletter on mastery and creativity Subscribe


The Art of Working Smarter, Not Harder

The other day we talked about how solitude and deliberate practice is a catalyst to mastery.

Indeed, dedicating a portion of our day developing our skills — writing, designing, drawing, sewing, cooking, whatever it is you do — is an asset that grows with time and carries us throughout our lives. It allows us to contribute, to be open to creative outlets and opportunities, and to simply know what is inside of us.

Recently I devoured 99u’s second book, Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build An Incredible Career, where they ask contributors from many fields to share their wisdom and insight in helping us maximize our potential in leading a creative life, taking smart risks, and learning to deal with adversity, failure, and stress. Tony Schwartz quotes Ericsson’s famous study and sheds a light on an important aspect that I overlooked in the previous post. He says [emphasis by me]:

“Practice undeniably lies at the heart of mastery. In Ericsson’s study, he divided the violinists into three groups based on their level of skill as measured by their teachers. The lowest level group practiced slightly less than ninety minutes a day. The top two groups both practiced an average of approximately four hours a day, in sessions no longer than ninety minutes, after which they took a break.

Nearly all those top two groups began practice first thing in the morning, when their energy was the highest and the number of distractions they faced the lowest. When they began to feel tired, as they approached ninety minutes, they rested and renewed. After three such sessions, they were spent for the day. Ericsson subsequently posited that four and a half hours is the natural human limit for the highest level of focus on a single task in any given day.”
As I approach the end of my Fall semester, I hear and see all too often students staying up late, cramming for finals, and furiously trying to hand in that 15-page research paper — all the while having a full time job and other responsibilities.

On the outside, working hard is seemingly admirable and shows great fortitude in character. But I’m not the type to be fooled by outside appearances. What looks like hard work may be, in fact, ineffective.

We may tell ourselves that we can work for 3 hours straight. We may often be so consumed in our work, not in a desperate sort of way but almost lost in excitement, that we end up sabotaging our energies for later sessions. Being mindful of how you work, how you wisely use your energy, can not only save you from exhaustion but also make the work simply more enjoyable and the results even greater.

Few tips to get you started:

1. Set a timer for 90 minutes: No tabs open, no phone, no email. It’s just you and the work you have to do, the practice that you’re engaging in. 90 vigilant minutes can go by quickly. Once the 90 minutes is up, take a 15 minute break. Stretch, drink water, move around, clean your desk, take a shower. The idea is that in those 90 minutes you’re mustering all your creative powers, cross-pollinating ideas, connecting the dots, exploring different angles and solutions, that it engulfs you entirely. There’s no thought of whether someone retweeted your last tweet or liked your photo — you’re focused in on the work.

2. Understand how this helps you grow: No doubt you want to be successful, perhaps wealthy. The life you desire to live will come from developing the sort of skills that are useful to other people. It’s insane to think that you can live a great life by possessing mediocre skills. The fact that human beings are capable of mastery should fill you with awe and ambition. The fact that each and every one of us is unique and capable of contributing to the world shouldn’t stop at a realization but go further as an obligation. Working smarter, not merely harder, is a difficult challenge especially when the culture surrounding you is obsessed with immediate gratification and life hacks.

3. Permission to start doing it differently: It’s difficult to change old habits, but not impossible. Ever have the feeling that your brain is fried and that fumes are spewing out of your ears? That’s a sign you went too far or that you’ve hit your limit for the day. If you’re realizing now that you spend too much time on one task without necessary breaks, it’s not too late to step back and change your approach to how you practice. You can set a timer. You can work smarter. You can ignore your phone for 90 minutes.

This area of our lives is so important and it deserves the utmost respect. Our work, our art, our craft, is responsible for who we become and how we make meaning of our lives. Furiously banging our heads against the wall and expecting greater results is an exercise of self-sabotage and arrogance.

So the question remains, does working harder — punching the gas pedal — produce the results we desire? Or does working efficiently over a longer period of time allow us to do better work?