Sunday, March 6, 2011

Working Hard versus Working Smart

Working smart is very hard, and most people don't do it. People will work hard doing smart things, but doing smart things hard is not working smart. Working smart requires being intelligent, effective, and efficient. Combine all three with good sleep, and you will win.

Increasing Intelligence

I believe intelligence increases over your lifetime provided you are pushing the boundaries of what you know and what you can do. If you do the same thing for 10 years, then you are not changing. However, if you spend the evening working on math puzzles and Wikipedia, then you are learning something and increasing something.

People like to have a fixed concept of intelligence as if you are born with it. This is a psychological defense of their own laziness since learning is painful for many people. I argue that intelligence is defined by the work you put into it.

Intelligence will ultimately define the level of work you can do.

Increasing Effectiveness

Spend time working on the right things rather than just spending time on work. Being effective is hard because there is temptation to work on other things that appear important.

In the land of start-ups, the key to being effective is to make sure the business state progresses every day. This means that the task you are working on must

(a) increase revenue
(b) enable the business side to iterate
(c) make a customer happy
(d) decrease costs
(e) find customers

If the task you are working on doesn't help any of these, then it probably isn't effective. Each organization or project has similar questions. I like to think of each task as a vector and the organization/project goal is another vector. Effectiveness is just maximizing the dot product between the two.

The key to being effective is to understand what the goals of what you are working on and how that relates to the sea of tasks in front of you.

Increasing Efficiency

This is the easiest to increase of all three. This is where you make a massive todo list and you just start grinding on it. I make multidimensional TODO lists and batch things together using a gray code of sorts. The key here is not to estimate the time per task and instead say each task should take about a minute, and then just go. This avoids Parkinson's Law. The key is that when things take longer than you expect is to take notes on the problem and then move on to the next item.

This is how I used to hack exams in college. It was easy to grind on all the easy questions whilst my mind thought more deeply about the hard problems.

The same is true for any workload. Get all the easy stuff done and then focus on the hard stuff. I try to load it up so I go to sleep for the hard stuff. I often just wake with answers and spend a couple of minutes writing the solutions out. Sleep is very effective for solving hard problems.


I think our work schedules suffer from a severe problem in enabling creativity. We shouldn't work in the morning and then play in the evening. We should play in the morning and then work our ass of until we need sleep. Then, get to sleep as soon as possible.

When I was in hard-core start-up land, my schedule was 12 hours of work followed by 4 hours of sleep. This enabled me to solve gnarly problems all over the place. I would wake up with stunning solutions to problems.


  1. Hi, I'm a brazilian programer, still learning codes and methods of working, and.. well, your article is very cool, and very good, congratulatios for write it. I will follow you on twitter, and if you want, that's me: @chrismarcell

  2. I agree with Mr. Marcell.

    I've decided to add this blog to my favs. I'll be spreading the word.