Work Smart Means Maximising the Value of Your Work

By Benjamin • 1 September, 20237-minute readBack to all writings

“Work smart means to maximise the value of your work by selecting a few activities and applying intense targeted effort.” This is an excerpt from Great at Work by Morten T. Hansen. I imagine you’re reading this because you are curious about this as I was, so let’s explore it together.

There are a few things here that comes to mind:

  1. How do I estimate the value of work?

  2. How do I practically prioritise the activities that contributes to this?

  3. What does it mean to apply intense targeted effort?

The Value of Work

I’ve come across two value equations thus far:

• (benefit to others x quality) / time taken to do it—This one seems pretty self-explanatory.

• (dream outcome x perceived likelihood of achievement) / (time delay x effort or sacrifice)

The second one is from the perspective of the client or person receiving the value. If the client doesn’t think you’re likely to achieve the dream outcome, the perceived value is zero. Likewise, if the client has to make a great sacrifice or put in effort for it, the perceived value approaches zero. These two equations gives us a model to estimate the value of the work we do daily.

However, not all work are made equal. If you’re like me, you have an ever expanding todo list and you have your hands in multiple projects across multiple departments. Which work should be prioritised? You are certainly pressured to do everything (either because you’re the only one who can do it competently, or because you’re the only one available to do it). But working extra long hours to get everything one would not be working smart.

So we need to prioritise. All companies employ people, and that means the profitability of the company is the main priority. Why? Because there are mouths to feed and bills to pay for. I think this has an effect of creating at least two classes of work in the company: those which directly impact profitability, and those indirectly.

Ideally, we want everything we do to have a direct monetary value benefit to the company since the profitability is the lifeline of the company, and that would make our work greatly valuable (assuming it’s done with quality and in a timely manner). However, this isn’t always the case. Some roles are purely supportive and administrative and does not affect profitability directly.

From this perspective, if our work benefits people around us in a way that helps them produce valuable work, then it also has value. For instance, the team lead whose role is to remove roadblocks and help her team perform optimally—her work is valuable to the company. I suppose the work of the human resource, finance team, and the likes also fall under this category.

Prioritising Activities that are Valuable

Building on what we have understood above, maybe this list can help with prioritising our work:

  1. Work which directly improves profitability

  2. Work which indirectly improves profitability

  3. Work which benefits others in the company, but may not improve profitability

If the task or project doesn’t meet any of the above, it shouldn’t be done at all because there’s no value it to the company. Sure, you might still choose to do it nonetheless, but you won’t be appreciated by your boss for wasting company resources on things that are of no value to the company.

I imagine there might be situations where the boss of a company might suspend the expectations from time to time and allow certain teams or people to divert their attention to something that doesn’t fit the above list. In those cases, I think it’s just poor management of company resources. I imagine it’ll be difficult to justify to key stakeholders any task which doesn’t match the list above.

Also, in all three cases, there is the implicit directive to “do no harm”. This might not be the case in all companies, but it is in my case. The reason for this is so that we don’t create a culture that is toxic where it’s all about the bottomline. A toxic work culture can still be profitable, but it’ll be more difficult to retain and attract talented team members, especially in a post COVID-19 world where people are valuing work-life balance more and are prioritising their mental wellbeing.

Putting it to Action

I’m curious to try out the list above with my current todo list. Let’s see…

  • Coordinate shoot with photographer—client B
  • Prepare photo shoot timeline—client B
  • Prepare topics to be included into newsletter—client B
  • Flesh out webpage write up for developer—client C
  • Execute on social media plan for outlet launch—client A
  • Populate social media calendar for next month—client A
  • Produce video content for next month—client A _Some context: Client A pays more than B, who pays more than C.

I’m going to reorder according to client size, then identify which tasks can be delegated, dropped, or delayed, so I can focus on the ones that are more important. This results in a list that is in two parts:

For me to work on

  • Execute on social media plan for outlet launch—client A
  • Populate social media calendar for next month—client A
  • Prepare topics to be included into newsletter—client B
  • Flesh out webpage write up for developer—client C (delay, since this is my own initiative and not requested by the client)

For me to delegate

  • Produce video content for next month—client A (delegate to lead videographer)
  • Prepare photo shoot timeline—client B (delegate to to photographer)
  • Coordinate shoot with photographer—client B (delegate to photographer)

With this updated, focused list, I now need to apply intense targeted effort on these items to optimise the value of it to my company. Otherwise, I can’t be said to be working smart, just being lazy.

What does it mean to apply intense targeted effort?

Hopefully, we should have more time on our hands now to apply “intense targeted effort” on the tasks which does matter.

Consider the first task at hand, executing on social media content. How can I increase the intensity of how I do the task by 10x? What would that look like? I suppose it might look something like this:

  • chunk out time to knock it out
  • quit my email and WhatsApp applications
  • remove distractions from my surrounding by moving to a quiet place or putting on headphones
  • not getting up from the table until the task is done—no water or toilet breaks
  • identify all the factors that might impact content engagement - spend time identifying audience personas for the content - research best practices for content in the client industry - research relatable content ideas - keep content authentic - give value in each content - have an opinion - double down on client niche
  • use AI tools to brainstorm content ideas
  • work in categories—complete all writing, then look for images / videos, then edit, etc.

To be honest, that’s a lot of work to do for one task. If I didn’t have time to do all the above, I would have just used an AI tool to get content idea and then flesh them out enough to be posted. Done. Efficient? Maybe. Effective? Hardly. That’s why working smart requires me to delegate, drop, or delay other less important tasks.

Also, applying intense targeted effort requires discipline to remain focused on the task. Otherwise, I might fool myself into thinking that “I’ve made progress, so I can move on to other things for the time being”. Sure I might be making progress, but it’s inefficient because each time I move away from the task and come back to it, I’ll have to reload the context in my working memory and that is time wasted. If I have prioritised my tasks accurately, there is no better use of my time than to focus on the task at hand. All other things can wait.

Done correctly, I think it should yield quality work that is completed efficiently. And since I’ve prioritised it, it is also valuable to my company. Now I can take a break, have a brief chat with a friend, make a cup of coffee, go for lunch, etc.

Some Problems

Firstly, I didn’t include my entire todo list here since it’s much longer and I didn’t want to bore you with it. I had some difficulties in thinking which items can be delegated and which are really depended on me to complete. In fact, I’m not 100% sure if the ones I intend to delegate above can actually be completely delegated to my videographer and photographer. I like the idea of it in principle, but we’ll have to see if it’s actually practical.

Secondly, you’ve probably noticed that I prioritised the list according to client size. The assumption is that the larger the client size, the larger the impact of that task is to profitability. But this isn’t always the case. It also largely depend on the type of client I’m working with. Some of them are more understanding and would not mind renegotiating deadlines even though they are larger clients. Likewise, some smaller clients might be more anal and demanding.

Lastly, it’s most likely the case that very few tasks can actually be dropped (if it can be dropped, why was it even requested in the first place?). What this means is that we’ll have an ever expanding list of todos and the only to bring that down is to delegate and delay. This isn’t always possible, either because those tasks are something only we can do, or that our team members are just as packed as we are. Delaying also might not be possible in many cases due to the second problem I raised just above.

While this principle mentioned in the book is something to work towards, it’s certainly not something that everyone can easily apply. However, I am motivated to attempt it anyway because of the potential increase in effectiveness it could give me. In the book, the author mentions that this single principle (encapsulated in the phrase, “Do less, then obsess”) can result in a 25 percentage points increase in performance. I.e. If I’m currently an average performer at the 50th percentile range, successfully “doing less, and obsessing” on my tasks can place me in the 75th percentile range of performance.

A boost from mediocre to top score with just one skill. That’s enticing.

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Written by Benjamin. Husband, father, child of God. Married to Huey Lin. Check out their YouTube channel.