“Focus on being productive instead of busy.” -Tim Ferris
It’s that time of the year again. Healthy foods and running shoes are flying off the shelves as New Year’s resolutioners attempt to reinvent themselves yet again. As arbitrary as it may be, January 1st is as good a time as any to analyze ourselves and identify areas for growth in both our personal and professional lives.
If you’re like me, increased productivity is at the top of your list, and so you might be in search of tools or techniques to make 2022 the most productive year yet. However, as soon as our fellow resolutioners emerge from their food-induced stupors, out come the infomercial personalities and faux experts with their snake-oil panaceas promising the world for only four easy payments of $29.99. In an age of abundant information (and misinformation), it’s hard to tell what is reliable and fact-based and what is just a marketing scheme. That’s why, when looking for answers, I seek out information that is evidence-based. That is, information that has been proven through scientific rigor to be valid. And, when looking for evidence-based ways to be more productive, it doesn’t get much better than the works of management professor and workplace researcher, Dr. Morten Hansen.
In his book, Great at Work, Dr. Hansen and his research team set out to answer the question, “Why do some people perform great at work while others don’t?” They studied 200 published academic articles, conducted 120 in-depth interviews with professional workers, and surveyed 5,000 managers and employees to find out. Their quest resulted in seven “work-smart” practices that explained 66% of the variance between workplace superstars and their not-so-productive peers. Each of the seven practices is outlined below with recommendations for both individuals wanting to increase their own productivity and for organizational leaders looking to increase the effectiveness of their employees.
Do Less, Then Obsess
In Dr. Hansen’s study, exceptional performers chose only a handful of key priorities and then channeled obsession-like effort into excelling in those areas. Those who ascribed to the “do less, then obsess” mindset, performed 25% better than those who took on more tasks and then stressed over getting them all done.
For individuals, Dr. Hansen recommends the following three practices: 1) shave away unnecessary tasks/roles, 2) set clear rules/boundaries to fend off distraction, and 3) when appropriate, say “no” to your boss (i.e. tactfully let your boss know when you are task saturated and that accepting additional assignments will negatively affect your performance).
For leaders, be mindful of employees who are overloaded with tasks or those who wear too many hats at work. Consider restricting employees’ scopes of practice to areas that are most beneficial to the organization. Effort is a finite resource. Concentrate it on areas that are of most value to you and your organization.
Redesign Your Work
Superstar performers focused their efforts on creating value, not just reaching present goals. More hours at work do not equal greater productivity. Top workers found creative ways to do their jobs more efficiently and focused their energy on activities of high value.
For individuals, look at your daily responsibilities through the lens of efficiency. Look for ways to redesign your work so it benefits your future self and those who sit in your seat after you. As George S. Patton once said, “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.”
For leaders, reward innovation. Many leaders are quick to shut down new or creative ideas. Discouragement can impede future innovation. Even if ideas are infeasible, be careful not to inadvertently train your employees to withhold ideas from you by publicly shaming them.
Don’t Just Learn, Loop
Practice doesn’t make perfect. It’s the type of practice that counts. The secret isn’t repetition. Quality trumps quantity. Top performers were regular users of the “learning loop.” The learning loop involves implementing a new behavior, seeking feedback from others to test the effectiveness of the new behavior, making modifications to the behavior based on the feedback received, and repeating the process.
For individuals who want to learn a new skill or improve an existing skill, break the desired skill into micro-behaviors. For example, if someone wants to improve their social skills, active listening would be an appropriate micro-behavior to run through the learning loop. Dedicate some time each day to practicing the micro-behavior while soliciting brief, yet specific feedback from your peers to gauge the effect of the new behavior.
For leaders, encourage a culture of constructive feedback among employees. Feedback, if done appropriately, yields growth. A culture of feedback can include the regular implementation of 360-degree surveys, group personality test reviews, or the modeling of appropriate feedback by leaders in real-time settings.
P-Squared (Passion + Purpose)
Top performers sought out roles that matched their passion with a strong sense of purpose. Not only did they love what they did, but they also felt their work made a significant contribution to a greater cause. People with a strong sense of both passion and purpose are more energized at work and actually get more accomplished in each hour at work compared to their peers.
Passion can come from successes, social interactions, gaining competence, or being creative. For individuals, discover what you love to do and how you can find that in your workplace. Also, actively find ways to use your role at work to make a meaningful impact in your organization’s overall mission. Nourishing a sense of purpose can lead to many positive outcomes beyond simply being productive at work.
For leaders, during initial and ongoing supervisory coaching sessions, strive to understand your employees’ passions and work towards bridging those passions with your organization’s mission. Also, make sure employees understand the mission statement of the organization. When everyone has a sense of shared purpose, organizational performance is maximized.
The best performers were socially savvy yet gritty when it came to achieving their goals. They evoked emotions in individuals whose support they needed. They were also tenacious and tailored cunning tactics in the face of opposition to get their ideas across the finish line.
To be a forceful champion, individuals should consider mobilizing others to act on their behalf. By making others excited for tomorrow and angry about today, they can appeal to their emotions and persuade them to join forces towards the respective cause.
To facilitate an environment of forceful champions, leaders are encouraged to be on the lookout for those shrewd employees who are exceptionally persuasive with others. Chances are these individuals are more emotionally intelligent than most. As long as their motives are in the best interest of the organization, they might excel if placed in a leadership role.
Fight and Unite
Top performing teams fought vigorously during team meetings. While others veered away from disagreement in the workplace for fear that it may bring about general discord, the most productive groups embraced disagreement as a necessary vehicle towards progress and a safeguard against groupthink.
For individuals, be a disagreeable giver (as Adam Grant would call it). Don’t be afraid to speak up if you don’t agree with the direction of the group. However, make sure you do so in an objective, non-emotional manner. Attack the problem, not the person. If you worry how others will perceive you, use the learning loop to measure the effects of your behavior on others.
For organizational leaders, create an environment of productive fighting. Maximize cognitive diversity (i.e. the presence of dissimilar perspectives on an issue) in working groups. Also, make it safe to speak up by ensuring group members feel comfortable to share opposing perspectives and keep the group focused on the debate rather than attacking one another. It’s also important for leaders to make sure everyone in the group has a voice and not just those that are the loudest. It’s often the quietest members of the group who have the most to contribute. And, most importantly, after the debate is over, make sure all team members commit to the final decision of the team. It’s vital that teams unite after they fight.
The Two Sins of Collaboration
Elite performers avoided both overcollaboration (i.e. extra effort to obtain and incorporate knowledge from colleagues) and undercollaboration (i.e. entrenched silos). In the spirit of inclusion, too often do teams attempt to bring on too many members resulting in the bogging down of progress with minimal gain. In the same vein, teams can become short-sighted or become susceptible to bias if they cut themselves off from outside perspectives. Top performing teams engaged in disciplined collaboration by only agreeing to a proposed collaboration if there was a compelling reason to do so.
For individuals who are considering entering into a collaborative relationship, first establish a compelling reason to agree to any proposed collaboration. If that reason is questionable, decline. Collaboration for the sake of collaboration is counterproductive. For individuals who are already members of collaborative groups, assess the cognitive diversity of the current team and consider if you are at risk of being too closed to outside perspectives.
For leaders, be careful not to become mesmerized by buzzwords like “cross-functional teams” and fall into the trap of creating working groups that are unnecessarily large. When groups are formed, it’s important to craft a unifying goal that excites people, so they prioritize the project. Leaders should also consider rewarding the collaborating people only for the results of the collaboration, not just for working together. Again, the collaboration should have a reason for existing and should not be a self-licking ice cream cone.
The seven work-smart principles listed above were positively associated with workplace performance. The most productive people in the workplace engaged in many, if not all, of those activities. If your aim, as an individual, is to be the best in your field, these practices will help get you there. Those individuals who apply ingenuity to a limited set of fulfilling priorities will most certainly rise in their respective ranks. For organizational leaders, if you cultivate a culture with these practices as normative behavior, you will facilitate an environment of top performers which will inevitably push your organization in a positive direction. Most importantly, these strategies are evidence-based, meaning they are proven to work and won't waste your time, which may be your first productive activity of 2022.