setting SMART goals to work smarter, not harder

Author: J.J.

Work Smarter, Not Harder in Japan

Japan is known for work. It’s a country made up of hard workers, group workers, and… ugh, over-workers. There is this old idea that each man and woman’s perceived value to society is their job and how long they served their company. It can be traced back to the loyalty of the samurai, where his social status was based on how faithfully he served his lord.

While strong work ethic is admirable, an overemphasis on over-performing has lead to some detrimental results, like death by overwork (過労死, karoushi). Now, the Japanese government and many companies are trying to combat these problems but overwork still remains a topic in the news.

So what about you? What can you do, as an individual in a Japanese company, to not get stuck clocking overtime night after night? Is there a way to achieve a decent work/life balance? Here are a couple of things that I have learned throughout the years, both in the United States and in Japan, that helped me tackle this problem.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

I don’t normally work overtime and when I came to Japan it felt weird being the first to leave the office. There is an expression in Japan for leaving before others: お先に失礼します (osaki ni shitsurei shimasu). Translated it means “please excuse me for leaving you behind.” This phrase made me feel bad, like I was abandoning my team. But after two years of never missing a deadline that feeling went away. Thanks to my ability to gauge projects and some decent self-management, I’ve had a good time working in Japan.

A key skill to have is knowing how much you can accomplish in one day. My six years of experience working alone and on several different sized teams have taught me what I can achieve in a given time. When I receive a project I try to break it down into bite size tasks. Then these tasks are grouped together to become daily targets. If a task is harder than expected that usually means overtime. But personally, going home tends to allow me to think broadly. I have solved a good deal of problems thinking on the train or eating takoyaki in a park.

The end goal is to work smarter. Working smarter means knowing what you are capable of handling. If you can’t handle what you are given then it might be best to dedicate some of your personal time to studying. Two to three hours of weekend researching or creating a simple practice project might end up saving days of teeth grinding and head banging at the office.

Goal Setting and Rewards

We all enjoy rewards. As an American I grew up in a reward based culture: rewards for good grades, athletic performances, and hitting deadlines. In Japanese culture, performance based rewards are few and far between. Bonuses are handed out every year and getting a promotion doesn’t necessarily mean a pay raise. This tends to create stagnation in professional growth and may eventually bleed over to your personal life; “why try if tomorrow is going to be the same.” Before long you might find yourself in an infinite loop where nothing changes.

Setting personal goals can help break out of that toxic loop. But don’t set really long, ambiguous goals. Goals such as “I will master Japanese” or “I will become healthy” don’t have clear cut finish lines and leads to confusion and frustration. They are unquantifiable goals. It’s best to start off small, something to the effect of “I will read a Japanese manga” or “I will eat oatmeal every morning.” These steps are part of an accomplishable roadmap. From there it is just finding the next small step.

At every step try to treat yourself. Me, I love food. I have an ever growing list of cafes, burger joints, and chocolate eateries I want to try around Tokyo. Every time I hit a goal I splurge for a jumbo chocolate milkshake or a parfait. While eating them it is fun to reflect on what was accomplished. The positive thinking and goal setting can transfer over to your professional life and may open some doors down the line.


Everybody is different. Each one of us tackles chores, responsibilities, personal growth, and our professions in a different way. What works for me is not the silver bullet for work/life balance, but it may be a start. How do you handle work/life balance? Got some interesting tips? Leave them in the comments!

By J.J.
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.

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