When I was in fifth grade I came home after school and watched DuckTales - an animated television show produced by Disney. In one memorable flashback episode Scrooge McDuck, the main character, was about to depart Scotland for America when his father said, “Remember to work smarter, not harder.” After arriving in America he found himself in a riverboat race where he was responsible for the grueling job of shoveling coal into the burners to keep the paddle wheel in motion. McDuck remembered his father’s advice and rather than shovel the coal by hand, he created a pedal operated pulley system that scooped pieces of coal directly into the furnace.
The phrase “work smarter, not harder” has remained with me ever since. Today, I interpret this lesson a bit differently than the way it was presented to me as a child. I work hard and the systems I create and consistently use allow me to spend time engaged in work I find meaningful. What follows are three systems that allow me to work smart and hard.
Figure out what time of day works best for certain tasks
Consider when you do your best work and save that time for your most important tasks. For example, I feel most sharp in the morning, so I prefer to use this time to write and work on projects that require extended focus. Meetings require less energy for me, so whenever possible, I like to schedule those in the afternoons. Take the time to consider your preferences and energy levels and design a system that works best for you.
Use your calendar to schedule important tasks not just meetings
I started blocking time on my calendar while I was an undergraduate student. After I placed my course schedule on my calendar, I scheduled reading time, writing time, team projects, and extracurricular responsibilities. This process kept me from procrastinating and helped keep me from ever pulling an all-nighter in college. When I transitioned to a full time job, I developed the following quarterly, weekly, and daily process that I’ve used in various positions ever since.
Quarterly: I use Steven Covey’s Time Management Matrix to guide me in blocking time on my calendar. Certain tasks take priority like teaching and office hours. In addition, I block time for student tutorials and grading. After years of teaching I can predict when students will want to meet, and since I know when students will submit their assignments, I schedule time to grade their work so they can receive timely feedback. Finally, I schedule course planning time each week to prepare for the following week.
Weekly: At the end of each week, I take no more than five minutes to review my calendar. I review what I have accomplished during the week and update my calendar for the week to come. This is where I look for windows of opportunity to schedule project work; these are important but not urgent tasks.
Projects often require multiple blocks of work. Rather than placing the name of a project that could take weeks or months to complete on my calendar, I break the project into accomplishable parts and label it accordingly. For example, if I want to convert an in-person course to an online course, I’ll schedule a smaller task, like create visuals for one module, on my calendar.
Daily: At the end of every work day I take two minutes to consider what I’d like to accomplish the next day. Looking ahead at the end of the day and putting a plan together for the next day helps clear my mind for time with my family and helps me begin the next day with focus. This is when I schedule tasks that are urgent but not as important as the tasks I’ve already described. Also, as I have shared previously, rather than being interrupted by email throughout the day, I try to block dedicated time to respond to messages. This system helps me avoid distractions and frequent task switching that leaves me feeling scattered.
This process allows me to focus on important work and helps keep me from procrastinating. As I’ve taken on positions with greater autonomy, I have been getting better at spending time on a few tasks I find personally rewarding rather than accomplishing many tasks.
Also, as a result of this system, I don’t have a “to do” list; I’ve outsourced it to my calendar. When unexpected issues arise, my system provides stability because I have a framework that gives me flexibility when responding to urgent and important matters.
Control your environment
We often underestimate the importance of our surroundings on our ability to produce good work. Included below are some considerations I make that allow me to work smarter:
Lighting: Overhead fluorescent lights often strain my eyes, so I prefer natural light and soft accent lighting.
Closed Door: When I need to focus on an important task, I close my office door, but when I’m doing less important work I like to keep my door open. An open door sends the signal I’m receptive to people stopping in; some wonderful things happen as a result of impromptu conversations.
Headphones: The noise cancelling headphones my father gave me twenty years ago continue to be one of the best gifts I've received because of their effectiveness at blocking out distracting background noise.
Workspace: Since I learned that visual stimulus creates competition for our attention that can inhibit our ability to focus, I try to keep a neat desk. Less visual noise makes us more efficient and persistent.
Limited Electronic Distractions: When I need to focus for an hour or two, I close out of email and place my cell phone out of reach. Research suggests having your phone in the same room can reduce brain power.
Some argue we’ve become too focused on productivity and lost sight of what it means to live. Productivity isn’t a goal. For me, these systems allow me to be more present in whatever I am focusing on in the moment. That means I can give my full attention to others, have time to be creative, experience the joys of life more fully, and still have energy to be an attentive husband and father.
Chae, Boyoun & Zhu, Rui (2015). Why a Messy Workspace Undermines Your Persistence. Harvard Business Review. Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Grand Central Publishing.
Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140-154.
Author’s Note: Rewatching the DuckTales episode as an adult was an eye opening experience. The episode begins with a warning that in part reads: “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now…” The episode referenced in this article includes a classist storyline, racist stereotyping, and colonialist behavior.