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April Feature: Work Smarter

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What’s does it mean to work smarter vs. to work harder? Let’s first take a look at what it means to be a hard worker? Typically, it means that a person spends a great deal of time dedicated to a specific task, which in turn gains them a high proficiency in that subject. A hard worker is diligent, relentless, and persistent. These are all great qualities to possess in any arena, but at some point working hard as we know it gets exhausting.

The Godfather                                                                                             

Twentieth Century industrial engineer, Allan F. Mogensen, is known as a pioneer for office management and is considered the father of “Work Simplification” in the 1930’s. In his book, Time and motion economy in business (1938), he introduced the theories behind working smarter in the workplace to streamline workflows and simplify processes. He is literally the first person on record to use the phrase, “work smarter, not harder”.                                                                                                   

The concept of the economy of motion is not a foreign one in most educated circles today, specifically in business related fields. While it may not be something a lay person considers in his or her daily life, it certainly doesn’t fall on deaf ears if one were to state that phrase aloud in their presence.

Who you calling lazy?

To be clear, working smart doesn’t mean lazy and working hard doesn’t mean ignorant. The two are not truly independent of one another. Working smart represents a proficiency which can only be accomplished once someone has identified and removed wasted efforts within a work flow that they already know well. Inherently, the person in question needs to be at least somewhat educated in whatever they are trying to accomplish in order to reconfigure a smarter way to work what they have already been working hard in.

   In any martial arts system, it is understood that repetition plays a major role in a practitioner’s success. No matter the style, there tends to be a systematized structure that establishes a student’s level and comprehension in training…belts, ranks, patches, sashes, etc. These achievements represent the amount of hard work a student has put in towards his or her accomplishment as a symbol of pride, of effort, and dedication.

When I earned my first black belt many years ago, I recall being told what I eventually discovered as the most famous martial arts cliché, “A black belt is just a master of basics. Now your journey really begins.” In my 30 years of martial arts training I have yet to meet a black belt who hasn’t been told some version of this phrase. It’s an ominous concept that sounds good but what does it actually mean, and why is it such a universally shared sentiment?


In short it means, “now that you’ve worked hard to get down the essential fundamentals in your training, it is time to learn how to use it better” (aka, smarter). As I continued training into adulthood I became less concerned with the conformity of doing a technique simply because that’s how it is taught. I wanted to streamline all the fluff I learned over the years into skills I could actually use to protect myself in real life.

"By focusing on my economy of each movement, I instantly saw results in how to gauge my initial positioning, when to move, how to react, and what to do with it all."

The Evolution

In my late 20’s, I was invited to work with a group who had each years training in various combative arts. I was the youngest in the group and what stood out most was that they all were really, really good at distancing and timing. I was always pretty quick and skilled, but I was having difficultly feeling accomplished in our combative training because they were just better at recognizing how to move around me…they were simply fighting smarter than I was. It felt like I just entered the Matrix (movie reference), only I wasn’t reading the code correctly. I wanted to be as calm and collected as they were, executing every move with precision and ease. Even though not everything went to plan, they were still so good at adapting and finding new paths to accomplish the goal of the drill: find safety as best as you can.

Economical Training

I watched every move, I studied each tendency, I listened to every comment and I asked questions. Lots of questions. And it all came down to the very same concepts Mogensen introduced in the business world: economy of movement. I had spent so many years simply following directions that I hadn’t put much effort into thinking about the how’s and why’s when something wasn’t working for me. It typically came down to me just thinking I was doing the technique wrong until suddenly I was told it was right. That sounds fine when it’s about pleasing a judge or scoring a point, but when it comes to self-defense it just wasn’t working for me anymore.

By focusing on my economy of each movement, I instantly saw results in how to gauge my initial positioning, when to move, how to react, and what to do with it all.

So now what?

How does this affect what we practice moving forward? By keeping things simple. Only move how and when it is necessary and be proactive in approach instead of reactionary. As we stand against another for an engagement, stand slightly off-center to eliminate options right away. As they come in close we move, stop, or get in and then get out right away. If met with resistance, pay attention to where that resistance comes from. Be adaptable to that energy rather than forcing something to happen that actively doesn’t want to. One cannot apply force in two different directions so consider the push/pull philosophy: “When you push, I pull. When you pull, I push”. Many encounters can be quickly subdued simply by letting the attacker’s intentions work against them in your favor.

Of course this all still needs repetition to become effective and proficient. Nothing comes right away and there is no “get rich quick” scheme to learn. But channel the simple things in our mind and body and everything will fall into place much easier and quicker. Practice slowly at first, with deliberation and flow. Feel for the body’s responses to tell you what to do next. Even try speaking out loud what you are physically doing so you create a mind/body connection.


We often find ourselves out of tune with what our body tries to tell us. When something feels awkward or isn’t working, it is often because we aren’t properly aligned or positioned. In slow practice, we can adjust accordingly and get a better sense of effectiveness. We can also identify what we are doing better. When we practice at live speeds, let the body do its thing. With enough repetition our bodies will act appropriately so let it work or fail. You can consider what worked or didn’t, and why, once the drill is complete.

So keep it simple, folks. Identify the smarter way to accomplish your goal. Go with what works. What works might very well change with more practice but until then, be smart. Don’t spend too much time getting fancy when the real purpose is to be safe. Work smarter and you’ll eventually find that you won’t be working as hard as you once were.

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