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July 19, 2018

How to Work Better by Doing Less

Rachel Salaman

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Have you ever noticed how differently people work when doing the same task? For example, two colleagues can be both putting together similar presentations. One finishes the project in a day, the other takes three weeks. The quality of the work is the same, but one is able to work better. 

How to Work Better by Doing Less
Morten Hansen

Morten Hansen has personal experience of this, and it got him thinking.

"When I started my career at the Boston Consulting Group in London, I worked very hard and I tried to succeed," he says. "And I did. But I found colleagues were working more effectively than I was, and they also performed slightly better. That made me ask, 'Why is that?'"

Work Smarter, Work Better, Not Harder

The question stayed with him, and as a management professor many years later, he decided to try to find some answers. He embarked on a massive study, surveying more than 5,000 managers and employees over five years to find out how they worked, and what effect it had on their performance.

"We all talk about 'work smarter, not harder.' I mean, that cliché has been around for many years now. Nobody wants to work dumb," Hansen says. "But we need to fill that slogan with some real hard evidence and practical advice, and that's what this study was about."

After the data was crunched, some surprising conclusions appeared.

Selective Working and Learning to Say "No"

"We think by doing more, we will accomplish more," he says, in our Expert Interview podcast. "Actually, what we've found is that top performers do the opposite. They are very selective. They do less, and then they excel in those few things and that's how they outperform the rest. It's almost a contrarian view to how you are supposed to work and perform."

Do less to perform better – that certainly has its appeal. But what if your boss isn't convinced and keeps piling on the work?

"One of the most important professional skills required in today's hectic workplace is the ability to say 'No,' and to say 'No' in an appropriate manner," Hansen believes. "Focusing requires saying 'No.' Those go hand in hand."

Work Better With Passion and Purpose

Another surprise finding was that following your passion doesn't always lead to the engagement you might expect. You're better off focusing on purpose, at least in the beginning.

Hansen explains that passion and purpose are two sides of the same coin, in that the first asks, "What can the world give me?" while the second asks, "What can I give the world?"

Top performers use a strong sense of purpose to demonstrate their contribution at work, which is then rewarded with jobs that they can feel passionate about. This combination boosts their productivity.

"We looked at the data in detail on this and we found that [people who do this] apply more effort per hour worked. It's not like they work more hours, they're just more engaged when they work. Moreover, it's the energy they apply to every hour of work that drives performance," he says.

Seven Ways to Work Smarter

Hansen extracted seven "work smarter" practices from his study, four aimed at individual performance and three at teamwork. These are outlined in his book, "Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More," complete with case studies and tips.

On group performance, Hansen highlights two "sins of collaboration."

"First of all, there is the sin of under-collaboration. We live in silos and we don’t collaborate when we should and create more value that way," he says.

The Sin of Over-Collaboration

"Then we have the other sin, and that is over-collaboration. Too many people collaborate on too many things, with too little value. If we dare say 'No' we are seen as not a team worker. But a lot of time those are ineffective collaborations."

The solution is familiar: "We need to be more disciplined, saying 'Yes' only to those collaboration projects of the most value and 'No' to the rest."

His book offers a host of useful tips on meetings, another activity that risks sucking the productivity out of teamwork. In this clip below, from our Expert Interview podcast, Hansen talks about the "fight and unite" approach to meetings, which he saw working well at the British multinational, Reckitt Benckiser: 

Listen to the full 30-minute interview with Morten Hansen in the Mind Tools Club.

Do you have any tips for working better by doing less? Join the discussion below!

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2 comments on “How to Work Better by Doing Less”

  1. In any job or task that i undertake, I first assess the requirement then get all the tools to accomplish my undertaking. Usually this way of undertaking a job or task works for me.

    1. Sounds like a good approach to me. By taking time to do the necessary preparation, you can be more efficient when actually getting to the task and getting it done.

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