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Working Hard vs Working Smart

‘Work smart, not hard’ is a phrase bandied about frequently that tends to come with the connotation of breezing through piles of work in significantly less time than usual, using tips that reduce the complexities of human behaviour to a simple ‘hack’.

Well, having explored the two sides of this debate in my own work (a lot of trial-and-error has been involved), I’ve come to two conclusions:

  • Working smart and working hard shouldn’t be presented as two entirely opposite modes of productivity, and
  • being productive can’t necessarily be boiled down to a simple process where all that’s required is the quick application of ‘5 easy hacks’.

I am definitely an advocate for working smart, but I’ve learned that the more effort I put into my work, the more effectively I learn. So working smart is about efficiency – it’s about progressing to a point where you can spend less time doing the work (because you’ve also got to eat, sleep, pay bills and binge watch a show) whilst still making the learning process as effective as possible.

A good analogy I’ve come across is that of learning to ride a bike.

The ‘work hard’ argument will tell you that you should pedal as hard as you can, non-stop, constantly re-shifting your balance so that you don’t fall.

The ‘work smart’ argument will tell you that you need to look ahead and not down at your legs the entire time, so that whilst you’re still pedalling, it’s not as difficult. You learn to ride the bike by doing the physical work, but it’s made easier by tweaking how you do the work.

(Brant Hansen – co-host of the amazing Brant and Sherri Oddcast – came up with this analogy and used it in a different context, but I thought it was a great illustration in this case.)

So let’s try applying this analogy:

Purely working hard will guide you to just read all of the assigned essential, recommended and further reading.

Working smart will guide you to read the essential material using seminar/tutorial questions to pinpoint what you need to understand, and to keep the assessment method in mind so that you know how you should be processing the information.

Essentially, you still have to work hard, as in you’re required to expend some effort. Working smart just means you’re channelling your effort into more effective processes so that it’s not wasted.

So, with all that said, if you’re looking to work hard and smart, here are some suggestions of ways you can tweak the way you work so you can progressively become more efficient!

I’m always finding ways to improve my learning process, so I’ve written this to share with you some of the methods I’ve found useful and to remind myself of them as well.

Read the syllabus to get a feel for the whole module/subject

How this can help:

  • Understand the skills the teachers or examiners are looking for you to demonstrate.
  • Avoid getting lost in the sauce lost in the detail of the module/subject – having an overview can help you to feel more in control of what you’re learning, thus helping to reduce time lost to confusion and frustration.
  • Knowing the topics that are coming up in lessons can help you to better prepare to learn.

Make use of revision books from the beginning

How this can help:

  • Understand the basics from the start because they make the information more accessible.
  • Have a solid foundation before moving on to more substantial or challenging texts.

Take note of the assessment method(s)

How this can help:

  • Avoid expending effort in vain:
    • If the assessment method will be an exam, maybe focus on learning keywords and explanations, as well forming arguments on contentious topics ahead of time. If you’re required to write essays in your exam, you could then engage in wider research to find contrasting ‘academic opinion/commentary’ so you can demonstrate higher level discussion in your work.
    • If the assessment method will be coursework (e.g. an assessed essay of a specific word count) you don’t have to memorise information as such, but focus on understanding the key concepts, then explaining them in your own words and providing critique. This is likely to also involve wider research so it could be helpful to find ‘academic opinion/commentary’ as you go along so you can present a more thorough or nuanced analysis.
  • Be more informed as to how you can study and revise:
    • If it’s an exam, doing flashcards, mind-maps, topic summaries, mock tests and exam practice can be effective.
    • If it’s coursework, no ‘revision’ is really necessary, but topic summaries are still useful. Also, wider research and topic-related debate and discussion with friends or classmates can be good ways of engaging with the information.

Reading more effectively: skimming and scanning texts, and reducing sub-vocalisation

How this can help:

  • Skimming: looking through the text to get the gist of the information helps with understanding themes and key issues, skipping passages that may be commentary/fluff (which you come back to when you have time).
  • Scanning: starting with specific questions in mind and keeping an eye out for the information that provides the answers.
  • Reducing sub-vocalisation or auditory reassurance (saying words ‘out loud’ in your head) makes for faster reading. The idea behind it is that you can recognise and mentally process words faster just by seeing them, and sub-vocalising slows you down:
    • Brainscape – my favourite flashcard system – has an article on this, as does Iris Reading.
    • I’m still working on reducing my sub-vocalisation – it is quite hard to do though because I’ve been doing it for like 15 years (at least I’m consistent, right?).

Be deliberate and intentional with your time: schedule time to complete tasks

How this can help:

  • Maximise the time you spend in a state of ‘flow’ by consciously immersing yourself in the task and limiting the distractions that can take you out of focus.
  • This can add more structure to how you do your work, so when planning what you’re going to do, be very specific. Try to go beyond generic planning, for example ‘I’m going to do Constitutional and Administrative Law reading’. Aim for, ‘I’m going to read this specific textbook, from pages — to — so that I can understand the principles of the UK constitution’. This can lead to a more guided and intentional period of work, helping to reduce confusion or feelings of being overwhelmed by how much there is to do so you can just get on with doing it.

Again, I haven’t perfectly ‘mastered’ the art of working smart – I see it more as a continuous process of improvement (I’m very inspired by the Japanese word kaizen).

Ultimately, working smart isn’t about avoiding putting effort into your work – it’s about making sure that the effort you do put in isn’t wasted. So go ahead – work hard and smart.

Onwards and upwards,

Anoshamisa 🙂


Some interesting articles for further reading (you just can’t escape it lol):

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