When “Working Hard” Isn’t Enough – Refocus

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Like most successful professionals, you probably respect the power of hard work. But are you always “working hard” in the smartest way? When things aren’t going well, it’s tempting to redouble your efforts on your major projects. But sometimes a better use of a few hours may be to concentrate briefly but intensely on other things that you’ve been avoiding.

Working hard isn’t the same as working smart (Image by kanjana via Fotolia)
Working hard isn’t the same as working smart (Image by kanjana via Fotolia)

“Angela,” an attorney in a large company, learned though coaching that simply keeping busy on her favorite work just didn’t cut it. A single woman without much social life, Angela worked long days and was proud of devoting entire weekends to drafting insightful memos. But she felt unappreciated, as she watched other lawyers move past her up the corporate ladder. Her analysis of why her career was on a slow track boiled down to a conviction that she was the victim of favoritism and unenlightened leadership.

Despite her frustration, Angela didn’t give up. She put her head down and kept drafting documents, hoping that someday her hard work would be recognized. And she signed up for her company’s executive coaching program.

When we first spoke, as we sorted through past feedback from Angela’s bosses, it seemed that she had been given hints about how to move ahead. She had been encouraged to support and mentor colleagues, to develop a broader range of expertise, and to volunteer for teams and committees. And she had been told bluntly to do better at administrative tasks, like keeping up with the case tracking system.

Angela had heard the suggestions. But, she said, “I just don’t have the time.” She liked research and writing, and knew she was good at it. And she treated any other activity as trivial. “I’m already working so hard” was the excuse she used when she didn’t want to shift her attention to her bosses’ promptings.

After a few sessions, Angela saw a bigger picture and committed to allocating some of her time and energy in different ways. Recognizing that she felt burnt out, she decided to actually reduce the total hours in her workweek. And, while at the office, she would schedule short but regular blocks of time devoted to activities she had been avoiding. For example,

  • Instead of treating most meetings as annoying distractions, she started working hard by fully engaging in any gathering she attended. That included arriving on time, actively listening, and restraining the urge to stare at her phone.
  • Instead of procrastinating, she began to schedule weekly time blocks for bringing routine reporting and other tasks up to date.
  • Instead of resisting new kinds of assignments, she adopted a stretch goal of devoting at least ten percent of her time to projects beyond her comfort zone.

Angela’s career was transformed when she understood that concentrating only on her favorite priorities is not enough. She admitted that seeking perfection in her top assignments had become her excuse for avoiding other vital stuff she didn’t want to do. One new habit that helped her turn things around was to routinely list any activities she’d prefer to avoid, and then work intensely for short periods on some of those. And she found that in some cases “working harder” might not require more time, so much as an attitude shift.

Here are 5 situations when a spurt of focused hard work beats keeping busy on just your top goals.

  1. When it means accepting change. If your organization puts new systems in place, and you don’t have the clout to say “no”, don’t waste your energy on resistance. Instead of complaining that you’re too busy, embrace the change and show that you are willing to do your best. You will win points by being an early adapter, and you may get more support in the implementation stage of a new process, while proponents are still eager to help.
  2. When you connect with other people. If professionals stumble, it often stems not from a lack of technical skills, but rather from a failure to build critical relationships. It’s not enough to be good at your craft. You also have to understand how your work products impact other people. And that means routinely interacting with your coworkers and clients, and hearing what they have to say. By taking advantage of every chance encounter, and spending even a few minutes a day on other outreach, you can build connections that may support your near term objectives and empower your career.
  3. When your boss asks for help.   A key to workplace survival is to know what your boss needs and to give it to her. If your supervisor asks for assistance or a special effort, don’t dawdle even if you think she has a dumb idea. Understand what will help your boss succeed, and jump into action if she needs your support. If she knows she can count on you, she’s more likely to be in your corner.
  4. When you’re avoiding something. If you put off your least favorite tasks, they can distract you, weigh you down and perhaps become more complicated as a result of your delay. If you tend to procrastinate about certain items on your “to-do” list, decide if they are really necessary. If it’s not wise to avoid them, schedule regular but brief time slots when you can rush through the list of items you’ve left hanging.
  5. When it means branching out. Sometimes we hesitate to go after a new opportunity because we don’t know where to begin. The trick is to give up the idea that there’s a perfect starting point for building new expertise. Instead, schedule a couple of hours and just plunge in. Anywhere. If you commit to exploring a new kind of project, and you work on an outline or mind map or first draft, you are sure to stumble upon a good opening.

At times, hard work is more important than talent or education or powerful friends. But working frantically on only your favorite tasks can become a trap. Even if you spend 80 percent of your time on your top priorities, what may set you apart from the competition is the smart way you allocate the other 20 percent of your hard work.

For more tips on creating a rewarding work life, check out my book, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO,” a Career Press best seller.

Subscribe to Bev’s podcast “Jazzed About Work” at Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

Beverly Jones, an alum of Ohio University, is a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.