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3 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

Reassess and recalibrate instead of bulldozing through your to-do list.

Key points

  • On average, one study found that workers in private office or cabin workstations were more focused.
  • Strong work relationships can often serve a person better than being the hardest worker in the office.
  • A toxic workplace can lead to a cycle of underperformance, failure, and overwork.
Ben White / Unsplash
Ben White / Unsplash

Many people come to therapy questioning why, despite all their hard work, they feel like they get nothing accomplished. They doubt their self-worth and say things like:

  • “I put in the hours yet get no results. Am I a failure?”
  • “I struggle through my work while everyone else seems to just get it. Why do I perform worse even though I work harder?”
  • “As soon as I start my work, my motivation plummets. Am I just meant to achieve the bare minimum?”

Sometimes, pushing harder to make things work is not the answer. Hard work has been romanticized to such a degree in our society that we forget to think about how we can get more done with less effort.

Here are three small changes you can make to boost your productivity in ways that don’t involve running yourself into the ground.

1. Align your workstation to your personality.

Factoring in your personality traits when setting up your workstation can create a stable and supportive foundation for your workday. If you find yourself being distracted frequently and unnecessarily tense when you are working, it might be time to tinker with your workstation setup.

A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality conducted real-time and general surveys of 231 federal workers about their personalities and workstation environments. On average, the study found that workers in private office/cabin workstations were more focused. More specifically, the study reported that open bench seating facilitated happiness and focus for extroverted personalities but was detrimental to the focus levels of anxious personalities.

If your personality is sensitive to distractions, consider finding a quiet spot to work in or invest in products that help you block out irrelevant stimuli, like noise-canceling headphones.

Making small, personality-based adjustments (like having more natural light or a no-clutter desk) can have powerful, positive effects on your productivity. Remember that changing your workstation is far easier and more practical than trying to change your personality.

2. Hack your imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome, or the unsubstantiated belief that you are not as good at your job as others think you are, affects 65 percent of the workforce today, according to a 2021 survey conducted by global online sampling firm InnovateMR.

This belief is known widely to limit people’s potential by chipping away at their self-esteem and confidence. But what if you made it work for you?

Research published in the Academy of Management Journal confirms that feelings of inadequacy (like imposter syndrome) can make people lean into being more personable with their colleagues and clients. This instinct can help you build strong relationships with your co-workers and superiors, a necessary step to grow professionally.

Honest discussions with your collaborators about your (and possibly their) situation can open channels of communication with people who can teach you the tricks of the trade. Strong work relationships have the potential to serve you even better than proving that you are the hardest worker in the office.

3. Rethink your work environment.

People tend to stick it out in toxic workplaces for far longer than they should, and the costs can include poor sleep, difficulty concentrating, and an increased vulnerability to mental and physical ailments.

According to recent guidance issued by the U.S. Surgeon General, a toxic work environment is characterized by:

  1. Long work hours
  2. Limited autonomy
  3. Low wages

It’s important to admit to yourself that your underperformance might be a result of your toxic workplace. It can help you break the vicious cycle of overworking yourself, not achieving your targets, and working even harder as a result. No amount of hard work can make you feel productive or fulfilled in a toxic workplace.

In such cases, prioritizing your health, looking for alternative workplaces, and contributing only what you can at work can help you restore your spirit, creativity, and productivity.


Taking your foot off the gas pedal can seem counterintuitive when you want to be more productive. But working hard with no reassessment can lead to burnout. To achieve long-term productivity, strategize your efforts and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

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