Work Harder, Not Smarter

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Don’t you have that backwards, Ken?” Shouldn’t you be telling me to “work smarter, not harder”?

I get it. One of the most cherished business clichés on our Cherished Business Cliché List is, “Work smarter, not harder.” Hardly a week goes by in which we do not encounter this aphorism in one form or another.

I would have to say that in most situations, this is sage advice. Cliché’s may be tiresome, but they normally contain a kernel of truth in them. If we can do something more efficiently with the same or better return for our effort, then that is indeed working smarter. Of course, whether we follow this advice in any given situation is another question altogether. But it’s still something worth striving for.

The problem occurs when we try to work smarter on things that require more effort and time to realize a return.

Like learning, for instance.


Here’s a news flash. Thinking is hard. This explains why people avoid it. I’m as guilty as anyone, if not even more so. I remember my dad admonishing me on more than one occasion with a single-word command: “Think!”

Like most people, I want things to be easy. I suppose there’s no virtue in making things more difficult than they need to be, but even when simplified and “easified”, most of the things we encounter in life just don’t go very smoothly.

Learning is no exception. We marvel at people that are adept at picking things up, that seem to acquire knowledge in the same way most of us acquire extra pounds over the holidays: effortlessly. We look at those folks and think, “Why not me?”

It’s especially frustrating because many of us (guilty!) remember things that are of no importance whatsoever. I can quote movies that I saw when I was a child, I can recall stupid comments I and my brothers made 50 years ago, but I can’t remember basic syntax in languages I’ve used for years. It is most frustrating.

We try to alleviate our frustration by searching for a magic formula, a process that will enable us to learn in our sleep, or at least make things easier than they are. We read blog posts, we watch videos, we listen to recordings. We try to figure out “how we learn.” If we decide we’re visual learners we abandon reading to exclusively watch videos. Maybe we hate reading anyway, so this works out perfectly. Or we’re auditory learners, so we focus on listening to audio books.

Play Fetch

This is where I deliver bad news.

There is no way to make learning easy. There is no 5-step process I can give you that will suddenly make you able to effortlessly remember what you study.

If you want to recall what you’ve learned, then you’ll need to…um…recall it.

You’ll need to play fetch.

What experiments by cognitive psychologists have shown, in hundreds of studies across a diverse spectrum of subjects, is that the most effective thing you can do to remember information is to practice recalling it from memory.

This is more effective than reading the same text over and over again. It’s more effective than underlining and highlighting as you read. It’s more effective than going over and over your notes.

It’s more effective than anything else you can do.

I know. Not what you wanted to hear. We want it to be easy. We want to avoid the mental exertion of thinking. It’s just too hard.


What Now

Once we’re done whining, we might wonder to ourselves, “How do I apply this?”

Here are a couple of things you might try the next time you attempt to learn something new (or relearn something you once knew):

If you do this once or twice, you probably won’t notice much difference. It’s only as you purposefully apply recall to your learning for a period of time that you notice your retention improving.

No Royal Road

The ancient Greek mathematician, Euclid, is famous for developing the system of geometry we refer to as plane geometry or, in his honor, Euclidean. Working in the third century BCE, he wrote his Elements, one of the most influential books in all of history, a monumental work that has endured to the present day. He lived in Alexandria, and so drew the attention of the ruler, Ptolemy I, who was fascinated by this new area of knowledge, but was daunted by the sheer volume of learning it entailed. He famously wrote to Euclid, asking if there was some short-cut he could take to acquire knowledge of geometry. Euclid’s reply is equally famous:

There is no royal road to geometry.

What Euclid told the king about geometry applies equally to learning in general:

There is no royal road to learning.

It takes effort, and the worst kind of mental effort: recalling from memory without notes or prompts. And this effort is not just an unfortunate byproduct of the process. It’s what makes learning stick.

You’ll be working harder, but you’ll be getting smarter!