Productivity: Working Smart vs. Working Hard

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

-Thomas Edison


Productivity and accomplishment are very different from simply doing busy work.


Pointless, ineffectual busy work is often mistaken for productivity and accomplishment.


This is something I’m guilty of committing for years. I hope to present my discoveries to you and present a different perspective.


Working Smart vs. Working Hard

The goal of work should be to produce or accomplish something. To paraphrase what Tom said, this requires planning, forethought, routines, and focused effort. I consider this working smart. The Sprinter’s and Marathon Mentalities are two methods of working smart. Both mentalities are well suited for different specific tasks, and each has different flaws and effectiveness requirements.


Working hard is very subjective. You may feel like you’re giving it your all, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re working optimally towards the results you want.


Working hard can very easily just lead to mindless busy work that doesn’t get you anywhere: The Treadmill Mentality.


I consider working hard to be running on a treadmill, and working smart to be running towards a destination. They both require the same amount of effort, but one will get you where you need to be and the other will get you nowhere.


The Sprinter’s Mentality

Humans generally function at their best by having periods of intense, focused activity broken up by periods of rest. From an evolutionary perspective, humans developed to rest and be still most of the time, then start moving all out to run away from a wild animal or run after something.


The Sprinter’s Mentality works best for learning activities, such as doing homework, studying, research, or practicing a skill like playing the guitar. It is also best for any kind of problem solving/troubleshooting activity.


The Sprinter’s Mentality involves cycling between intense periods of focused activity and planned intervals of rest.


The Pomodoro technique is a popular way of implementing The Sprinter’s Mentality and maximizing productivity. To use the technique:

  1. Start work for 25 minutes.
  2. Rest for 3-5 (5) minutes. That’s one cycle. Return to step 1. Repeat the cycle 3 more times.
  3. After 4 cycles, take a longer 15-30 (25) minute break, then return to step 1 and repeat.
  4. Shoot for 8-12 cycles in a day, which equates 4-6 hours of work.


The work and break times can vary, but the Pomodoro technique is a good benchmark to build from.



  • Work on one specific task or activity for a single 25 minute session. If the specific task requires idle waiting, such as waiting for a file to download, switching to another task is acceptable.
  • The 25 minute work session must be done with absolute focus and commitment with no breaks. Only stop for emergencies like going to the bathroom or leaving for a fire drill.
  • During rest sessions, don’t check email or social media or even go on your phone at all. Don’t think about your work at all. These activities still require mental effort and create the illusion of work. Stretch, walk around, or get a snack during rest sessions.


You can either use a timer on your phone for the work and rest sessions, or you can download one of several free Pomodoro apps if you own a smartphone.


Also, plan your day to have a period of rest and temporary detachment from your duties and responsibilities. Devote the rest of the day to committed, focused effort on your work.


For me, I am fully engaged and energized, until 1 to 2 pm when I hit a major slump in energy. I make this 1 hour period my rest time, where I completely detach myself from what I need to do that day, relax, recharge my batteries, and attack the rest of my day with renewed vigor.


Keep track of your energy levels throughout the day to see when you’re fully energized, and when you hit a point of sluggishness. The point of sluggishness is an ideal rest period.



The main difficulty of The Sprinter’s Mentality is that people are unaccustomed to it. We’re usually taught to use The Marathon Mentality, or its ineffective cousin The Treadmill Mentality. We start a task and keep working until completion or until another obligation requires us to stop. Taking a planned break in a day is generally frowned upon in and viewed as laziness in our society.


The Sprinter’s Mentality requires discipline and planning to maximize its effectiveness. It takes discipline to work with absolute focus and commitment for 25 minutes, rest and completely detach for 3-5 minutes, and then repeat. It also takes discipline to not work beyond the set 25 minutes and to not extend a break past the set 3-5 minutes. This mentality requires careful planning: when to rest, when to work, and how long to do both.


Here’s another post that goes into greater detail on The Sprinter’s Mentality.


The Marathon Mentality

In contrast, The Marathon Mentality is working at a consistent and focused pace constantly.


The Marathon Mentality is best suited for creative-related work, like writing a novel, creating a PowerPoint presentation, or general brainstorming of ideas. Creative endeavors require an extended period of time to come up with and refine ideas.


Most people are familiar with The Marathon Mentality. Just sit down and start working on something and keep going until you’re done.


The Marathon Mentality still requires planning and discipline to be effective.



A flaw with the marathon mentality is that humans generally have a hard time maintaining focus for an extended time period (i.e. an entire day), even if the focus isn’t fully committed. That focus will falter sooner or later, and it takes tremendous discipline to use The Marathon Mentality. The Sprinter’s Mentality better caters to natural human behavioral patterns.


The marathon mentality also creates the illusion of unlimited time. You have the entire day to finish your homework, you have an entire month to write your paper, you have a week before the test, etc. It takes planning and a structured schedule to avoid this.


Both of these flaws easily lead to procrastination and The Treadmill Mentality.


Here’s another post that goes into greater detail on The Marathon Mentality.


The Treadmill Mentality

The Treadmill Mentality is best shown by a college student who devotes an entire day to homework and studying, but spends at least half the day mindlessly watching YouTube videos and consuming social media. They rationalize this wasted time and mental effort as taking a break. Instead of having planned, brief breaks like in The Sprinter’s Mentality, these breaks occur randomly and can last for as long as they want.


This mentality is defined by procrastination, distraction, and a lack of discipline or planning. 


The main issue with The Treadmill Mentality is that these breaks create the illusion of work. It still requires a degree of focus and mental exertion to read through social media and watch YouTube videos. In your mind, you’re working hard constantly with no breaks like The Marathon Mentality, but you’re not getting anywhere. I used The Treadmill Mentality because it created the illusion of work and progress towards completion of my goals, even though I wasn’t progressing at all.


College students who seem to spend entire afternoons or entire days studying, but still under-perform, are followers of this mentality. Just like running on a treadmill, this mentality involves effort that ultimately doesn’t get you anywhere.


The worst consequence of the treadmill method is that you end up half-assing everything. When you’re lazing around on social media or YouTube, you can’t fully enjoy it because you’re still thinking of the work you need to get done, which keeps gnawing away at the back of your mind while you’re on break. When you’re actually doing your work, you have difficulty concentrating since you kept expending mental energy and you keep thinking about when to have another break.


You end up half-assing everything.


Another consequence is that you have less overall time available. As a college student, you could be involved in sports, you could have a part-time/full-time job, you may want to find internships and entry-level positions, and/or you could be involved in clubs or student organizations. You’ll most likely have other obligations. You don’t have time to devote an entire afternoon or day to a task that should only take a few hours.


It’s common for someone on the treadmill to dilly-dally until the last minute. This time constraint forces this person to work efficiently and they transition to the marathon: cramming for a test the night before, writing a paper in 2 days, or doing an all-nighter.


Here’s another post that goes into greater detail on The Treadmill Mentality.


From The Treadmill to The Marathon

Here are good practices to successfully implement The Marathon Mentality:


Plan set end times. For example, a day that starts at 8 am should have an end time at noon for lunch. You restart at 12:30 pm, and you could set another end time for 6 pm. One of the main perils of the marathon is the illusion of abundant time: “you have a month to write the paper,” “you have all day to do your homework,” etc. This illusion leads to procrastination.


Time constraints prevent procrastination. 


Remove distractions from your immediate environment during work. Shut off your phone if it keeps distracting you. Only have essentials in your work environment, like pen and paper. Many writers and authors are at their most productive past midnight.


Because everyone else is asleep = no distractions. 


Focus on one thing at a time.


Effective multi-tasking is a myth. To paraphrase Sun Tzu: he who tries to do everything ends up doing nothing.


If you’re a student studying for a test, only study for one class at a time and only have the materials you need for that one class out in front of you. I also don’t recommend eating while you work because of the inherent distraction.


Music is very helpful for maintaining focus for an extended period of time. This is a technique I learned from “Tools of Titans”, by Tim Ferriss:


Instead of listening to an entire track of different songs, listen to one or two albums repeatedly. 


I personally listen to “No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper, an album used in Rocky IV. This practice of listening to the same album repeatedly helps you maintain focus. 


From The Treadmill to The Sprint

The best way to implement The Sprinter’s Mentality is to use The Pomodoro Technique. It’ll be difficult at first to maintain focus for the work sessions. The best way to transition to this mentality is to be strict with your rest times first. It’s easier to rest than to work. During rest times, don’t do any work, don’t use your phone or any electronics. During rest times, walk around, stretch, and/or get a snack.


You will gradually become more productive and focused during your work sessions if you are strict with your rest sessions. Aim for at least 8 Pomodoro cycles in a day.


Final Thoughts

The Sprinter’s Mentality is well-suited for most activities because it caters to natural human behavioral traits, especially to learning activities like studying or researching.


The Marathon Mentality is not as effective for most activities due to human behavioral traits. It is an ideal method for creative activities like writing, creating a presentation or work of art, and general brainstorming. It is also very effective when there is a clear, rigid time constraint.


Both mentalities require discipline and planning to be effective.


The Treadmill Mentality is terrible for anyone in any walk of life. It is never a viable option.


Remember: work smarter, not harder. Running towards a destination and running in place on a treadmill both require the same amount of effort. One will get you where you want to be and the other won’t get you anywhere.


This is my first blog post in my Productivity series. I’d appreciate it if you left a comment down below of your thoughts, and if you haven’t already, sign up for my free newsletter. More blog posts on this topic coming soon.


All the best,



Thumbnail Image by Tim Gouw

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