How a 63-year-old Tool Helps Me Work Smarter


DEC. 10, 2017

Work smarter, not harder.

To some, that sentence is an insightful piece of wisdom, while others consider it a tired, overused cliché. In my office we’ll sometimes toss it around when we want to tease a co-worker who tends to put in a lot of extra hours. “You stayed how late last night? Man, you gotta work smarter, not harder! Hey, put down that stapler...”

Work smarter. It’s good advice, but it doesn’t paint the entire picture. There’s one crucial piece missing: how, exactly, do you determine a smarter way of working? It’s like telling someone to come to your house, but not giving them an address or any directions. “Meet me at my place at 7. You can figure out how to get there, right? Don’t be late!”

And when I’m drowning in work, with a strict deadline breathing down my neck, the last thing I want to hear is my boss saying, “You’re working too hard. You really need to work smarter.”


Work Hard to Work Smart

As we’re fond of saying here at Gnarly, there are no shortcuts to success. If we want to learn to be smarter about how we tackle our tasks, we need put in the effort first.

Part of working hard is learning how to fail. On a whiteboard in my office someone recently wrote, “Lose a little, learn a lot.” It makes sense, because, like comedian Steve Harvey once said, “Failure is a great teacher.” And just to pile on a bit more wisdom, from some guy you might have heard of named Nelson Mandela: “I never lose. I either win or I learn.”

All this comes down to the fact that we need to rub our noses against that spinning grindstone and keep it there, as painful as it may be. As we keep pushing through our endless series of tasks, taking risks and making mistakes and (hopefully) learning from them, better paths and shortcuts will come to light. Every mistake, every failure, every loss holds the opportunity to learn and become better. We just have to look at it the right way.

A strong work ethic isn’t the only way to work better. Tools can help, too. 

Dwight Eisenhower was the president of the United States for two terms, from 1953 to 1961. He’d also served in the military as a five-star general, was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and later became the first Supreme Commander of NATO. These are just a few of his world-changing accomplishments, so you can assume he was pretty darned good at getting stuff done.

One of Eisenhower’s favourite tools for maximizing his productivity was a decision tool that eventually became known as the Eisenhower Box. Take a look:

This box though, we call the "Gnarly Grid".

This box though, we call the "Gnarly Grid".

Eisenhower used this decision matrix to divide his tasks into four categories:

1) Urgent and important: Do it now

2) Important but not urgent: Decide when to do it later

3) Urgent but not important: Delegate it to someone else

4) Neither urgent nor important: Delete the task from the list

This system can be used on both large, time-spanning projects (like figuring out how to work on a design project over the next week), as well as small, more immediate tasks (like what I should tackle over the next couple of hours before I call it a night).

The next time I sit down and start working on something, I can run my potential tasks through the Eisenhower Box and find a more efficient way to use my time. Basically, the box simply helps me figure out: “Do I really need to be doing this right now?”

The Eisenhower Box simplifies decision making, which ties into the Pareto Principle. This principle dictates that roughly 80% of what we accomplish comes from only 20% of what we’re actually doing. When I use the box to figure out what those 20% tasks are, I can end up accomplishing a lot more.


I Can See (My Goals) Clearly Now

Another useful way to work more efficiently is to clarify my goals. This helps me be more deliberate with my time, by motivating me to focus on the work that will eventually lead to what I really want to accomplish.

After I’ve put my son to sleep for the night, do I spend the next two precious, irreplaceable hours watching Netflix or working on the first draft of my novel? Since completing the first draft is a very important goal for me, a goal that I want to accomplish within the next year, the choice is pretty clear. Of course, there will be the odd time when I watch the odd YouTube video or five (I am human), but I try to make sure those tidbits of entertainment happen after I’ve accomplished my work for the night.

To keep me honest, I use a simple tracker in my journal. I mark spaces for every day of the month, and every night that I do some writing I draw a little dot. This makes it easy to see, at a glance, how consistently I’ve been working towards my goal.

It also helps if I imagine what my future self might think, looking back at the past (which is my present). Years in the future, when I look at what I’ve accomplished and how I spent my time working towards my goals, I’d much prefer to gaze at my finished project rather than feel regret about how much time I wasted on mindless entertainment that didn’t get me anywhere.

So maybe the advice needs to be tweaked a bit. Instead of “work smarter, not harder,” we should change it to “work harder to work smarter.” As long as we put in the effort, keep learning from our mistakes, and look for better ways to get things done, a smarter way to work is just around the corner.


Written by Paul Meen Park
Gnarly Grid by Tak
Published Dec. 10, 2017

Feature image:  Alex Kotliarskyi