One of my most popular posts on Twitter was an implicit criticism of the cliché “work smarter, not harder.”
Productivity tip: Work hard.
— John D. Cook (@JohnDCook) October 8, 2015
I agree with the idea that you can often be more productive by stepping back and thinking about what you’re doing. I’ve written before, for example, that programmers need to spend less time in front of a computer.
But one thing I don’t like about “work smarter” is the implication that being smart eliminates the need to work hard. It’s like a form of gnosticism.
Also, “working smarter” is kind of a given. People don’t often say “I know of a smarter way to do this, but I prefer working hard at the dumb way.”  Instead, they’re being as smart as they know how, or at least they think they are. To suggest otherwise is to insult their intelligence.
One way to “work smarter, not harder” is to take good advice. This is different from “working smarter” in the sense of thinking alone in an empty room, waiting for a flash of insight. Maybe you’re doing what you’re doing as well as you can, but you should be doing something else. Maybe you’re cleverly doing something that doesn’t need to be done.
- “Hammock-driven development” by Rich Hickey
- Why programmers are not paid in proportion to productivity
 If they do, they’re still being smart at a different level. Someone might think “Yeah, I know of a way to do this that would be more impressive. But I’m going to take a more brute-force approach that’s more likely to be correct.” Or they might think “I could imagine a faster way to do this, but I’m too tired right now to do that.” They’re still being optimal, but they’re including more factors in the objective they’re trying to optimize.
One thought on “Why “work smarter, not harder” bothers me”
There are so many work-related truisms that aren’t. One test I like to do is insert a double-negative and see if I get something blatantly untrue.
An example: “Do what you love.” It’s double inverse is “Don’t do what you don’t love.” Which could be the Slacker’s Manifesto, since there’s so much that must be done that isn’t lovable.
I much prefer: “Love what you do.” It’s double-negative is also true, if a bit nonsensical: “Don’t love what you don’t do.”
I’ve found “Love what you do” to be most valuable when I’m in the midst of something I’d much rather *not* be doing. When I stop thinking about how much I don’t like something I’m doing, I often find something worthwhile. Plus, it always makes the situation easier to bear, giving one the strength and hope needed to change it.
“Follow your dreams” is another silly one. Most of us aren’t really good at dreaming: We either dream too small or dream of the blatantly impossible, neither of which does much good. Worse yet, we can only dream of what we know, or at least have heard of. Our dreams are limited by our awareness, knowledge and experience.
Instead, I prefer: “Dream of something to follow.”
I once had to do an inventory of the things I most liked about myself, and after getting past the terror of the blank page, I zoomed past 20 before taking a break. Of those 23, I was amazed to find that I had nothing to do with over 2/3 of them, in that they didn’t come into my life by my self-selected choice or “dream”: They were put there by others, and I simply avoided saying “No”. Statistically, I’m less than 1/3 a “self-made man”.
In other words, I let others affect me. I obtained twice as much value from their suggestions as I did from my own ideas and dreams. I followed their dreams for me. They imagined things for me I literally was unable to do for myself. My one saving grace was being willing to more often ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?”
“Dream of something to follow” means being open to the world. Be affected by those around you. Listen to more than one’s own voice. Grab onto ideas no matter the source.
Best of all, it means refusing to be limited by one’s own imagination. Or one’s own dreams.