This 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.