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Working Smarter: A Lumberjack Story

What does it mean to work smarter? Let me tell you a story about two lumberjacks to illustrate:

Two lumberjacks, Pete and Jack, walked into the woods to start their day of logging. On the way, Pete turned to Jack and asked, "Want to bet on who can cut down the most trees today?" Jack agreed, and they set off to their respective areas of the forest.

Pete was full of enthusiasm and adrenaline, and he started cutting trees immediately. He worked all through the day, barely taking time to catch his breath or to grab food and water. He felt more and more confident with every tree he felled because he believed that he had superior strength and stamina.

He could hear Jack working in another part of the woods and this made him even more sure of his win. At regular intervals throughout the day, the noise of falling trees coming from Jack's area would stop. Pete assumed that Jack was taking more frequent breaks because he was too exhausted or weak to keep going. Pete knew that his strength and stamina would win him the bet.

As the day came to a close, the men walked through the woods surveying their piles of logs. Pete was amazed that Jack had a much bigger pile of logs, yet Jack looked much less tired. Stunned and stinging from the defeat, Pete turned to Jack and asked, "How can this be? I heard you taking breaks throughout the day while I worked continuously. How could you possibly have beat me?"

Jack smiled and said, "I was not wasting time. I was stopping to rest, sharpen my saw, plan which trees to fell, or eat a snack, and so the work that I did was more productive."

What lessons about working smarter can we take away from this story? Here are five that I think are particularly useful.

1. Are your tools dull or sharp? In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax." In other words, you need useful tools to get the job done effectively.

It's worth the investment of time and money to make sure that you have the right training, some practice with that training, and that your skills are a good match for what you're doing. Hone your skills through reflection, experimentation, and professional development to improve your performance.

2. Being "sharp" can also mean better planning or rethinking your process. Sometimes taking a step back to examine not just what you are doing but how you are doing it can improve your performance. It may even lead you to revisit your goals and find better ones.

As management sage Peter Drucker has said, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." To achieve excellence, we need both qualities -- to be both doing the right things and doing them right. Planning and reflecting on your goals (that "whats") and processes (the "hows") are critical to accomplishing both of these outcomes.

3. Are you paying attention to the impact of your work, or are you just swinging away expecting the impact to happen because your effort is high? It's easy to put your nose to the grindstone and get lost in the "doing" of things. How mindful are you of your impact and the feedback from your environment? Are you noticing synergies and how your work fits with the work of others around you? Are you soliciting, listening to, and making changes as a result of feedback? These techniques help you work smarter.

4. Reconsider what you mean by "work." Work takes many forms. If something contributes to your goal, it's part of your work, even if it seems merely supportive of your actual effort on the task-at-hand. Self-care and reflection, such as resting, eating well, planning, and being mindful are ways to work smarter and healthier.

What actions are you taking that actually impact your goals? The 80/20 rule states that 20% of your efforts are leading to 80% of your results. Is working while you're exhausted giving you bang-for-your-buck? In our story, Pete was objectively "working" longer and harder than Jack, but Jack incorporated other activities into his work that allowed him to stay fresh and productive. Research has shown that there are health consequences and reductions in productivity when people work more than 50-55 hours per week.

5. If we broaden lesson four beyond just the workday, it's important to consider how rest and managing your energy have a long-term benefit for your work and your health. It is critical to have appropriate break times within the day as well as sufficient vacation time to ensure that you can bring a fresh outlook and a rested mind and body to your work.

Ask yourself the question: How do I show up to work as my best self? Then, take the steps to make that happen, which may include taking some time off.

So what does this all mean? Achieving excellence in what we choose to do, being fulfilled, enjoying what we're doing in-the-moment, and being healthy enough to savor our legacies depend on us working smarter and working healthier.

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