Working smart, Working hard

“work smart not hard”

“hard work pays off”

“no one ever did anything great without hard work”

“hard work got me here”

“work” takes up the majority of our waking lives

We form emotional ties to “hard work” and “smart work”

Yet 99% of us work just to make ends meet

And the top 1% face a burnout epidemic, an identity crisis, a great resignation

I began in the 99%: Bankrupt, broke, etc, and now I’m in the 1%

I wrote this post to understand 3 topics that captivated me these last 10 years

  1. what does it mean to work hard / work smart
  2. when smart work matters, when hard work matters
  3. how to work smart and work hard

What does it mean to work hard / work smart?

Working smart = quality of thinking

Working hard = quantity of doing

“quality” is hard to measure but in any moment you’re between 0 & 100% of your peak

ask yourself

  1. what’s a time I was doing my best work?
  2. am I in a similar mental state now as I was then?

entrepreneurs call it “clarity”

artists call it “inspiration”

programmers call it “flow”

It’s your mental state when you’re doing your best work

It is tempting to define “smart” as “doing the right things” but this has 2 problems

1. it depends on outcomes

you can play an “optimal” strategy in poker and still lose, life is rarely under your control

2. it assumes there are “right things” you can know to do

we often don’t have all the information, we have to guess, make bets

When smart work matters, when hard work matters

The poverty plateau: Working smart becomes more important with wealth

When working a job that pays for hours worked & not for output there isn’t much value in working “smart” because it doesn’t impact your pay

But when doing an output based job there are many ways to play, and you are rewarded more upside if you make a few correct decisions

I’ve seen friends grind for years trying to make a company grow with $0 revenue

I’ve seen other friends spend a few hours building a demo project, tweet about it and raise millions of dollars in days [2]

More ways to play a game seems to mean high quality thinking dominates in importance

I find so many individuals who are born poor & identify with “hard work”

And they grind hard without focusing much on how to think smart

For example this camp of people will often take a job paying $5/hr full time and suffer through it to pay bills instead of taking an interest free loan and 6 months job-free to learn new skills so they can get a better job.

I call this the poverty plateau.

When you’re in poverty you have no choice but to work hard

You develop coping mechanisms to justify doing really hard work

A common coping mechanism is to just make “hard work” part of your identity

The problem is later on, you have to shed part of your identity to “think smart” and not just “hard”

This causes those coming out of poverty to have an identity crisis

They’ve never thought about other options before, or taking what feels like “the easy way out”

The solution is to expect to re-assess your identity as you gain wealth. Your friend groups + activities will radically change and so should your identity.

The wealth plateau: “smart work” important doesn’t mean “hard work” isn’t

I’ve met many people who seem allergic to the idea of working hard

They seem to conclude “working smart is important” therefore → “don’t work hard”

and their growth plateaus

i call this the “wealth plateau” as it seems to primarily affect those born wealthy

When born wealthy I suspect there is less need to work hard to meet baseline needs

And your immediate network has more wealth likely values “smart” work

So “work smart not hard” is an understandable conclusion. But this reasoning is incorrect

Imagine a simulation with 2 people both pursuing the same goal

Assume both people are equally smart, i.e., both are capable of the same patterns of reasoning

And assume the criteria to “succeed” has an element of randomness

Across many simulations the person who works more will reach the goal first and more often

What’s the balance?

Both are key, if you demonize hard work or smart work you’ll likely plateau

So I do 2 things

  1. figure out how to get into highest quality mental state for work
  2. work in that state as much as possible

Ok cool, but how?

Over 10 years of experiments I got from 2-3hrs/day to 8-12/hrs per day of high quality work

You have to figure out what works for you. I hope my journey inspires ideas!

My process

  1. put stuff I care about doing in my calendar
  2. Show up and start, always get the foot. Don’t quit before starting
  3. if I feel my work is low quality & feel inspired to do something else then pivot to other thing
  4. if i still can’t focus then journal emotions/context & focus on recovery to get back to (3) asap

>50% I’m in (1) / (2)

~30% of time I pivot into (3)

<20% of time I enter (4)

My goal is to get (4) down to ~0%, basically never feel foggy. Slowly finding patterns

Routines that work for me

sleep: 7-9hrs of sleep per night, wake up naturally
  • tried less, i can’t focus, simple, i just don’t hit the same level of clarity unless its a 1 or 2 day sprint
  • more makes me feel groggy usually, unless i’m training/sick
  • waking up naturally is usually ok but i also like having a consistent get-up time so want to assess this again, because when i wake up late its guaranteed i feel groggy
  • so there’s some fine-line between getting up forcefully so early i can’t focus
  • and getting up naturally so late that im groggy/unproductive/can’t fall asleep next night
  • the optimal is to get up naturally right before my alarm at correct time
  • this is mainly due to bed-time
  • if i force myself to bed 9pm i frequently end up staying later because social friction/energy
  • 10pm gives me more time to have social life with friends b4 the night-life crowd (which i don’t hang with anyway)
sleep: 10pm-6:30am

mainly social constraints influenced this

80% of social events are 4pm-9pm

so going to bed by 8pm is dumb it forces me to pick sleep vs social

diet: 16hr fast (e.g., 8pm-noon):
  • i focus better in fasted state. if it goes too long i get distracted thinking about food
  • diet: don’t eat <3 hours of bed
  • diet: 200mg caffeine pill in morning + 1-3 coffee throughout day. 7 hrs b4 bed w/o caffeine
exercise: if my goal is to refresh my mind make it social * explosive

i workout 10x harder in groups

explosive feels like i get same amount done but faster & boosts my energy after

exercise: if goal is to process emotions workout alone * slow

slow to think inbetween sets & journal, alone to be in my head

this method consistently snaps me out my lowest moods in a few hrs

routine: default work morning + chill afternoon + work evening
  • historically across 5+ years i have a clear circadian rhythm
  • first 6 hrs of day i’m focused af, no matter when i wake up
    • if its 5am wakeup i’m good until 11
    • if i wakeup at 7am i go until 1pm
  • then i crash a couple hrs, just can’t focus even with caffeine
  • then evening time i get a spurt of energy that usually leads into bed time, to point where its hard to fall asleep
  • so i just work with this. i get up and immediately begin working
  • i work until my crash
  • then i hit the gym + do social stuff
  • then i catch my second wind in evening
  • sometimes if i’m super engaged i don’t need break, code for 15+ hrs but usually i have this crash
routine: 2hr Monday Weekly Reflection + Planning
  • this gives me more perceived control over working, boosts my emotion
    • historically when I have my todos listed out for week I work harder than when I don’t
    • I have at visual proof that based on my estimates I can get this all done
    • so all that’s left is showing up. let’s goooo!!!
routine: 2 hour free-time blocked per day
  • gives me flexibility to complete stuff if it ends up taking longer than normal
  • gives me off-time for recovery if i need it
  • gives me additive time to get ahead of i have tons of energy
  • overall just gives me stronger perceived control over my day, because it accounts for uncertainty
  • before this i was super rigid, would get stressed af because 3 hrs in day would become chaotic and my schedule wasn’t working
  • schedule has to work >50% of time for me to use it consistently

meta: Flexible daily, rigid weekly
  • if i don’t want to do something on the day i scheduled it, just push it out
  • i feel like sometimes days don’t go how you want and you need the day off, or do something else,
  • giving myself that flexibility lets me recover when needed
  • but if i can’t find time in a week to get something done, something is wrong
  • i anticipate in this case i just don’t value the thing enough and should stop trying to do it
  • things i care about i’ll get done if i slot them in a week

  • meta: you can context switch while in deep-work, but have to still be in focus state
meta: stack things
  • e.g., in my calendar i stacked 3 goals I had: build community + do more deep engineering + try something new
  • I did this by starting a live streaming channel on twitch, this put together nearly 15 hours of tasks i had slotted in the week into one slot.
  • You can do a lot if you think about high level themes you care about and find ways to do activities that hit all at once

things to try

more intention spread out of caffeine pre/post workout, give myself mid-day to be tired
morning routine

atm i just roll out of bed and code

my life falls apart biweekly and i have to spend hours just fixing everything (laundry etc)

would be nice to have a checklist in morning

like 1 part of my morning that is disciplined where i catch stuff i need to do

i imagine if i stack chores i won’t do them tho

prob have to be an autopilot part of my morning, caffeine / get to work/brush etc, streamline it

id really like to think if i reread power of habit and think about this better i can hammer out a lot in 30 min each morning b4 getting into work

i seem to have 30 min - 1 hr of dead work every morning anyway where i just walk around listening to phonk mixtakes b4 serious work starts

yoga before bed

help me sleep better, a routine to get rid of phone, set alarm/prep for bed but lock out of work

mid day nap

when exhaustion hits just fall into a nap quick + wake up naturally when ready

mid day adventure

i think routines tend to stop working for me because i get too locked into a boring day-to-day and ADHD brain hates this. i bet if i intentionally do spontaneous stuff in my mid day low-energy time i’ll be able to have more routine to counter it . if i don’t have novelty then routine is jail

snack throughout day

atm i have like 1 meal a day, sometimes two, rarely three

i eat 3000 calories in a meal and then can’t focus well

should have more chill meals + snack more

things that didn’t work for me

15 min schedule blocks

worked for a while in University

outside of Uni its hell

life doesn’t go according to plan

so i spend most of my braincells stressed that i’m not following my schedule

very little smart work on this schedule, good for doing dumb but hard work

purely inspiration based work: 0 systems, 0 scheduling etc
  • To try not having a schedule I removed all my systems and wanted to see what would stick
  • It was pretty stressful since I found I had a lot of comfort that came from some level of certainty
  • kept feeling stressed I wasn’t reaching my goals
  • Scheduling gives me a perceived feeling of control, if i schedule something and do it I can at least claim I’m doing things. if I have no schedule at all then i can’t look back and justify im using my time well
  • so consequentially i’d feel i’m not improving as quick as i could
  • and this feeling of inadequacy is a huge driver for me to change things. i hate feeling this way
  • so i began adding back weekly planning and more systems, essentially reverted back to the scheduling system i had
  • also there is an element of ADHD in my brain that benefits from have systems i can follow. i love watching numbers go up, pathologically, thats’ why i was so hooked on video games as a kid. i don’t want to not leverage something that’s fundamentally part of me since i was a child.
Sleep in late (>8am)
  • if i wake up >8 am i have a foggy feeling day, i don’t know why but its consistent across 100s of days, i’ve been logging this for 3+ years.
  • 2am-4am feels manic, im never sleeping enough and don’t feel i get to have social life because no evening
  • i think there’s a sweet spot being up b4 the sun, around 5am-6:30am, latest 7:30
Set goals, not schedules

Had a period if time where i stopped scheduling and just set weekly goals for myself.

This was great because it removed the scheduling fatigue, removed pressure of having to do stuff. it lead to more spontaneous moments, but i had way too many goals and would never hit them I think because

  1. they weren’t scheduled at any time, so i just forgot about them.
  2. it just felt like i had a massive list of shit to do at any given point so many moving goals

also without this schedule i also lost all routines like sleep/diet etc

3 hours of exercize/routines/hobbies etc in morning

thrashed between this a lot

if you work first thing, feels higher output for my company/etc. can workout later in day as a break and then work more in evening but often i just get super tired mid-day and don’t get my exercise done and then feel shitty which affects my coding the next day, i feel behind on life and shitty and then can’t work in morning or workout in afternoon → boom burnout if i workout first thing i could argue it helps me focus better later in day, get more shit done

  • i’ll often do this for a while and then eventually have a morning where i really want to work but i scheduled i have to workout. it stresses me out, i don’t enjoy the workout, i don’t feel i’m getting as much work done as i want and then i start having anxiety about this. eventually i just skip workouts in the morning, have some good morning workout routines but feel shitty because i’m not following my routine, so again i just feel guilty/etc and it stresses me out
doing the #1 thing
  • this caused me anxiety as it changes often, and i can’t stop feeling guilty doing anything but this #1 thing so it just makes it feel like some stuff in my life is important and some isn’t
  • e.g., i’d be on a date and be like: coding is my #1 task this date is therefor wasting my energy
  • but that’s not true… shit isn’t all 1st order like this, there’s tons of longterm consequences of actions you can’t just plan it all out perfectly
  • also scoping what my #1 thing is was really hard so just too much thinking not enough doing good work

[1] This is a hard thing to accept for me but it’s something I’ve seen consistently from successful people I know. They all optimize working smart first before grinding out hours, but they also grind out hours it’s just not the first class citizen of their work.

[2] Debuild and Banana