A Reformed Workaholic On How to Work Smarter

Instead of fighting the workaholic spirit, make a plan to work smarter.

I am an advocate of hard work.

I have been known to say things like, “I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I know how to outwork everyone else.” And it’s true--I’ve done it my whole career.

In fact, I never took more than two days off work until I was 27 years old and met my now-husband who convinced me to take a whole four days off.

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Part of this is my own emotional baggage. I grew up with a single mom who was a waitress, and there were times in my life we didn’t have enough money for food. These factors made me driven. I never wanted to be without and so I worked as hard as I could--in school, and then in my career.

When I founded my own company Popforms last year, I was working seven days a week, often more than 12 hours a day, for months--because I was passionate and I wanted it to succeed.

And then I found out I was pregnant. Suddenly, my huge daily output decreased as I dealt with morning sickness and low energy, and I felt like an athlete who was injured and could no longer compete. I couldn’t just power through work without stopping. If I was going to be successful, I had to learn how to better manage my time and my energy. I had to stop just working hard; I had to start working smart.

Doing the smart work

Working smart can be a hard pill for a “working hard” type to swallow, since working smart tends to mean letting go of certain projects to free up time. The key is to take your career on a long horizon. Don’t look at what a decision could mean for the next six months or the next year; instead, think about what it will mean over 10 or even 20 years.

My due date is in a just a few weeks. Once I let go of my 16-hour days and gave into the notion that I only had a few hours a day where I could be truly impactful, I started choosing my projects more wisely. I stopped fixating on which self-imposed deadlines I would miss if I didn’t spend 20 hours coding this project, and instead, I started strategizing about how I could apply my particular set of skills to make this company successful in the long term. Here’s how you can be the most effective worker:

Get clear about what moves the needle forward.

Take a long, hard look at your to-do list and your big-picture goals. Some of these items are critical and must be done by you, but most likely many aren’t. Ask yourself, “How does this grow my business?” and be ruthless about cutting out anything that doesn’t fit.

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If you have a manager, a cofounder, or a coach you can check in with, have a conversation about what work really matters for your business and how you in particular fit into those goals. How can you apply your energy most effectively? Where will your efforts make enormous, meaningful impact?

Say no to other people’s schedules.

Coffee meetings, emails, and social media engagement are things that are great to do, but at this stage they aren’t productive for my biggest goals. When other people reach out to you, they are putting you on their schedule. Be conscious of your time and not getting sucked into other people’s priorities if it’s not productive for you too.

Don’t spend all day stuck in email.

I also leave my email closed for most of the day and only check it a couple of times. I even put on an autoresponder to let people know I’d be slow to respond to them, so I could relieve the pressure of always being “on.” Answering email rarely moves my business forward, and so giving it a smaller place in my daily routine gives me more time for the things that do matter.

Restructure your day.

Working smart means maximizing the time when you are at your best. Morning sickness throws this into sharp clarity; when you’re ill and tired for several hours a day, you’ve got to make the most of the time you are feeling well. But the same goes for all of us, even on our best days--there are times when we are “in the zone” and that is when we should work on the big stuff. Block off that time on your calendar for the most creative, important work you need to do and don’t give it up to other people’s schedules or needs.

Plot out your week in advance.

You must be strategic and intentional about how you spend your time. It’s so easy to get caught up in small fires and other people’s requests if you don’t carefully guard your time, which you can only do before the crazy wheel of work starts spinning. Set aside time each week to look at priorities and block out time that they’ll get done.

Enjoy your down time.

Working smart means you don’t have to work 16 hours a day to achieve great results for your business. However, if you spend your newly freed up hours checking email and hovering over the shoulders of people you’ve delegated to, you’re not really working smarter. Working smart gives yourself and your brain a break, so you can come back to work refreshed and smarter than when you left, which makes you even more powerful during your work time.

Being forced to slow my hard-worker mentality at first felt like a punishment, but I have come to see it as a blessing. Not only will I have a beautiful baby in a few weeks, but I will also have the power and clarity about my career to make my particular gifts and my limited time matter just as much as the 16-hour brute-force days I used to put in. And that makes me a better CEO with a better company, which is what my goal has been from the beginning.

This article originally appeared in Levo League and is reprinted with permission.

[Image Flickr user Johan Larsson]

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2 Comments

  • Great article. Thanks for the ideas! I would love to see the writer's auto-respond. Every day is a careful balance of answering email versus getting real work done.

  • farrenwest

    Well said! Growing up crazy poor I can related to having the workaholic syndrome built into your DNA.

    Having built a small successful company for the 2nd time and too having kids (financial responsibility) this was very difficult to change. I think your outline of better focus better output is very smart to help make the change.

    I also read Charlie Hoehn's Book "Play it Away" A workaholic's cure for anxiety. Highly recommend if you ever fill guilty not working! Good luck with your youngster!! Congrats again welcome to the fine world of parenting!