How to Work Smarter, Not Harder


Words by Paula Coogan
April 23rd, 2018

We hear the phrase “work smarter, not harder” all the time, but what does it actually mean? Often it conjures up tips and tricks to manage our time better but I have some shocking news for you- we cannot manage time!

We try so hard to manage our time when really it is an impossible task. We all have 24 hours in the day and no one can change this. Instead, we can learn to manage our tasks and manage other people, and the key to this is to start by learning to manage ourselves and most importantly, our energy.

Managing Ourselves

When it comes to learning how to manage ourselves, the most important thing that we can do is learn how to manage our own energy. This is a really interesting learning piece as no two people are the same in terms of what works for them with regards to energy management.

We have four levels of energy. At the very bottom of our energy pyramid, we have spiritual energy.

Spiritual Energy – This is the energy of meaning and purpose and everything else is resting upon it. This is our foundation.

This is all about why are you here? What is driving you? What do you love to do? What do you do best? What do you enjoy doing? This is time allocated to family, friends, purposeful work, helping others, learning and growth. Time spent investing in this energy level replenishes it.

If we don’t invest in this energy level, we sap it and it has a knock-on effect on our other energy levels. So ask yourself these questions:

-How often do I invest in replenishing this energy level?

-What renewing rituals could you develop to help you replenish your spiritual energy? What works for you?

Examples: Reading, writing, travelling, exploring, learning, finding out about other people, cooking, baking, listening to music, spending quality time with people you care about, being listened to, gratitude list, watching meaningful films, appreciating the value you bring to other people, yoga, being in nature, de-cluttering, cleaning, rewards and celebrations.

When our spiritual energy is full and/or replenished, it has a positive knock-on effect up to our emotional energy. We feel more positive, confident and stronger.

Emotional Energy – This is all about how you feel on a day to day basis. Ask yourself:

-How do you feel most of the time, positive or negative?

-What triggers your positive emotional states?

-What triggers your negative emotional states?

-What renewing rituals could you develop to help you replenish your spiritual energy? What works for you?

Examples: Sleep, music, movement, dancing, crying, inspirational talks, ted talks, having a shower, spending time with people who will lift your spirits, hugs, sex, chocolate, massage, exercise, walks, yoga, boundaries, food, animals, cooking, sunshine and daylight, managing thoughts, aromatherapy (smell in general), comedy, personal development.

When our emotional energy is full and/or replenished, it has a positive knock-on effect on our physical energy. Again, we feel more positive, confident and stronger in our ability to get things done and make things happen.

Physical Energy – This is all about ensuring that you refuel the energy within your body. This is doing a reality check to see whether or not you are supporting yourself in terms of looking after your physical energy. Be honest outlining your patterns. Ask yourself:

-How do you feel most of the time, energetic or tired?

-What are your patterns i.e. your ways of operating in terms of your eating patterns, exercise patterns, sleep patterns etc.?

-What renewing rituals could you develop to help you replenish your physical energy? What works for you?

Examples: Proper nutrition, no skipping meals, ensuring you get all vitamins including Vitamin D (15 mins of daylight per day), exercise, 20 minute nap, breathing, good quality sleep, good sleeping patterns, early bedtime, relaxation in the evening, stretching, yoga, shower, bath, massage, plenty of water, clean physical environment- free from clutter, calming colours, plants etc.

When our physical energy is full and/or replenished, it has a positive knock-on effect up to our mental energy. We are able to concentrate more, focus, think clearly, make better decisions, make the most of the time available and minimise distractions!


Managing Our Tasks

Mental Energy – This is all about our ability to concentrate, think clearly, make decisions and minimise distractions. Basically, it is about managing our brain. We often forget though that our brain needs food, vitamins, water, sleep and downtime!

-What renewing rituals could you develop to help you replenish your mental energy? What works for you? For example, setting time frames, managing other people, managing tasks, scheduling your priorities, making lists and celebrating task completion, Sudoku, asking for help, rewards, calendar, diary, Post Its, ensuring spiritual, emotional and physical energies are nurtured!

-Make a list of all the things that you need to do in the next 7 days (professional and personal).

Now the question is, what are your priorities?

“Don’t prioritise your schedule, schedule your priorities.” – Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey is a thought leader in effectiveness and productivity. He noticed that a lot of people had lists of ‘stuff’ that they ‘needed’ to do in a given day and what the majority of people would tend to do is to try and prioritise and fit all this stuff into their day. The end result was that your to-do list was never done and that generally speaking, people would then have negative thoughts about themselves, beat themselves up and give themselves a hard time because they didn’t get everything done. Stephen Covey thought this was madness and he developed the following matrix.

Quadrant 1: Important and urgent. These are the most pressing tasks that we need to get done this week. These are the crises that erupt. The most urgent meetings or deadlines fall into this category. When we’re fire-fighting and reacting, it’s all relating to stuff in this quadrant.

Quadrant 2: Urgent but not important. These tasks are the biggest reason we’re not more successful in the long-term. They clog up our time today but when we look back at these things at the end of the week, often we can admit they were a waste of time. These are interruptions that happen, such as phone calls, emails, people dropping in. These are poorly thought-out meetings that take up our time but which we have to attend because we already accepted the invite. These are other activities which we tell ourselves in the moment that we must do but — if we stopped ourselves to really think about — we’d realise they aren’t that important.

Quadrant 3: Important but not urgent. These are the things that matter in the long-term but will yield no tangible benefits this week or even this year. They are things we know we need to get to but probably will push off. It’s going to the gym, getting healthy food rather than a takeaway tonight. It’s having a lunch with an important contact or client. It’s relationship-building with the people that are important. It’s long-term planning and organisation.

Quadrant 4: Not important and not urgent. These things we do because we feel like we’re tired and need a break. It’s watching TV until we’re numb at the end of the day. It’s checking and rechecking Facebook and emails during the day just in case we might miss something. We prioritise these things in the moment and obviously derive some pleasure from them, but they are really not urgent or important. Yet, we’d be amazed how much time we waste in a given week on these tasks.

If you’re like most people, what you’ll quickly realise is that you’ve only been spending time on urgent tasks each week. It’s a constant fire drill. You’re simply trying to get one thing off your plate, so you can breathe for half a second and get to the next emergency to get off your plate.

If I was to stop and ask you whether the way you’re spending your time on these urgent tasks is helping you to get to your long-term goals, you’d probably say, “No, but I just need to get this stuff done and out of the way so that I have the time to do the things I want to do.” Only, guess what? You’re like a hamster on the wheel. You’ll never clear up time on your schedule when you keep focusing on firefighting! You’re working so hard, but it’s definitely not the smartest approach.

So, a challenge for you!

1. Each week, ensure that you have replenishing activities in your diary for all of your energy levels and hold it as a priority! Without this piece in place, you’ll always be feeling like you’re behind!

2. At the start of every week, grab a blank sheet of paper and draw out the matrix with its four quadrants. On a separate sheet of paper, write out everything that you want to do that week. If you simply spend 20 minutes at the beginning of each week thinking about these four quadrants and what you want to accomplish in the coming week, you will be 10x more productive than you usually are.

Remember, the key is “not to prioritise your schedule, but to schedule your priorities”. And that includes you!



Paula Coogan is the founder of The Quarter Life Coach – a vibrant career and life coaching company aimed at empowering women in their 20s and 30s to practice courage, figure out their true desires both personally and professionally and then, to make it happen.

Her work is delivered through several live group programs and Masterminds including Career Breakthrough Mastermind and The Wisdom Circle. She also works one-on-one with clients who are ready for big transitions in their relationships, careers and businesses.