“Work Smarter Not Harder”

Work Smarter Not Harder | New Faculty


When I was in grad school, one of my committee members told me to “work smarter, not harder” on some things. Apparently, I was fluttering about like a wild chicken at the time. I took those words to heart and began to think about how I could “get it all done” and still maintain some sanity. I was not being wise with my time and quite frankly, I was stressing myself out more than anyone was putting pressure on me. I cried and broke down at least once per semester. I remember calling home in tears wailing more than once. My health suffered, I gained weight. Grad school taught me what being isolated was, even after finishing, it took about a year to begin to feel ‘normal’ again, like an integrated citizen.

I received an email from a graduate student a few weeks ago (and again today). Both were asking if the pace and emotional turmoil of grad school ever subsided. Sadly, the frenetic pace of it does not, but there were lots of things I would recommend, like working smarter, not harder. Carving out time, taking emotional and physical care of yourself, and finding people outside of your discipline that can climb on board “team _____” to be your support network.

The same rings true for new faculty. I spent the first portion of year one running around like a nut, but this time: I had things under control mentally and I had learned to go with the flow a bit better. It was still crazy for about four months before it did calm down in many ways. It was important for me to learn to cope. I had a support network, and I had a better feel for my identity as a researcher and scholar. There are still days when I’m a ‘hot mess’ and other days where nothing goes “right” and I’m back to square one, but I am learning how to manage, how to adjust, and how to stand my ground as a professional.

I follow Tony Schwartz and his piece that ran in the NYT resonated with me for many reasons.

“Our basic idea is that the energy employees bring to their jobs is far more important in terms of the value of their work than is the number of hours they work. By managing energy more skillfully, it’s possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably. In a decade, no one has ever chosen to leave the company.”

Today, I would consider my energy input for my job high and consistent. I DON’T work 16 hour days or FEEL like I have too. Quite frankly, I don’t think I could. Brain drain takes over within a few hours and I have to go do something else. I also know that I will ultimately have to go out to collect data, losing hours that I could be reading or writing, so I have to be smarter about how I work, where I work, and when I work.

Today, I am still a morning person. I do my best thinking during the morning hours. I capitalize on this and am up early going through a quick check of email, answering anything pressing, but then get to work on the ‘big thinking’ task(s) of the day. Working smarter, not harder has enabled me to fit it all in and a mid day work out many days of the week.

I was not managing my energy very well in grad school. It caused me to get crazy mentally and emotionally. I had break downs. I cried. I was a hot mess. The first few months I was on faculty were also crazy, more because of work than anything, but I found myself also struggling cognitively to make the jump from student to faculty. It did take time. I’m there now, but it was a journey. For any grad students reading this post, I promise you’ll feel like a colleague before too long!

“Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity.”

I work really well for about an hour at a time and then it’s time to do something else for a few minutes. Working from home many days of the week, it can be something as simple as changing laundry over, putting dishes away, unloading the dishwasher, or some other mundane task. These tasks only take a few minutes but it’s just long enough to redirect my energy, clear my brain, and reboot my thinking.

There are some tasks that I can only do for an hour and then I become frustrated so this is a great way to maximize my thinking. I know that if I can do something for an hour, I can move on. There’s always times that I may not have the luxury, but I do try to plan ahead to make life easier when things do get busy.

“More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

I’ve started going to bed earlier, about 15 minutes. Not much earlier but it’s making a difference. I’ve started to consciously stop using technology before bed, and NOT going to the office. It drains me. I went yesterday for about four hours and could not wait to leave! I don’t know if it’s the environment or aura the place gives off, but I looked forward to heading to my afternoon meetings. Working from home allows me the ultimate in flexibility and I still work very well. I’ve started to spend Friday mornings at a coffee shop. I have no idea why I like it, but I do so I’ll keep doing it. Because I work from home, I also work out late morning/lunch time when my brain needs the boost.

As a new faculty or grad student, it’s imperative that we learn how to be more efficient to maintain our sanity and contribute positively to our longevity. Burn out is still very high and staying the course can be difficult, moreso today than other years due to increased stress in funding and other politics. By learning how to work smarter, not harder, I’m still maintaining productivity without sacrificing my sanity. There will always be times when things just get ahead of me or when things get super busy, but as long as I’m not on survival mode every day, I think I’m better off.

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4 thoughts on ““Work Smarter Not Harder”

  1. Even though I am returning to grad school after getting my masters, I have been plagued the past 6 months by stress and a feeling of isolation…. it is made even harder by being older than most of my class…. this posts helps a bit, thanks

    • yes, i agree about the age part. my program required any phd student to have worked “out there” for at least three years before even being considered, so i understand you! i’m sure you’re doing great & will have some advantages b/c of your age, even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes!

      • I feel like I have the advantage in the lab, especially with all of my previous research experience, the real problem kicks in with life outside the lab, and that feeling of isolation

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