Working hard versus working smart

I believe we can split work into two categories: creative work, and regular work. To have a healthy work day we should be able to do both. But regular work is much easier and less demanding. I think both of them can be productive but working smart yields the best results mid to long term.

Creative work is more engaging but is also tiring. And we need to have a relaxed mind to be able to achieve it. When we talk about working hard we talk more about quantity than quality. We’re more focused on short term output. But continuously having more work than we can handle makes us more tired and therefore less prone to do creative work. We start leaning for regular work all the time. We may accomplish some milestones but we may endanger future work and productivity (see developer speed versus team speed).

This may happen when we have demanding sequence of deadlines. If we’re pushing release after release it’s hard to take some time to improve things, take care of technical debt and attend to bugs and improvements. We always have the pressure to deliver more. This can lead to physical and psychological burnout.

Typical examples of working hard and not smart

When we don’t have the energy to do creative work we settle for tasks that are less demanding. This compounds and in some time starts to look like there just isn’t any other way. “We always did things that way”. Here are some examples:

  • We have a slow test suite. If we get a flaky test failing, we just re-run the suite instead of trying to understand the problem and fix it.
  • There is a support ticket with corrupted data on the database. We just change the data instead of fixing the root cause that led to that problem.
  • We have a feature to implement. We start coding right away instead of doing some planing.
  • We made some changes and some unit tests are failing and we don’t understand why. We just comment them out.
  • We have a production bug and we quickly create that one-liner pull request that fixes it. But we don’t replicate the issue with a unit test.
  • When production is down we fix it and don’t take the time to create an incident report and share what happened. We don’t track the number of outages we had.
  • In a similar way, we don’t create a postmortem with things went bad and we don’t take the time to understand our problems and fix them.
  • We may have manual periodical tasks that take 10+ minutes and we don’t take the time (couple of days) to automatise them
  • We have lots of status meetings that delay us, but we don’t question them because that’s already part of our way.
  • We may be interrupted several times and change tasks if something urgent comes up. But it’s our sprint commitments that take the fall.

Sometimes we have tasks that take our time and they feel like work, but it’s not really productive work. We are working but are we providing the best value we can?

Working smarter is taking the time to fix root causes, to constantly iterate in making our processes better and more productive. But we need time and a relaxed mind to accomplish that.

Negative spiral

Whenever we stop working smart and go for band-aids, we are just delaying the inevitable. We don’t fix that root cause and then we need to handle several related issues that never seem to end. Or we assume that the test suite must be slow, so we don’t bother adding more slow tests to it. Having years of development with this mindset is very hard to counteract. We may lead ourselves to a project no one wants to work at.

Turning around

Working smart is a choice. We make a stand and fight for extra time. Every sprint we try to gain extra time. And we use that time to make us more efficient.

This is like a muscle. We need to train it and it will be hard when we start. But it’s our choice to:

  • When we have a bug: understand the root cause, replicate the issue with a test and create a patch.
  • Before starting a new task, we take some time to understand what we’re going to do and ask for some reviews.
  • Etc…

This can be hard to bootstrap. But all this investment will pay off. We just need to have a higher threshold for the quality we want to deliver.

Working hard is good too…

I do believe that bursts of hard work are very important. They force us to leave our comfort zone. They put to the test our practices and productivity. They make us realise what are our improvement points. All of this will make us grow.

But his should be like a wave. We should have hard work periods and smart work periods. Because there’s a thin line between a healthy work load and burning out, or even compromising our future productivity.

How can we work smarter?

Working smart is not about accomplishing less. It’s about accomplishing more with the time we have. How can we deliver more than we are delivering by performing less work? This is working smarter.

This is very personal. In my case I need some good batches of uninterruptible hours for creative work. It helps be to have a daily routine that fosters those hours without interruptions.

For example: I can book meetings just on the afternoon, and so I know that I can work concentrated on the mornings. I may turn off other kinds of input (like production bugs), but I’ll need to know that someone will attend them. Sometimes we do need to have a few people that are interruptible, if that makes the rest of the team able to concentrate on doing work.


Working hard is easier to do and to sell. Sometimes we have so much work load that there isn’t any other option. But we do need to realise that always working hard may bring some fruits in the short term but will definitely make us slower and compromise our future.