3 uncommon ways to work smarter, not harder

Self-awareness rules productivity.

How much you can work is not determined by how hard you try, it is determined by how well you know yourself.

Hardworking people constantly fight their limitations. Smart people work with those limitations instead of against them.

The only way to maximize your output and creativity across your entire life is to do the most you can on the most number of days. This makes it sound like our daily recipe should be “go as hard as you can for as long as you can,” but that’s not the case — days on which you do nothing at all are very much factored into the above equation.

You must consistently deliver at a rate you can sustain forever. That’s the trick. How much you can overclock for a short period of time does not matter, especially if at the end of your overdrive, you burst into flames.

In that sense, working smarter is the only way to work harder. If you can’t find your maximum sustainable pace, you’ll go through an endless cycle of working too hard and then burning out — and that definitely won’t help you do the most you can possibly do.

It’s easy to go through your entire career without ever understanding yourself well enough to know how you work best, and many people do. Looking for productivity hacks is a good start, but really, what you should be looking for is self-awareness.

Here are three simple things you can do to know yourself better in ways that support your productivity.

1. Take quizzes and personality tests

I know they’re cliché and often scientifically questionable, but when you do a broad variety of them, the results of personality tests will tell you a lot about how you function.

The point here is not to find the one scheme you can latch onto forever (“INFJs for life!”), it is to use the insights of many different analyses to slowly piece together the puzzle of who you are. A lot of the time, the tests will speak in absolutes whereas you should think in tendencies.

For as much as it is pseudoscience, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator first pointed me at the fact that, yes, I am indeed more introverted than extroverted. That’s a good thing to know, even if I don’t perfectly fit into the “introvert” box all of the time.

Here are some tests and quizzes I found useful:

  1. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, also known as MBTI or 16 Personalities Test. You’ll get a four-letter type based on your dominating tendency towards introversion or extroversion, sensing or using your intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving. You can take the official quiz here.
  2. The Enneagram. Like the MBTI, this is not scientifically verified, but it assigns you one of nine roles based on your basic fears and desires. It can also give you an idea of your worst temptations and biggest goals. Find out your type here.
  3. The Big Five Personality Traits. This is one of the most accepted psychographic tools in academics. The five factors are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. It is especially useful for determining how you best work with others. You can take the test here.
  4. The Personal SWOT Analysis. This is a standard tool in business to analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of a company and situation — but it also works at a personal level. Here’s a free worksheet.
  5. The Four Tendencies. This framework is based on Gretchen Rubin’s book of the same name. Based on how you respond to external and internal expectations, you’ll be assigned one of four types: Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or Rebel. This is extremely helpful to know when trying to form new habits and break old ones. Take the quiz here.
  6. The Born For This Quiz. Chris Guillebeau’s book Born For This is about finding work you love, but the quiz to go along with it also has some insightful questions about how you work best. Take it here.
  7. The Learning Style Quiz. We all need a combination of multiple formats and exercises to best learn and remember, but this short, 20-question test has helped me identify that I prefer 1-on-1 sessions, even on video, to group teaching, for example. You can complete the quiz here.

What I’ve learned from all these tests is that I work best alone and also enjoy it the most. I like occasional interactions but need big, focused, creative blocks to feel good about what I do — and to want to do more of it. As long as I can spend my time on such work, I need little external accountability and am highly self-motivated.

If you can come up with an equally concise answer to the question “How do you work best?” after taking some of these tests, you’ll have gained a whole lot.

How you spend your workday determines how much you enjoy it — and how much you enjoy it determines how much of your time you even want to spend working. It is impossible to overstate how important this is to having a productive career all around.

2. Take stock of and track your habits

In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker wrote:

Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed. The analysis of one’s time, moreover, is the one easily accessible and yet systematic way to analyze one’s work and to think through what really matters in it. “Know Thyself,” the old prescription for wisdom, is almost impossibly difficult for mortal men. But everyone can follow the injunction “Know Thy Time” if he wants to, and be well on the road toward contribution and effectiveness.

The book was published in 1966, and — as from Socrates’ time until then — nothing has changed in the 50 years since. To understand how much you actually work and how well you spend those hours, track your time across the board — at least initially.

One of the best ways to do so, I find, is to track your habits. A daily time sheet is a good start, but only tracking your habits will reveal the countless patterns you follow every day — especially the ones you don’t realize you’re following.

All you need to take stock of your habits is a pen, a piece of paper, and ten minutes to think through how you spent yesterday. You woke up, brushed teeth, then what? List everything you did step by step. Then, circle the things you do every day. Add counters next to behaviors you repeat multiple times in a week. That’s your baseline of habits.

Most of your baseline will be pretty standard, like taking a shower, having lunch at a certain time, and so on. Some of it will stand out, good or bad. You may find you play more video games than you realized or exercise more than you thought. Start tracking these outliers on an ongoing basis. They are where you can (and probably want to) enact change. An easy way to do this is to use a habit tracker.

There are countless habit tracking apps and systems out there, but I like the simplicity of coach.me.

You can easily add habits to your dashboard, check in with a swipe after you did them, and even set weekly target frequencies. It takes me 30 seconds each night to do this, and I always know whether I’m on track.

The point of tracking your habits is not to change them all at once, it is to know your time so you’ll better know yourself. 

You’ll see what comes easy to you and what doesn’t, which habits you can link to get things done, and where you can attach a new behavior to an existing one. You’ll even learn how much tracking you need to feel good about yourself.

No one tracks their time forever. Even management experts like Drucker don’t believe in that. The goal is to find a rhythm of life that’s comfortable but productive and then enjoy it without oppressive oversight. Once you “Know Thyself,” there’ll be less and less need to “Know Thy Time” — but it’s still the best place to start.

3. Make timed, experimental changes at work

Just because you can monitor most of your habits with ease does not mean you can reset them all at once. You’re a human, not a printing press, after all. Don’t fool yourself. Change is hard. Never work on more than one or two habits at a time.

Tweak one major or several minor things at work, then observe the situation for a week. Before or after, which do you like better? Keep your preference, then run the next experiment.

Good areas to start adjusting are timing, duration, and location. Here are three examples:

  1. Schedule your most important task at the same time each day, but then move that time slot around within the day. For me, it is best to get a big chunk of writing done in the morning, but everyone is different.
  2. Change the duration of various time blocks. Can you do your email in 30 minutes instead of one hour? Shrinking time often boosts effectiveness. Other, more creative tasks, might require more time for better results. If you allow yourself two hours to outline a presentation instead of one, you might come up with a better structure that saves much more time later. The Pomodoro technique famously suggests 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break, but you can adjust both of these. Try 50/10, 40/7, or even 75/15, and see what timing works best for which tasks.
  3. Switch your position and posture. I do most of my work from my bed these days, and I like to both stretch my legs and sit cross-legged. Alternating helps with blood flow and stretching my back, as does getting up and moving around once to multiple times an hour. You could try a standing desk, sitting on a chair with your legs up, even lying down or leaning against the wall. You can also move rooms from time to time, new work environments get our creative juices flowing and can even help us remember better.

The purpose of changing your work habits one at a time is to slowly integrate what you learn about yourself into how you live your life. You want to create a constant feedback loop between self-awareness and self-management. What you know about yourself must inform what you do, and what you do will, in turn, teach you new lessons about who you are.

This is not just the way to get things done — it’s the way to live a good life.

All You Need to Know

The only way to find a lasting pace of high output you can maintain forever is to know how you perform best — and the only way to do that is to be self-aware about how you go through life altogether.

Three efforts worth making in that regard are:

  1. Take personality tests and quizzes until you can give a concise summary of how you work best. This will give you a concrete vision of your workday you can strive towards.
  2. Assess your habits and then monitor outliers to spot opportunities for change. Measure your life’s rhythm to find one you are comfortable with.
  3. Run tiny experiments at work, for example in timing, duration, and location, and then use the results of each one to set up the next. This will make sure you’re always implementing what you learn about yourself into how you live your life.

Self-awareness, not effort, is the driving force behind productivity. The only way to work harder is to work smarter. I find that rather comforting. Work smarter, not harder, and you won’t just see the fruits of your labor, you’ll actually get to taste them.

This article first appeared on Medium.