In the past three years, I supported hundreds of people to increase their productivity. I hosted dozens of workshops until Covid forced me to switch to webinars.
No matter if in-person or online, my key message was always the same: Eliminate distractions and work smarter, not harder.
And for most of my attendees, this advice works perfectly.
It works because they don’t have ambitious goals. All they want is to finish their studies, get their job done efficiently, and have more free time.
However, there’s a limit to “working smart” that most people overlook or consciously ignore.
You can only work smart if you’ve done the hard work first
I read Girlboss by award-winning entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso when I was 19 years old.
Amoruso launched her entrepreneurial journey with a simple eBay store back in 2006. She’s the woman who inspired me to start dreaming of building my own thing instead of pursuing a corporate career.
“Figure out what you love doing and don’t suck at, then try to figure out how to make a living doing that! Don’t be scared. We’re all going to die, it’s just a question of when and how.”
I loved her idea of figuring out what I loved doing and then figuring out how to make a living doing that.
As soon as I finished the book, I was determined to become an entrepreneur and do my own thing, but I had no idea how I’d make money.
I didn’t have a groundbreaking idea and, to be honest, I wasn’t remarkably talented in a high-paying field either.
But I was willing to figure it out.
For the next three years, I did anything I could to find that sweet spot between passion and profit.
I’m passionate about personal growth, so I completed a coaching certification and hosted dozens of workshops on topics like productivity, habits, and confidence.
Simultaneously, I created my first digital products like online courses, offered coaching sessions, and blogged on Medium.
In 2019, I decided to put my mind on paper and self-published a book that summarizes everything I knew about self-improvement.
In 2020, I finally figured out what I really want to do and built a 6-figure online business in less than a year.
Today, I can work smart by eliminating distractions, focusing on the essentials, setting priorities, hiring freelancers, and making sure I work on the right things.
I could make a decent income working 30–40 hours per month because I’ve already done the hard part.
But back when I read Girlboss, it wasn’t possible to work smart.
I’ve been stuck in a full-time internship and finishing my studies. When I came home at 9 PM, I worked on my side-business.
In the mornings, I’d wake up at 5 AM to finish some to-dos before heading to my utterly boring internship.
And for more than three years, I spent almost every weekend hustling.
Am I proud of working 80+ hours per week for more than two years? Sort of.
Without these 80-hour workweeks, I wouldn’t have been able to build my own thing. I’d have no idea what my passion is and certainly wouldn’t know how to turn that passion into a profitable business.
I spent most of the 80 hours on stupid work. And most of the tasks I completed were redundant. I remember spending 10+ hours designing my very first business cards, which I ended up throwing away last week because I never needed them.
But that redundant, hard work led me to where I am today.
It’s impossible to work smart when you’re just starting and have no idea how to turn your skills into a paycheck.
You can’t build something big from scratch by just working smart and less, even if that’s what most productivity gurus preach.
Everything worthwhile takes effort.
You can split that effort up and give your best over a long time. Or you can do what I did and speed up the whole process by working more hours until you’ve figured out what your thing is.
When Amoruso sold vintage clothes on eBay at the age of 23, she couldn’t work smart. She had to do the hard work until she founded Nasty Gal, a fashion company that now generates a yearly revenue of more than 1.5 million US dollars.
“I’d zip zippers, button buttons, and hook hooks, then fold it and slide it into a clear plastic bag that I sealed with a sticker. I’d print out a receipt and a Photoshop-hacked note reading “Thanks for shopping at Nasty Gal Vintage! We hope you love your new stuff as much as we do!” — even though “we” was just me. Then I’d put it in a box and slap a shipping label on. Only I didn’t slap anything — I took a lot of pride in how carefully I affixed those labels. I had to assume that my customer was as particular and as concerned with aesthetics as I was. Anyway, the last thing I wanted was for her to think it was just one girl hacking away in a room by herself. . . .”
— Sophia Amoruso
Sometimes, you can’t count the cost
If you’re at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey and serious about building your own thing, you’ll likely need to go the extra mile more than just once.
Most beginners think that being an entrepreneur is glamorous and relaxed.
In most cases, it isn’t.
In the beginning, being an entrepreneur can be a hell of a ride and might require many sacrifices. That’s why most founders and content creators give up or fail within less than five years.
Getting to that point where entrepreneurship is fun, relaxed, and focused requires you to do the hard, stupid work first.
As a content creator, you can’t work smart right from the beginning. First, you need to understand the landscape. Second, you need to figure out the rules, which will eventually take lots of trial and error. Third, you’ll hopefully build efficient processes and workflows, which might finally enable you to work smarter.
The same is true for any other business you might start.
The most brilliant move for an entrepreneur is outsourcing tasks so she can solely focus on her zone of genius and complete the critical tasks.
But figuring out what to outsource takes time. And during that time, you’ll need to work hard, not smart. As Amoruso preaches:
“You can’t act like you’ve arrived when you’re only just receiving the invitation.”
Work so hard you can afford to work smart
Part of that misconception around “smart work” is based on the wrong impression many entrepreneurs share on social media.
My Instagram feed is full of entrepreneurs sipping margaritas and iced coffees in beautiful locations.
It seems like they don’t need to work more than a few short hours per week because they’re working smart. Their intelligent choices, ability to focus, and outsourcing seem to allow them to spend most of their time exploring the world and going on beautiful adventures.
In the worst case, you’ll look at these pictures, idolize their lifestyle, and believe that you can have the same just by working smart, eliminating distractions, and spending less time scrolling through social media feeds.
But that’s not true.
Jay Shetty, for instance, is a content creator with more than eight million followers on Instagram.
If you look at his social profiles and listen to his story, it’s obvious that he’s working smart.
People like Jay don’t need to spend much time creating their content. They hire video editors, social media marketers, and community managers who are responsible for most of the tasks that need to get done.
Through smart outsourcing, Jay can now focus on his zone of genius.
But that’s not how you start.
In a recent interview, Shetty shared the behind-the-scenes of his million-dollar content empire.
When he shared his first Youtube videos back in 2015, he’d get home from his corporate job around 8–9 pm, have dinner, and teach himself how to edit videos from 10 pm to 2 am.
“I would spend five hours per day, five days per week to edit one five-minute video.”
— Jay Shetty
Today, Jay can focus on clever work and probably spends most of his time doing things he loves.
In 2015, however, he needed to get the nightshifts in and work his ass off to create his first videos. Back then, he couldn’t afford to pay experts who’d do the work for him. Today, he can.
You’re likely starting where Jay Shetty, and many more big names of the content creation industry, started: Your business is a side-project, you don’t have much time, you can’t pay experts to do the work, and you don’t really know how things work.
And believe it or not, the only way to move forward when you start at that position is by working hard and doing the reps.
If your business is a one-person show, you don’t have the expertise yet, and can’t afford to pay for someone’s expertise, you need to spend your time reading, learning, trying, and failing.
That’s not efficient and it’ll probably not feel productive, but it’s the only path to mastery if you’re starting from scratch.
There’s nothing more beautiful than working on something that’s yours and making an effort to become better at it.
Be aware that the glamorous pictures you might see on Instagram are just a tiny excerpt of reality.
If you look behind the scenes, you’ll realize that all your favorite entrepreneurs started by doing the shitty work until they could move forward, build a team, and work smart.
Don’t be ashamed of doing the hard work until you can switch to working smart.
In the end, it’s the process that shapes our personality and skills.