An idea I want to explore today is the nature of working smarter versus working harder to achieve progress in your career. More often than not, if a recent graduate asks how she can advance up the corporate ladder in a company, she will be told to work harder and/or work longer hours to show her dedication to the company and her desire to succeed. She might shorten her lunch break a bit, stay a little longer after everyone else leaves, etc. While this approach can and will work if you have a management team that notices and rewards such behavior, there is a diminishing marginal return to the mantra of “work harder to get ahead.” A pictorial demonstration of the concept of diminishing marginal return can be seen below:
For example, let’s say that I’m a new hire at a company and thus far have demonstrated satisfactory commitment to my job. Then one day I decide to step it up and start working longer hours and being more productive during my day. That would reflects the left side of the curve on the graph above. At this point, I would experience a very noticeable return on my investment of additional time and effort because my boss is noticing my increased efforts and has been taking account of this.
Now let’s say that the positive reinforcement from my boss inspires me to start spending even longer hours at the office and being even more productive than before. Let’s follow the curve to the center of the graph. The percent return on this increased productivity is noticeably lower than before. The additional hours I am putting into my job is beginning to cut into my sleep, social life, family time, etc. These are costs that have been incurred by furthering my efforts to work harder. When the cost of an investment increases over time, the percent return on that investment will progressively become lower over that time period when the return is a fixed result (such as a promotion to the level above your current position). This investment also becomes riskier as burnout becomes more likely as a result of pushing yourself closer and closer to your limit each day. Once the risk becomes too high or the returns become too low, it’s wise to stop investing. This is why finding your individual threshold for working harder is an important step to sustainable success in your career.
Finding the Balance
As we will discuss in just a moment, working harder is only one part of the equation here. Before moving on, make a note to find your threshold for increasing the intensity and duration of your workday. Some people, myself included, do not mind consistently putting in extra hours when need be; however, some many not handle this well. I personally enjoy the challenge of staying as productive as possible in any endeavor, so my threshold in this area is quite high. It’s your job to discover your own personal limits.
Note: Although this isn’t the main topic of discussion for this post, finding a career you truly enjoy is the key to having a higher threshold to be the hard-working, productive employee that your employer expects you to be.
The Other Part of the Equation
Now that you are aware that it is crucial to find your optimal range for working harder, it’s time to introduce the other part of the equation: Working smarter.
By “working smarter” I mean learning new skills relevant to your field. If you can get your employer to pay for you to learn these new skills so that you become a more valuable employee, that’s great. But don’t wait on them to do so; in most cases, you must take the initiative. There is such an abundance of free information on the internet that there is no excuse for not starting today. I will argue that the curve for the return on possession of specialized knowledge looks like this:
Continuing with my example from before, let’s say that I spend half an hour a week reading a blog that discusses topics relevant to the industry I work in. This allows me to have meaningful conversations with fellow employees and my boss. This may yield me a favorable impression on the boss. If I’m lucky, it may even be the tipping point for that promotion I have been seeking. Generally speaking though, the rewards are small for this small amount of effort. Since the curve is exponential in nature, the return on small investments of time stay quite small until you hit a certain level of time invested. This is because the real reward comes from spending the time to internalize and actively apply the specialized knowledge you acquire, which takes significant investment of your time and effort (represented by the right-hand side of the graph).
If I decide to really buckle down and dedicate seven hours a week to learning and applying the latest skills relevant to my field (which would represent a rightward shift to the center on the graph above), by the end of a year I will be a much more valuable employee because of all of the knowledge I have accumulated and internalized. The key is to make sure you can apply this knowledge, otherwise you are of no additional value to an employer. Applying these skills through personal projects or side jobs is imperative to demonstrating your increased value. By acquiring and applying these new found skills that many others in your field may not possess (whether they’re cutting edge or difficult to learn), you are now in higher demand in the marketplace. And basic economics dictates that the more your skills are demanded in the market place, the higher your compensation will be. In this regard, a significant increase in applied specialized knowledge results in a huge reward. Now that’s working smart!
When it comes to finding the trade off between working harder and working smarter (which we defined as acquiring and applying specialized knowledge related to your field), your occupation and your personality will have a lot to do with where you strike a balance between the two. Certain career paths, such as that of an investment banker, will require you to start working at a level that is very far to the right on the return on effort curve. But because they push you to the limit in this regard, they make sure the return on your effort is worth your while (through high compensation) in order to cover the detriment to your work/life balance and even your health. One thing is for sure: don’t focus only on one aspect while neglecting the other. In other words, when you strike the perfect balance between working harder and working smarter, the effects will be synergistic and will achieve a higher return than either could have done alone.