America is full of workaholics. Our culture values being busy so much that we almost shun the idea of finding easier ways to do things, considering it laziness. We continue to fail to examine the concept of working hard versus working smart, and the result is a life fixated on work and paychecks, where happiness, personal wellbeing, and time with loved ones all get placed on the back burner.
This isn't to say that hard work is overrated. Knowing how to be a good worker is vital to growing into a well-rounded, healthy adult. We all knew that one kid growing up who never had to work for anything; life was handed to them on a silver platter. So often, those people never change, and grow up to be adults who similarly think they shouldn't have to work for anything.
For many of us, hard work is the reason we get good grades, get into a good college, land that amazing job, make a decent living. It wasn't luck or coincidence. It was good old-fashioned elbow grease. In fact, hard work is sometimes the only answer. Think of learning a new language or picking up an instrument — the only way to improve is through hours of dedicated study.
But have we taken this too far?
Out of everyone in the industrialized world, Americans work the most. We work longer days, take fewer vacations, and retire later. And while we're working more and more hours, our salaries don't reflect this. Furthermore, while we work the most, we only rank third in the world for productivity, according to a 2014 survey. Germans, with their shorter work hours, came in first, and France came second, even though they enjoy long vacations and plenty of time off.
Meanwhile, we're exhausted and overstressed, with more children in daycare, more demand on schools to provide after-hours activities for students whose parents are working, increased road rage, and more workplace shootings — all of which have been tied to our obsession with work.
On another part of the spectrum is working smart — which doesn't always mean working hard. It means having the self-awareness to prioritize your responsibilities, eliminate the things that don't serve you, focus on your strengths, and ask for help where you need it. The best part is it involves working less — because you're so much more efficient and use your time wisely, you don't need to work 12-hour days and skip out on vacation time.
Working smart sometimes goes against our nature so tremendously. Take asking for help with your workload, for instance, which isn't something we'll readily do, out of fear that it's a sign of weakness or incapability. But delegating sometimes comes with the territory of a heavy workload. That's working smart as opposed to hard.
Email is another great example. Some Americans are obsessed with it; and it's a huge time suck, with some estimates saying we spend over six hours a day on email. If working hard is spending four hours a day going through all of your messages, working smart is outsourcing it to someone else to do it for you. Or maybe you commit to checking it only two or three times a day and then forgetting about it, so that you can work uninterrupted.
Additionally, while working hard tells you to work nonstop all day, working smart tells you to take breaks, since this can increase your productivity and efficiency, whereas the former approach wears you out and decreases your work capacity. These are some of the key differences between the two ideas.
So, does working smart take the cake? Probably, but not completely. A combination of the two is likely your safest bet.
You won't always find shortcuts to make your responsibilities faster and easier. You'll still have days where you have to work past 5 p.m. and deal with matters on weekends, when you'd rather be napping or watching Game of Thrones — because that's life.
But here's what life isn't: sitting at a desk all day while the people and things that matter more to your happiness pass you by. We don't live to work. We're not put on this earth to log hours, pay bills, and die. That's not life. Life isn't found attached to your phone, refreshing the screen rapid-fire to see if you have any new messages. It's happening in front of you, away from your computer, out of the office, with the people who matter.
Figuring out how to work smart is crucial to finding some kind of balance in life; it could make or break it. In a culture where we're obsessed with being busy, we must find a way to live. Maybe it's easier said than done, since we're talking about a shift in our overall way of life. We have to stop using busyness as a status symbol and make leisure a priority, and that's no small task.
But the statistics don't lie; and as long as Americans are working this much, with less-than-stellar productivity, and are unhappy and exhausted the whole time, something is definitely wrong.