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A few tips to help you work smarter, not harder

Hello again! It’s me: your favorite grammarian, creative leader, and writing buddy. And now I add yet another title to the mix: in-recovery over-functioner.

What does that mean? Well, I just made it up, so allow me to explain…

I’ve always been a hard worker. It’s part of my ethos. I’m driven. I push myself. And throughout my life—through college exams, all-night study sessions, endless fire drills at work—hard work has been what I rely upon to achieve my goals and garner success.

But sometimes I can take that hard work too far. Stressed about a certain deliverable? Keep working on it. New challenges on the horizon? Stretch further. Worried about x, y, or z? Dig in deeper. Juggle more balls. Work harder.

Sound unsustainable and maybe a little unhealthy? That’s because it is.

Hard work is incredibly valuable. But, I’m here to say with experience, “hard” isn’t the only kind of work, nor is it the best way to work. When we only focus on “working hard” we tend to spread ourselves too thin and risk burn out. And when our heads are always down, just “working hard to get it done” we miss opportunities to get it done smarter.

I was an over-functioner, but I’m—and excuse the irony—working hard to put that behind me and focus on working smarter and more effectively. As I change the way I approach my work, I see new opportunities arise. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve become a better leader.

So, if you’re anything like me and you’re a self-identified over-functioner, take a look at these tips I’ve learned to help give myself space and work a whole lot smarter.

1. Get crisp on what your role is, and what your role isn’t

Another (perhaps more elegant) way to put this is to understand what is in your sphere of influence. Or, you could take a page out of Ron Swanson’s book and know that it’s better to whole-ass one thing than half-ass two (Parks and Rec, anyone?). When I’m over-functioning, I pay too much attention to the challenges in my peripheral vision, instead of focusing on the opportunities right in front of me. Try to center yourself on your key priorities, and let the rest become background noise (for at least the moment). From there, you can take more on as you go.

2. Ask yourself: is this my problem to solve?

When I’m over-functioning, I’ll jump to solve a problem—any problem—even if I’m not sure it’s even mine to solve. This doesn’t mean that I recommend just shutting your eyes, plugging your ears, and ignoring the challenges around you. But, you should take a step back and think about how you want to strategically influence change. And remember: the burden is not yours to carry alone. Invite smart people to the problem-solving table. And lean on leaders to help escalate and drive change forward, with you as support.

3. Don’t just do it

I’m a writer. And a leader of other writers. So when I review work and see something I could fix or improve or rewrite, my fingers literally twitch to just take the damn thing and make the changes myself. In the moment, this is likely the fastest option. It avoids back and forth, and coaching—which we all know takes time. But while in the moment this might be faster, it’s not helping you in the long run. Take a moment to help the other writer/teammate understand where you think the work could be improved. Empower them to own the changes. And then, next time, they won’t make the same mistakes again.

4. Be a mentor

This piggybacks off the previous point. One of the most valuable tools I have in my “over-functioning-recovery-tool-chest” is my team. Invest in your people, upskilling them in ways that help alleviate burden from your own plate. As they grow, you can take on less; or look for new opportunities for your own growth.

5. Know when to stretch

Let me be clear: working smart doesn’t mean that you never stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone or limitations. But it means you make strategic choices about when you stretch, for what, and why. The stretching happens on your terms. And when that happens, you can make purposeful choices about when to take on more or bigger opportunities to further your aspirations and growth.

I hope some of these tips have helped you guys discover new ways to approach your work. Stay smart out there, my friends!

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