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Do less & then obsess on what’s left plus six more ways to be a top performer (Review)

great at workThis review first ran in the March 31 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More

By Morten T. Hansen

Simon & Schuster


Here are four things I learned from 18 years of schooling that’ve paid dividends in my career.

In elementary school, I learned a hard lesson about plagiarism. I copied a poem that fooled my Grade 3 teacher into thinking I was the second coming of W.B. Yeats. It was only after reciting the poem to my class and at a school assembly that I confessed my sin. I knew better than to plagiarize my apology letter.

I graduated from high school knowing how to type 120 words a minute and also recognizing that I would never have a head for numbers no matter how hard I studied. My best would never be good enough.

In university, I figured out that you can achieve more by doing less. Not all essays, exams, projects and tests were created equal and I focused my efforts accordingly. It’s an approach that got me on the dean’s honor list, spared me from pulling all-nighters and never left me stressed or burned out.

Morten Hansen would add an important caveat to my lesson learned while attending the Harvard of the North. We should all do less but we must then obsess on whatever’s left.

“Picking a few priorities is only half the equation,” says Hansen, author of Great at Work. “The other half is the harsh requirement that you must obsess over your chosen area of focus to excel. Many people prioritize a few items at work, but they don’t obsess – they simply do less. That’s a mistake.”

Do less and then obsess is one of seven practices that Hansen says are the keys to working smarter and becoming a top performer. The practices were identified through a five-year research project that included studying 5,000 managers and employees.

The research shows that having the self-discipline to stick with doing exceptional work on a handful of priorities will give us the single greatest boost to our performance.

So shave away unnecessary tasks, priorities, committees, steps, metrics and procedures. “Ask how many tasks can I remove, given what I must do to excel? Remember: as few as you can, as many as you as must.”

Fend off distractions and temptations and ask your boss to stop adding to your to-do list. “The path to greatness isn’t pleasing your boss all the time. It’s saying ‘no’ so that you can apply intense effort to excel in a few chosen areas.”

Along with doing less and then obsessing on what’s left, Hansen lists six other performance-enhancing practices:

Redesign your work. “A good redesign delivers more value for the same amount of work done.” Evaluate value by measuring how much others benefit from your work.

Don’t just learn, loop. Learn as you work and seek out informal, rapid feedback. Try new approaches, learn from failure, be curious, don’t fool yourself into believing you know best and constantly experiment.

Match passion with purpose. “If you love what you do, you’ll show up with a certain amount of vigor. And if you also feel that you’re helping other people – that they need you and depend on your contributions – your motivation to excel becomes that much greater.”

Be a forceful champion. Top performers inspire others to lend a hand and have mastered the soft skills of advocacy, teamwork and collaboration.

Fight and unite. Don’t waste time in meetings where issues go unresolved and get put over to subsequent meetings. “When teams have a good fight in their meetings, team members debate the issues, consider alternatives, challenge one another, listen to minority views, scrutinize assumptions and enable every participant to speak up without fear of retribution.”

Avoid the two sins of under- and overcollaboration. “Some people talk too little across teams and departments, and some people talk too much.” Top performers carefully choose when to collaborate and when to go it alone.

We’ll all been told to work smarter, not harder. The trick is knowing how to do it. Hansen offers solid guidance backed by five years of research.

“You can become much better over time at working smart. Get started with small steps and keep at it, and someday you can win that gold medal in your line of work – and have a great life too.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

How to hit the reset button on your career (review of Mike Lewis’ When to Jump)

This review first ran in the March 17th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want

By Mike Lewis

Henry Holt and Company


What would you be doing for a living if fear wasn’t a factor?

Would you continue doing what you’re doing right now?

Or would you hit the reset button on your career?

Personally, I’d make the jump from PR pro to cab driver in Aruba. I’d shuttle tourists around the One Happy Island and review business books between fares.

Mike Lewis was 23 years old when he went from being a well-paid venture capitalist to a professional squash player. He traveled more than 200,000 miles to 50 countries on six continents on his way to becoming the world’s 112th best squash player.

Based on his own experience and in talking with others who’ve also changed careers, Lewis has mapped out a jump curve with four key milestones. While not an instruction manual, the jump curve can help you figure out when and how to make your move.

You start by listening to the little voice inside your head and telling people what it’s saying. “To keep a jump alive, it helps to tell someone,” says Lewis. On hearing his plans to play squash, one of Lewis’ friends told him that is plan was absolutely crazy. “But there’s a difference between crazy and stupid,” added his friend.

You reduce the risk of doing something stupid by making a plan. Lewis spent 18 months planning his jump. Planning is where you get serious about building a nest egg, getting in pre-jump practice and sewing a safety net. As one career-switcher told Lewis, a successful jump is less an impulsive leap off a diving board and more of a slow wade in from the shallow end.

“Following a dream is lofty and sounds admirable but real consequences follow,” says Lewis. Switching careers is hard work and sacrifices will need to be made.

Letting yourself be lucky is the third milestone on the jump curve. “Once you’ve started to plan, favourable coincidences begin to appear. You have to jump and believe that some good luck will come back to you.”

Finally, don’t waste time looking back. “The people you meet, the story you’ll have, the lessons you will have learned make it an experience worth pursuing, regardless of what happens.”

After achieving his dream of playing professional squash, Lewis went on to found a global community of people who’ve left one path to pursue something completely different. It doesn’t have to be you alone against the world, says Lewis. Many people have already done what you’re considering and they’re willing to lend a hand.

Among the career-changers profiled by Lewis in his book are a mechanical engineer who became a fitness entrepreneur, an advertising executive turned advocate for sexual assault survivors, a lawyer who’s now a firefighter and a former garbage collector who’s designing and making furniture.

Lewis cautions against making the jump if you have a family to support and debts to pay. This isn’t the ideal time to quit a money-making job for a dream that doesn’t come with a paycheque. “But that doesn’t mean you can never chase your dream; it means not just yet.”

You also don’t need a ton of money socked away to make a change.

“The ability to jump is not limited to those who have a college degree or a certain-sized bank account,” says Lewis. “Applying for an internal promotion at work, going back to school at night, teaching cooking classes on the weekends – big jump or small jump, very many of us have something we’ve longed to try doing. A jump is a jump. If you can’t do it now, write it down for later. And if you can do it now? Go.”

aruba love

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton, has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and would be happy to drive you and your family around Aruba.