The problem with “working smarter, not harder”


Although the phrase “work smarter, not harder” is used to motivate someone to manage their time carefully, it only encourages toxic productivity culture. This culture can lead to anxiety and shame.

Many high school students put a lot of effort into their classwork and tests. When this effort is not rewarded by a high score, they are judged and told to simply “work smarter.” All of their hard work is disregarded, and instead, an inaccurate phrase is thrown around; “work smarter, not harder.” 

In the 1930s, industrial engineer, Allen F. Morgenstern coined the term “work smarter, not harder.” Morgenstern was the founder of “work simplification,” created to simplify workload by thinking about how a task can be done differently to save energy. 

“Work smarter, not harder” is meant to encourage someone to have a clear strategy and prioritize essential activities. This phrase is commonly used in academic settings and advises students to manage their time and simplify tasks to do something quickly and efficiently. 

Tips that are given to students are to “set goals,” “identify important tasks,” “make a list,” and to “be productive and accomplish something.” These types of strategies encourage a toxic productivity culture. This is described as a societal pressure to maintain productivity for as long as possible. These practices usually discourage people from taking breaks or doing something that is not deemed “productive” enough. 

Productivity is the practice of optimizing every aspect of a person’s life. This mindset has no limit to the amount of work that can be done, in this toxic ideology, more work is always better. Work simplification leads to a toxic productivity culture where people overwork themselves and ignore other aspects of their life. 

The mentality of having to be productive every second of every day leads to productivity anxiety. This is the feeling of anxiousness people get when they feel like all of their efforts have not amounted to something bigger. Productivity anxiety leads to shame for not doing enough. 

The phrase, “work smarter, not harder” directly encourages optimizing every aspect of life to save time, resulting in burnout and productivity anxiety for many. 

The saying assumes that there will always be an “easier” way to accomplish something. Instead of encouraging people to explore the concept for some time before coming up with a possible solution, it tells people to think about how to simplify the problem to save time. Not every problem is easy to accomplish, and some projects require a person to work harder rather than smarter. 

The phrase, “work smarter, not harder” could imply an insult to the person doing the work. Working smarter implies working hard in the first place to reach a level where the work has been refined to a point that it can be considered “easy” then, the ability to work smarter is achieved. To work smarter, people need to work harder from the beginning. 

Students can concentrate all of their efforts on one big assignment. If the results are not as expected, they have to deal with hearing the repetitive phrase. It is constantly drilled into their heads that all of their work will never be good enough and that they must be doing something wrong or they are not “smart” enough to do the work. Although many consider the phrase as an innocent saying meant to encourage students to do better next time, it causes more harm than good. 

Instead of using the erroneous phrase “work smarter, not harder,” more reasonable advice would be to encourage students to “take time to learn, find a balance between working hard and smart, and show passion and perseverance for their work.”