Who has outperformed you at work? Who was exceptional at every task, but never worked past 6 pm? Chances are, you remember those who lapped you while you were puffing hard to keep up. It seemed that you were working harder than they were. You worked longer hours, completed more tasks, and attended more meetings. So how did you get beat?
In the data-powered book Great at Work, Morten T. Hansen opens with the story of Natalie; a coworker who outperformed, worked smarter, and achieved more than he did at his first career job. This experience stuck with him. Years later, after a groundbreaking five-year study of more than 5,000 managers and employees, Hansen figured out why Natalie had bested him and what allows individual employees to perform at exceptional levels. The extensive data revealed seven practices that explain a substantial amount of high performance. In this article, we will unpack a key method that Hansen coins Do Less, Then Obsess.
Hansen’s quantitative data found that employees who chose a few critical priorities and channeled all their effort into doing exceptional work in those areas, significantly outperformed those who pursued a wider range of priorities. This finding is significant given the accepted (and expected) tendency to overwork and burnout. However, doing more creates two traps. In the spread-too-thin trap, people cannot allocate enough attention to all they have taken on. In the complexity trap, the energy required to manage all the tasks leads to wasted time and poor execution. These traps show that if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
Doing less sounds great! But of course, just doing less will not lead to exceptional performance. You must pour everything you have into your chosen tasks. This requires prolonged effort and extraordinary attention to detail. Obsession gets a bad rap in our daily lives; often talked about as dangerous or debilitating. However, it can be a productive force if directed with intention.
How to do less and then obsess correctly
Hansen points to three ways you can implement this principle:
Wield the razor
Cut the fat and shave away unnecessary tasks, priorities, committees, steps, metrics, and procedures. Put all your effort into excelling in the remaining activities. You must obsess in those areas to produce exceptional quality. Ask yourself how many tasks can be removed given what you must do to excel to your highest potential. The key is as few as you can, as many as you must.
Tie yourself to the mast
Examine and acknowledge your soft spots of distraction. Devise tactics ahead of time so you’re prepared to resist temptations when they arise. Do you suddenly need a snack when you sit down to work? Set specific snack times and stick to them. Fifteen minutes into a project and you need to check your email? Make it a rule not to check your email for an hour. Discipline is required to master any practice so set yourself up for success.
Say “no” to your boss (even if you are the boss)
More tasks will hurt your performance. You deserve the chance to dedicate all your efforts to excel in a few key areas. You don’t have to be an insecure overachiever or the “yes man.” It takes confidence to realize the path to greatness isn’t about pleasing your boss, or other people all the time. Also, practice makes perfect. Learn the art of saying no and be good at delivering the message.
It takes courage and serious intention to do less in order to achieve more. From CEO to customer service representative to entrepreneur, Hansen’s extensive research in Great at Work shows clearly that the ever-growing trend of “doing more” will not lead you to exceptional performance. Be bold and wield the razor, tie yourself to the mast, and say no to your boss. Be the person to beat every time. The smart way to work is to do less, then obsess.