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The point everyone misses about working smarter instead of harder 

The point everyone misses about working smarter instead of harder 

Smarter-not-harder is nothing new.

For most entrepreneurs, it’s about delegation: Find other people to do the grinding hamster wheel work while you “focus on strategy” or something.

It’s a good idea, but we can do better. Ironically, I think most people haven’t really thought through what it means to work smarter.

This article reveals the thing everyone has missed. And it’s costing you dearly. Best case, it’s causing an enormous slow down or flatlining of growth. Worse, it can depress the spirit with such severity that smart people quit good businesses before they should.

So how is it that folks are being stupid about working smarter? 

The false correlation between your clock and your success

Drop one letter from that sentence and you get the topic of my next article. Kidding.

The more you get done, the more successful you’ll be. Or so say the peddlers of various productivity trainings and software systems.

The cult of productivity wants you to become a more efficient person.

We’re in love with the idea that we are (sophisticated) machines. If we can just get the tuning and fuel (and software) right we can go faster and farther than the rest. This sort of metaphor makes marketers drool, because it means they can sell us every product that fits – machines need a lot of stuff to keep them running.

Here’s the problem: Entrepreneurship has never been about making one person hugely effective.

There is a hard limit on how much you can get done. No matter how much coffee you drink, there will never be more than twenty four hours in a day.

Warren Buffet, Richard Branson and Bill Gates didn’t get where they are today by figuring out some arcane formula that enabled them to work THAT MUCH more efficiently than you. When we blow the idea out to it’s ideological extreme like that, we see it for what it is: Absurd.

Bill Gates isn’t eight hundred thousand times more efficient than you are. He hasn’t figured out how to run his meat machine that much better. Actually, chances are he spends MORE time relaxing per day than you do.

Time and time again, I talk to entrepreneurs who are optimizing their day – and lives – to squeeze the absolute best performance out of themselves for as long as possible. They’re burning themselves out and killing their business in the process, because they’re optimizing for the wrong thing.

You might have an assistant who answers your email or some other “work smarter” delegation, but if you’re filling all the time with other work you’re not getting it.

No matter how smart you think you’re working, if you’re implementing productivity hacks you’re still trapped in the hours-for-success trading game. And you won’t win.

If productivity hacks don’t work, what does?

Taking risk.

The one thing we CAN point to as a corollary – a thing the super successful do most and the least successful do least – is taking risks.

In the knowledge economy, you win by having big ideas and executing on them. You win by committing to doing your thing, or failing. When you fail you learn, and you’re better for it the next time you try something.

Make huge plans. Fail and learn. Do it long enough and you’ll succeed. Guaranteed.

These aren’t original ideas. We all know this stuff.

The question is: Are you optimizing for productivity when you should be optimizing for courage? 

Everyone’s been working smarter by figuring out ways to do more than ever, but they’ve missed the point: Working smarter is about dreaming up extraordinary ideas and developing the capabilities and courage you need to execute on them.

The modern entrepreneur’s practical definition of “optimization”, “efficiency” or “working smarter” is the polar opposite of courage:

Coffee pushes up your cortisol levels, which is literally the fear/flight-or-fight hormone. Short changing yourself on sleep dumbs you down. Jam-packing your schedule removes all opportunities for introspection.

You’re cracking the whip, trying to be the fastest machine. You’re racing down a linear path, stressed out and afraid. You can’t see the possibilities for exponential growth – how could you? You’re way too busy. And even if you spot one, you’re too afraid to do anything about it.

I ask some of my clients to pick a morning each week to totally relax. To do the opposite of optimization. I ask them to go out for breakfast, eat pancakes and chill out.

And they hate it. They’re afraid. They believe they can’t afford to waste that much time.

It’s almost as if they imagine themselves alone, in the gutter – everything and everyone lost. Because they took Monday morning off.

Richard Branson isn’t more successful than you because he never took Monday morning off. You could take every Monday morning off for the rest of your life and still become a billionaire.

How you spend your time, hour to hour, does not determine your success. How willing you are to courageously act on extraordinary ideas is all that matters.

The point of the Monday-morning exercise isn’t that those stolen guilty hours be used to dream up some killer business idea. It’s simply to de-couple the unconscious association you’re making between working hard and winning in business.

It’s to show you that none of that matters. Being busy won’t give you the courage you need.

Once you stop playing all the busy-entrepreneur optimization games in your life, you’ll be free to start optimizing for courage instead. The stronger that muscle gets, the more successful you become.

Don’t work smarter. Be braver.


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  1. Inspiring post Peter, very observant. About a month ago I calculated how many days left before my ideal (financially free) retirement date. It really focusses my mind each day. I’m not so much looking to work harder OR smarter, but rather, I try to identify if what I’m doing is moving me in that direction.

  2. This is really brilliant, and yet so simple. Soldiers who are awarded the Medal of Honor are not so different than other soldiers, and if you ask them, they will tell you they were just doing their job. The difference is courage. The soldier who has the courage to keep trying and risking everything when others have failed, has the same training, tools, and number of hours in the day. In the heat of battle, there is no time for pondering options, or calculating risk, only reacting based on training. The courage to act separates the medal of honor recipients from their fellow soldiers. In battle many pay the ultimate price, but in business the price is usually measured financially, which allows for more second chances. Entrepreneurs who recognize an opportunity and seize it with courage will eventually succeed, as you say.

    1. Heya Paula, thanks for stopping by.

      I like the metaphor. You’re absolutely right about second chances – that’s what is great about business: Failing never hurts as bad as we think it will.

  3. Brilliant. Inspiring too.

    And: if that’s how it works, I should be in for Billions before too long, given that I gave up my one earning activity in order to start a completely new activity – twice…

    Some would say it’s stupid.

    I say it was burning bridges so I could focus on doing only what really matters. I’ll send you a postcard from the Bahamas if you turn out to have been right 😉

    1. Hahaha Martin, I’m not sure that giving up your “earning activity” entitles you to billions even if you did it twice :-/

      And, “doing only what really matters” may or may not pan out. It depends whether or not “what really matters” is a scalable solution to a huge problem that people are willing to pay for. A lot of people live their lives doing what matters to them, but that doesn’t equate to business success.

      Like I said, if you want millions or billions, it’s about finding great (big/scary) ideas and executing on them. It’s important not to distort that principal into something it isn’t.

      1. All points duly taken, and thank you.

        We’ll see how it pans out – so far, it seems I just might be on the right track.

        The big scary idea was giving up my crutch, to stop clinging to safety and go 100% into something that people really really need – while knowing that yes, it’s scalable.

        Working on my multiplication tables now 🙂

  4. REALLY terrific and timely post, Peter. No matter how wildly productive the worker bee, he’ll never be queen. The queen is focused and brave. She delegates, makes baby bees, and when needed, finds a new hive or founds a new colony. And the rest of us just go on buzzing. 😉

  5. Wow, how did you sum up my whole business premise in one article? Genius. Love this in particular:

    “The cult of productivity wants you to become a more efficient person.

    We’re in love with the idea that we are (sophisticated) machines.”

    You know how I feel about people treating themselves like machines. I’ve been focusing on settling people’s nervous systems lately – getting them out of fight or flight. Until you’re out of extreme activation, you can’t really change anything because your body is running on cortisol and adrenaline. How can you make good decisions and take calculated risks and be creative when you feel like a tiger is nipping at your heels every second of the day?!

    1. Exactly! I didn’t think how much this would resonate with your kind of work when I wrote it, but you’re totally right. The search to do more, work smarter and smarter and be ever more efficient is definitely a strain on the nervous system!

  6. Love this, and resonates with me right now.

    Last week I had an epiphany that I was working too much. So I decided I would cut myself off every day at 3 pm (yes, 3 pm) and then do other things.

    What things? This was the hard part. For the past year I’ve dedicated every waking moment to my business. Trying to stop and simply chill out was actually very hard at first.

    I am gradually filling the “void” with amazing things like: go swimming, get a massage, hire a private Japanese teacher, call my family more.

    I’ll bookmark this post and add it to my “Inspiration” folder in Asana, lest I forget 😉

  7. Well, there’s evidence to the contrary too. For e.g. in the book “Money” by Anthony Robbins, theres a lot of talk bout some of the richest people on the planet and how they get there. Mainly by reducing risks as much as possible.

    Another book on this topic would be Small Bets

    So optimising for courage might be the thing that screws you up royally.

    1. Great article Peter. I couldn’t agree more. My business is all about trying to get women in business to learn how to take calculated risks. Of course I can’t call it ‘taking risks’. They’re not interested in taking risks. It’s not an attractive selling point. I call it making big-decisions and being brave (to be more productive and efficient). Ryan, managing risks is all about reducing risk to acceptable levels so that you can undertake what would otherwise be unacceptably risky activities. Being couragous and reducing risks are not mutually exclusive. You do one so that you can be the other. I worked in safety and risk management for 20 years in the aerospace & defence industry before setting up my current business. Whether it’s a fast-jet high-risk flight trial or taking a plunge in business the principles are the same. Look at the risk, do what you can to reduce it to a level that is acceptable, then take the plunge. The richest people on the planet didn’t get there by not being courageous. They got there by reducing risks to levels acceptable to them so that they could make the big decisions other people don’t. Reducing risks doesn’t mean not taking them. It means understanding the risk & putting contingency plans in place. It means reducing the chances of it going wrong or the consequences if it does, or both. There are multiple ways of doing this with every risk, it’s just that most people don’t understand how to do that in a business context. They become paralysed at the ‘what if..’ stage. When all said and done ‘acceptable risk’ is a subjective measure that varies from person to person. It’s a matter of perception. The ‘rich people’ you refer to probably have a significantly higher set point for acceptable risk than most people in the first place. So the ‘acceptable’ level they reduce risk to may well be quite different to yours.

  8. Really great post, Peter.

    You hit the nail on the head when you say that working smarter isn’t enough – you need to be braver. One trick I like to use to ensure I’m doing this is making social commitments; promising publicly that I’ll do something to ensure I actually do it. If you care about your online reputation at all, you’re a lot more motivated to follow through once you’ve told all of your Facebook network that you’re going to do it!

    Keep up the great stuff, Peter.

    Jordan of

  9. this write up kinda hit me.
    I had to subscribe and email it to my better half.(he is an entrepreneur while I do the 8-5)
    thanks Peter, keep up churning out stuffs like this for free us from the slavery of ‘working harder’ rather than thinking smarter.

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