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The simplicity of “Work smart, not hard” is deceptive. It’s too easy to conclude that you don’t need to work hard – only smart. This is the pitfall.


This is one of my Favorites.

I feel seen by this years-old blog post and it’s unpleasant. Particularly:

An overinflated sense of your own abilities creates a constant state of production deficit, because you assume that you can make it up with a burst of brilliance and/or crunch.

That’s been me for years now. It’s powerful to see it written out.

Related: Jacob Kaplan-Moss | Embrace the Grind


If my coworkers were grinding through stuff that took them 20 hours, I’d be all “I work smart, not hard” with accompanying snarky eye roll, and I’d assume I could bust through an equivalent work load in four hours and still look like a goddamn superhero.

And sometimes I could, so, hey, validation!

And you can skate by like this (God knows I did) for a long time before a couple things eventually rear their heads and bite you in your entitled face.

Productivity deficit: Your attitude writing checks your work ethic can’t cash

An overinflated sense of your own abilities creates a constant state of production deficit, because you assume that you can make it up with a burst of brilliance and/or crunch.

But there is no countering surplus to offset the deficit. The only way surpluses show up is when you finish a (presumably) hard task much faster than you anticipated. But instead of banking the surplus (i.e. moving on immediately to your next task), you spend it relaxing and screwing off because, whew, you just earned a small vacation by busting shit out in an hour that you thought would take all day. Hey, what’s on Facebook and Twitter right now? Do I have any new mail? No? I wonder if anyone has tweeted something recently since the last time I checked…what about Reddit? Oh, an inspirational/funny/cool YouTube video, it’s only eight minutes long, let me watch it now! (Eight minutes later) Sweet…what’s up Twitter? Oh man, I have to make a snarky response, but first I have to Google for that XKCD comic that totally makes my point for me…

And before you know it, the day is done, and you’re still feeling good because you finished in one hour what should have taken all day, so all good, right?

Trap of the easy task

And yeah, it’s often all good, but when operating at a slight deficit things can go pear shaped quickly when you accidentally spring the trap of the easy task. Tasks so trivial that they barely register as work. Update an SDK? Hour, tops. Implement this feature that I’ve already done on every other platform? Hour, tops. […]

In other words, an easy task like this is so easy that it’s a constant time cost for everyone irrespective of ability, so there’s no opportunity nor need for crazy overestimation since what could possibly go wrong?


So what should have taken less than an hour took a week.

It’s like having a perfect monetary budget that assumes no crazy “one time” only bills, except life is full of crazy one time only bills and the only way you can keep those under control is by giving yourself a budgetary capacitor to dampen the fluctuations.

And now you’re defensive about losing a week to something stupid because you budgeted an hour for it and waited until the last second to do it and now the schedule has gone to hell, but it’s not your fault, because it could have happened to anyone! But if you had banked your surplus hours before and/or worked at closer to your theoretical peak effectiveness then this type of thing would get absorbed in the wash.

And now you live in a state of mild panic because you’re way smarter than all this but you’re never actually getting things done on time.

Identity recalibration crisis

Which leads to a potential identity recalibration crisis upon landing at a company with high performers that work hard and smart. And that will happen if you’re good. Now you’re no longer at the top of the curve. In fact, shit, you’re in the middle or bottom of the curve, a situation your brain probably never considered as an option.


Sometimes it takes a while for this to sink in. Sometimes it doesn’t sink in at all, and you’re let go because you’re not very productive compared to your new team of high performers. Sometimes it sinks in, and you panic and get depressed because your self-image has always been that of being the strongest swimmer in the school, and right now you’re just trying not to drown, much less keep up with everyone else.

But ideally you shrug off the old counter productive mentality and habits and emerge as another one of the high functioning team members, but that can take a lot of work, particularly if you have to get over years of giving it twenty percent.

Killing the underachiever

If my pithy advice were little more than “Be more like John Carmack” then I can imagine a lot of readers throwing up their hands and saying “Well, fuck it, I’m a lost cause, because that’s not going to happen.” But what I can do is relate some of the things that helped me kill off some of my underachieving habits. The point isn’t to become a superstar, it’s to become better [Get good], since that’s always the first step.

I don’t believe in mechanical solutions (“Turn off the internet”, “Listen to music”, and stuff like that) because I don’t think they address the core issues, which are psychological. Instead I found that I had to do the following.

I disagree with the author’s assessment that solutions such as “turning off the internet” are ineffective. This reads similarly to me as saying that someone should recover without crutches. Crutches are useful and important. I don’t mean to say it’s a binary in which you can’t do both – you can and you should. Embrace crutches and strive to build mental resilience, Grit, the capacity for Deep work, etc.

  1. Develop self-awareness

    It took working with John Carmack and other high productivity programmers and admitting that they were way more productive than me before I really understood how much more productive I could be. In other words, if you don’t admit it’s something worth improving, then obviously you’re not going to search for a solution, and if that’s the case, you should go here or here.

  2. Give a shit

    Originally I called this “develop a sense of urgency”, but really it’s just about caring about getting your work done. It doesn’t even matter what you specifically care about! It can be your professional image, your product, your team, your customers, whatever. You just have to care about something that will drive you to getting things done, because if you don’t, apathy will occupy that void.

  3. Minimize uncertainty

    In another blog article, Productivity vs. Uncertainty and Apathy, I talk about how poorly defined goals can lead to poor productivity. If it’s unclear what you need to get done today, then there’s a reasonable chance you won’t actually do anything today.

  4. Commit to getting something done every day

    When you show up in the morning have a well defined set of things to finish that day. Stay as late as you have to in order to finish. By committing to finishing that task other distractions will naturally fall by the wayside. For example, I have jiu-jitsu training at 7pm. If I screw off too much during the day, I don’t get to train. Also, by committing to a task, you avoid “being busy” instead of “getting work done”, they’re not the same thing.

  5. Never say “I’ll finish it up tomorrow” or “I’ll make up for it by coming in early/staying late/working the weekend”

    This is an easy trap to get into, where you keep incurring time debt until at some point you realize you’re now three weeks behind on a task that should have taken two days. This is like racking up credit card bills assuming you can pay them off later. Which is fine, until “later” arrives and you’ve only accumulated more debt.

  6. Do not overpromise to make up for poor productivity

    There’s a tendency when we’re falling behind to try to overcompensate with future promises. “When I’m done, it’ll be AWESOME” or “I know I’m late, but I’m positive I’ll be done by Monday”. By doing those things we just build more debt we can’t pay off, and that will eventually lead to a catastrophic melt down when the super final absolutely last deadline date shows up. Just get shit done, don’t talk about how you’re going to get shit done.

  7. Have an objective productivity metric

    This is a mechanical thing, but it acts as a reasonable backstop. If you have changelogs you can reference, then it’s easy to sit down on Friday and ask yourself “What have I done this week?” And if you know that it’s possible for others to check on you, then it makes you take each day a lot more seriously. If you judge your value solely on output, not subjective things like “being smart”, you will be more productive.

  8. Accept that “the grind” is part of the job

    A friend of mine’s father has a great quote: “Son, i don’t wake up every day and go to a place called fun. I wake up and go to a place called work” You can’t get irate or frustrated that the bulk of the day is typing in boring code and dealing with bugs and other people.