In Defense of Hard Work: Four Reasons Why “Work Smarter, Not Harder” Is Poor Advice

“Work smarter, not harder.” – Allen F. Morgenstern, American Industrial engineer and work simplification program developer

If there’s one business aphorism I guarantee every single one of you has heard and/or read, probably too many times, it’s “Work smarter, not harder.” It’s the kind of advice Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss loves to give, because it sounds good, and he doesn’t have to know what it means.

When Allen Morgenstern first formulated the idea in the 1930s, it was useful and valuable, especially in his field of industrial engineering. Manufacturing was in its heyday; Morgenstern and other efficiency experts were hard at work transforming the mess and horror of the Industrial Revolution, per Sinclair’s The Jungle, into a workable system that maintained productivity while treating workers fairly. Today, however, the concept has become such an integral part of the fabric of the American workplace that it’s like reminding someone to breathe. It’s a necessary thing, and sometimes you really do need to return to first principles; however, pointing it out repeatedly dilutes its impact. Worse, as commonly used, it’s meaningless. It doesn’t apply to every endeavor; in some fields, there are things “working smarter” can’t fix, at least until we invent magical technology like Star Trek‘s transporters.

Here are a few other reasons “work harder, not smarter” is poor advice, at least for modern workers:

  1. It establishes a false dichotomy. As typically stated, this piece of advice makes it sound like can you choose one or the other, which anyone with any experience at all knows is false. Working harder and working smarter are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, most jobs require you to do both to be effective. Training tends to emphasize the latest and most advanced “smarter” ways to do the job, whether technological or cultural, ingraining it in the worker from the beginning.
  2. We’re already working smarter. The last few generations, from the Greatest on through to whatever we’re calling the post-Millennials today, practically have “work smarter” inscribed in their genes. It just makes sense; it’s intuitive. You don’t really have to tell reflective, logical people this, but somehow, it’s become one of those tepid phrases you see on kitschy motivational posters. We’re already working smarter wherever we can in this tech-happy culture of ours. It is a given. Why else would we mob the Evernotes, IMs, cloud storages, lean work, time-management schemas, and other handy new technologies and processes whenever they pop up?
  3. It devalues hard work. The statement itself seems to make hard work less important than smart work. Sometimes it’s true; a new approach may in fact diminish the need to work harder, though given the nature of American productivity, any hard work “saved” will be used for something else. But usually, just working smarter isn’t enough. Most of us know we must work both smart AND hard to become even moderately successful, despite popular quick-fix concepts suggesting otherwise; anything else is fantasy. The most successful people in business not only work smarter, they put in very long hours. Most top executives get up by 5 AM every morning and may not be home before 7 PM. This is also true in many smaller “mom-and-pop” businesses. If you’re not already working harder and smarter, why not?
  4. It leaves other important stuff out of the equation. Work doesn’t reduce just to working harder or smarter, or even both. Other important influencers include creativity (remember the old story about Henry Ford’s “idea man”), collaboration, vision, luck, and perhaps most important, doing the right things right. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard you work to climb Mount Everest if your manager only wanted you to climb Pike’s Peak. You’ve done it wrong.

Smarter. Harder.

Having seen the plethora of “how to work smarter, not harder” articles out there — there are plenty just for 2019 alone—I know I’m going against the flow when I say “Work harder, not smarter” isn’t the best advice. My advice? Continue to adopt the best ways to do things, AND work hard!

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

Here’s what others are saying:

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland



  1. Laura, you are so correct that work smarter, not harder devaluates hard work and It leaves other important stuff out of the equation. And we know there are ALWAYS important unexpected issues that come to light when doing a project. These variables must be tackled and ironed out before proceeding with completion. Life, ideas, social norms are constantly evolving. I actually cringe every time I hear this phrase. Thank you for being brave enough to address this outdated and vacuous aphorism.

  2. Shawn Santistevan says:

    I’m gonna have to strongly disagree here. In my work experience, most people running the show are narcissistic and want things done THEIR WAY, even in situations where you’re able to show them “there is a smart, easier, faster, etc way to do this task”. They can’t possibly be shown a better way because it gets in the way of that narcissistic need for control and to always be right.

    • Working hard doesn’t mean you dismiss smarter ways of working though. I think smarter ways of working comes with wisdom and knowledge of what you are trying to achieve. Sometimes it’s a necessity to work hard, not narcissistic.