On Working Harder and Working Smarter

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:

Return on Effort

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:

Return on Knowledge

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.

Defining Yourself — The Art of Creating an Effective Personal Mission Statement

When you get in your car and drive somewhere, odds are that you will have a well-defined destination in mind. Maybe it’s a particular restaurant, or maybe it’s your friend’s house. Taking this example a step further and applying to today’s topic, lets go on to say that you are in the driver’s seat of your life, steering it in one direction or another. Do you have a well-defined destination in mind? Which direction are you heading in over the next 2-3 months? Where do you plan to be in 2-3 years?

If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, people who are clearly able to define their goals are more likely to achieve them. Yet so many people are undecided and unsure in both their short term and long term goals. The argument could be raised that there are times in your life when it is perfectly normal to be confused, such as when you are deciding on a career path in college. This is very true and I do not refute that. However, the difference is in whether or not you take responsibility for resolving that lack of clarity. A college student who is unsure of his major and takes no proactive steps to explore different career fields to figure out his/her interests is in need of two things:

  1. Self Motivation
  2. Defined Goals

Self motivation can only come from within. It can help to have people encourage and even push you a little to get off your butt and take action, but ultimately real success comes through the motivation you generate from within. Finding and developing that motivation is a whole other topic, so it will not be the focus of today’s post. That leaves defined goals remaining to be discussed. Setting defined goals is important at every stage of life and although there are many different forms of goal setting, the form I want to address today is the personal mission statement.

You may have seen a mission statement on a company’s website. But what exactly is a mission statement? Wikipedia offers a concise definition: “A mission statement is a formal short written statement of the purpose of a company or organization. The mission statement should guide the actions of the organization, spell out its overall goal, provide a sense of direction, and guide decision-making. It provides the ‘framework or context within which the company´s strategies are formulated.‘”

Mission statements are a valuable tool that companies and corporations of all sizes use to guide all of the actions the company takes. It takes an all-encompassing stance to include goals, actions, direction, and framework. This is an invaluable tool for businesses especially during trying times where it can be tempting to veer off path to save money short term. In the same way that businesses utilize their mission statements to give a structure to their actions and strategies, you too can utilize a personal mission statement to guide your own actions and life strategies. By frequently reviewing and consulting your personalized mission statement when making decisions, whether minute or life-altering, it will help keep you in line with your beliefs and values.

Ok, great! So how do we get to building a personal mission statement?

For those who aren’t used to defining their goals in an all-encompassing format, the Mission Statement Builder on franklincovey.com is a very simple and fun tool. The link to it is http://www.franklincovey.com/msb/missions/personal/.

For those of you who want to write your own mission statement, it is important to use precision in your statements. You will want to define:

-The type of person you wish to be

-The type of lifestyle you wish to pursue

-What you wish to accomplish before you leave this world

-Your short and long term goals for your career

-The things you value most and how you will prioritize them into your life

-Anything important in your life that has not reached its full potential

Leaving anything fuzzy or poorly defined will only reduce the effectiveness of your mission statement.

And remember, if you know of anyone who even MIGHT benefit from this post, please pass it along.

‘Till next time.

Why Self Motivation is Essential to Success

You may remember that the old tagline for this blog was “Self Improvement for Self Motivators.” Although I’ve chosen to go with a tagline that is more descriptive of the blog’s purpose, this old tagline still remains true. The majority of the content on this blog is targeted towards people who can dig deep and find the motivation and dedication needed to change one’s self.  In this post I will attempt to explain why being a “Self Motivator” is crucial for seeing positive change in almost any endeavor.

It’s no secret anymore that the world is changing at an exponential rate. For example, many fields and occupations that are in demand now will be completely outdated in the near future. Furthermore, if you stay static and unchanging in your own field, you may soon find yourself without a job. Especially in this job environment, if you remain one-dimensional while others competing for the same jobs as you are continually learning the latest in your field, you are instantly at a severe disadvantage. This realization can be quite intimidating for some.

Thankfully, this is where being a Self Motivator will help you come out on top. Because Self Motivators are used to constantly learning new skills and pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone, they are able to quickly adapt to changes in the world around them because they are used to dealing with these challenges. While many people rely on college and grad school to acquire the skills they will bring into the workplace, many fields are evolving too rapidly to keep going back to school to learn new skills. Finding it within yourself to become a Self Motivator is more important than ever before.

I’m not the only person to acknowledge it. For example, the people over at Personal MBA argue that assimilating the knowledge from a selection of the greatest business and personal development books ever written can be just as effective, if not more so, then dropping $100,000 on an MBA program. You can find that book list here.

In the same way that eating healthier and exercising more often is a big change that will impact your current and future health and well-being, being a Self Motivator is a lifestyle change that will noticeably and perhaps even radically impact the course of your career and your personal life. Amazing things begin to happen when you take responsibility for your own learning and personal growth.

Would you consider yourself a “Self Motivator”? If not, there’s no better time than now.