In these times of increased focus on a work/life balance, the adage “work hard, play hard” is in serious need of an update.

According to my research, this motto grew out of elitist or wealthy groups where it meant that working hard at school or work during the week allowed them to party extensively on weekends and days off — the implication being the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol.

While this phrase may have originated with a “work hard, work harder” ideology inherited from our Puritanical ancestors, it morphed over time to include the “play hard” aspect, as the old-fashioned work ethic became inapplicable to our 20th century world view. But now the “work hard, play hard” work ethic is inapplicable, as well, in our 21st century world and, therefore, must be adapted.

There is no argument that hard work is both a good thing and a necessary one. It doesn’t typically imply physical labor as much as focused, timely effort in any work environment, resulting in complete, high-quality output. Today, what is more important than working hard for both managers and employees is that we work smart. Working smarter, as opposed to harder, is not just about putting in more hours. It’s a concept that enriches the culture and increases the revenue in our companies. To help us understand and utilize this concept more, working smarter can be broken down into three contributing elements.

Important things first

First, entertainingly enough, is priority. Working smart means working on the most important things first. That begins with the need for employees to understand their responsibilities and the expectations that the organization has of them.

Steven Covey, in his book First Things First, teaches an organizing process that helps us categorize the tasks we face so that we focus on what is important, not merely what is urgent. Far from an admonition to simply “be more efficient,” the approach shows us how to use our time differently. “Doing more things faster (working harder) is no substitute for doing the right things,” says Covey.

Working smart begins with doing the right things first, not more things faster.

Use what’s around you

Another aspect of working smarter involves resources. Tapping into all of the resources that are available, collaborating with other employees, utilizing their diversity of experience and knowledge, and reaching outside the organization to subject specialists, trade groups, authors and educational institutions is critical to getting the most from the time invested.

There are also a plethora of training materials and programs available through local universities, online courses and publications. Whether the issue is a more technical one (involving how a task is best accomplished), regulation-driven (where there is a clear right and wrong answer), strategic (where questions of goals and personal preference enter the picture) or personal (where individual characteristics, styles and needs are involved), there are undoubtedly existing programs, materials and subject-matter experts, which can coach you and contribute to an appropriate solution.

Just do it

Initiative and decisiveness make up the third leg of working smart.

As enlightened leaders, we want decisions to be made and ideas for improved performance and increased customer satisfaction to originate as close to the customer as possible. Development of our people should be a perpetual focus that covers not only technical skills and abilities, but also includes building confidence and developing the know-how to make timely and effective decisions. Regardless of the vision we have for our businesses, the recipe for success includes encouraging employees to be decisive, take responsibility, and address challenges and issues that arise within the scope of their positions.

Creating an environment where that kind of initiative is encouraged, and the occasional mistake is tolerated, is critical and, at the same time, challenging.

Putting it to work

Utilizing these elements can not only make us more productive, but also help us to balance our jobs with our personal lives.

The work/life balance comes into play as we recognize that focusing on any single aspect of our lives at the expense of the others will result in incompleteness. The jobs and careers we pursue, and the money we earn, enable us to do and have the things we enjoy, which enlighten us and give us a sense of satisfaction and purpose. Our jobs are a means, not an end, to living completely. Living completely means constantly paying attention to all facets of our lives — work, family and relationships.

It’s important that we keep this in perspective when making decisions regarding our business and dealing with our employees. If we are to achieve a sense of satisfaction, we should set goals for ourselves in each of these areas and work toward achieving them.

At the heart of “living completely” is taking a broader view and a long-term perspective. Returning to Stephen Covey’s First Things First, one of the core concepts is the recommendation that we live by a compass of principles instead of focusing on the clock. The author identifies a clear path to a way of life that enriches the person, the people around them and the world at large. At the center of this philosophy is trying to do the right thing, for the right reason, in the right way. The message is this: Where we are headed is more important than how fast we are going. This is true for each of us, as well as our employees.

As owners, what we want in life plays out through our businesses. If we’re driven by others’ views of us, monetary possessions and outward evidence of success, we may strive to grow our businesses to increase in size, impact and brand image. If we are focused on providing a comfortable income for our family and spending time with children and relatives, we may devote less energy toward increasing the size of the business and more on developing competent leaders who are capable of running an efficient operation in our absence.

Similarly, when it comes to our employees, it’s important that we understand their priorities and goals as it relates to their motivation and aspirations. I’m not suggesting that Joe, who is married and has three children, should be treated differently than Sue, who is single, when it comes to assignments or expectations. What I’m saying is, what constitutes living completely to each of them is likely very different, and they may have different career goals and priorities. If we are to obtain the most from our employees, we need to understand their differences, respect them and, where appropriate, take them into consideration in leading our people.

The fact is that it is possible to combine achieving our personal goals with being an effective, motivated and satisfied business owner, leader or employee. We can and should strive to enrich the people around us in both our professional and personal lives. At work and at home it’s important to do what matters most and to do it well. Just as having a vision for our business gives us a target that we’re aiming for in the future (that description of what we want the business, our organization and the culture to become), our vision for our lives should include expectations for what we want to accomplish and why.

The solution is not to simply put in more hours. It’s to work smart and live completely.

Tom Cline has a 35-year background in sales, marketing and operations. He is currently a business development advisor for Violand Management Associates (VMA) where he works closely with business owners and their key management staff as both a business consultant and an executive coach. To learn more about VMA’s services and programs visit or call (330)966-0700.