What does it mean to work smart? Three key principles.

"Don't work hard, work smart."

But what does it mean, exactly? How do you work smart yourself and instill that same mindset in your organization?

Although there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to this—the specifics will depend on your work.

Here, I offer three principles for how to stop working hard and start working smart:

Principle 1: Start with values

I won't blame you if your eyes are beginning to glaze over!

We've all seen those stereotypically poor corporate values like Teamwork, Integrity, and Adaptability. (I mean, what are the alternatives?)

I'm not talking about aspirations and empty platitudes. I talk about very concrete tradeoffs your organization already values—your lived values.

Each organization has those. But they are not plastered all over the walls.

Your organization may value transparency over the speed of decision-making. That's handy to know when you're contemplating replacing your incident management software, right? Or perhaps it values the timeliness of the information about new product features reaching customer support over polished language and pretty slides.

The trouble is, even if we can already trace the signs of those implicit values in our most successful past decisions, we rarely approach living them in any structured or intentional way.

As a result, we must rediscover and re-negotiate our values whenever we need to make a decision. Often unsuccessfully! Which leads to inconsistent results and choices we regret later.

Want less firefighting and more space for work that truly matters—i.e., smart work?

Start with identifying and codifying your values.

Principle 2: Make a plan

NB! A plan is not a vision. If you cannot envision what you're trying to accomplish—fix that first. Know where you're going, and then plan how you're getting there. For our purposes, I will assume you have a clear vision of what you're after.

Your plan doesn't have to be extensive, detailed, or even good. Even the best-scripted plays evolve as they meet live audiences.

The essential elements of a plan include:

  1. A hypothesis that answers three questions:
    1. What outcome are you after?
    2. What actions will you take to achieve it?
    3. How will those actions lead to the desired outcome?
  2. A way to measure progress.
  3. A decision point for when to stop and reassess.

For extra points, make your plan more resilient by thinking through the potential next steps for successful and unsuccessful outcomes.

A plan, even if not a good one, allows you to know whether to continue doing what you're doing or to try something else. It also helps you to say no to distractions.

Principle 3: Celebrate tiny wins

Another key feature of working smart is feeling good about your progress.

Humans are notoriously bad at estimating effort, so it will probably take longer for you to achieve your desired outcome. And even the best-laid plans will have hiccups and setbacks.

It's easy to get discouraged by slow progress and setbacks and start making questionable decisions like adding work that adds stress without getting you closer to your goals.

It's far easier to see progress if you look back. Consider where your organization has started and how far it's come.

Celebrate all those tiny wins along the way.

Closed your 10th bug this month? Celebrate! Finished the sprint with more than 85% of the work completed? Give some kudos!

Yes, this is tiny!

No, you're not inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity (thanks, Pixar!) Celebrate work that matters to your organization and customers, no matter how small.

It will feel awkward at first, but you'll get used to it and get better.

Your people will not only feel appreciated, but you’ll also teach them to prioritize work aligned with your organization's values and add value to your customers.

And that’s smart work!