Do less, then obsess: How to get ahead at work

Working longer hours does not mean working more productively, says a management professor who argues that doing fewer tasks equals better results. He talks to Marjorie Brennan.

MORTEN Hansen is speaking to me from San Francisco; it is 8am on the US west coast and he has been up since 5am, for a radio interview. As a management professor at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley, and an author of several books, he knows all about putting in the hours to achieve success. However, in his book, Great at Work, Hansen argues that you can get more out of doing less in the workplace, something you will be glad to hear if you have ever felt a twinge of guilt or anxiety at being the first to leave the office.

In his extensive study of 5,000 workers in the US which began in 2011, Hansen set out to discover why some people perform better at work than others. He found that the way we work now, being increasingly present for our employers, either physically or electronically, is not producing the required outcome, for employees or companies.

“If you look at productivity gains among workers across the world, certainly in Europe and the US, it has been flat and stagnant for years now. We are not improving,” says Hansen.

Morten Hansen advises a ‘fight and unite’ approach, where argument and debate are seen as a healthy way to achieve progress.

“We have low engagement scores, and stress is on the rise. We are working longer hours, and not seeing the results from that labour; clearly the system is broken.”

Hansen’s research focuses on US corporate culture, where working 50 hours a week is seen as average. When I say that figure would be seen as quite high in Ireland, he laughs. “Well, I am Norwegian and my wife is from France, where they have a 35-hour working week.”

Hansen has coined the mantra ‘do less, then obsess’, suggesting that by focusing more on fewer tasks, we achieve better results. He says the more you work above 50 hours, the less the benefit.

“From 30 to 50, there is a benefit in increasing the hours, from 50 to 65, in my data it flattens out quite quickly, the bang for your buck is really not that high. From 65 hours, it goes down. The reason is that your quality declines and your error rate goes up. You are detracting from the quality of your work in those hours. It means that working harder and longer than others in order to be the best performer is the wrong strategy.”

Hansen agrees that our surroundings and the proliferation of technology often makes it harder for people to focus on work. “I found that yes, distractions and temptations come, in part, from technology. It also comes from the work landscape; we sit in open-plan offices, someone passes by, sticks their head in, you are in the middle of something, you lose concentration and then you have to get back into it. It is a lack of boundaries really, which has advantages but also problems.”

Hansen says workers need to take creative steps to combat and control technological distractions. “You need to try and protect yourself ahead of time before you get tempted. For example, when I was writing the book, I got an old laptop and just stripped it down to word processing, I got rid of email, browser, and everything. I left my smartphone at home and went out to a coffee shop to write.”

Hansen also says the way meetings are conducted are often not conducive to a productive workplace. He advises a ‘fight and unite’ approach, where argument and debate are seen as a healthy way to achieve progress. “We have all been in meetings where we were intimidated and censored ourselves. If you want to have a better results as a manager, you want to benefit from the wisdom and insight in a room, including introverts. You have to find a way to let them speak up and not let the loudmouth dominate. One way to do this is to tell a person you are going to call on them, to give them a chance to prepare.”

The corporate culture Hansen examines is not a particularly family-friendly one, women in particular often find themselves on the ‘mommy track’ when they face the juggle of long hours and childcare. “It is clear that in most countries, for women who have children to be a top performer is exceedingly difficult,” he says. “Some 45% of my sample were women… and the good news from my data is that yes, you had to work hard but it is possible.”

While some people are in the enviable position of loving what they do, for many others, work is a means of paying the bills. However, Hansen says workers can be more proactive in finding ways to make their job more fulfilling.

“There are things you can do to create more energy and excitement in your job. Try to avoid colleagues that suck your energy and be with people you like, who excite and energise you. If you like learning, try to get a task that gives you more development and growth or enrol on a training programme. Expand your circle of passion; look for different goals inside a company as opposed to quitting. We are often on a narrow track; we think we’re stuck there but there may be other ways to do things… you need to be a little bit of an entrepreneur in your job.”

When I ask Hansen does he consider himself a top performer, he pauses. “That would be for others to assess… I am Norwegian, I am reserved by nature,” he says laughing.

“What I have learned is that on some of these principles I am not doing so well. I tend to say yes to too many things, and stress myself too hard to accomplish them. It becomes ‘do more, then stress’ as opposed to ‘do less, then obsess’. That doesn’t lead to the best performance. The other day my wife said she thought I was doing better but it is a work in progress. The top performers inspire me to do better and I have a way to go.”

Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More by Morten T Hansen, published by Simon & Schuster

Hansen’s tips for smarter working

Do less, then obsess

Employees who chose a few key priorities and channelled more effort into doing exceptional work in those areas greatly outperformed those who pursued a wider range of priorities.

Little and often

Regular on-the-job feedback is more helpful than an annual review.

Be a ‘forceful champion’

Inspire people to follow you in what you are trying to accomplish. Be an advocate for your work, not yourself.

Make meetings matter

Feel free to stand up and shout, but never make the argument personal. Stay open to other people’s ideas, and never pursue consensus for its own sake.


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