The secret to productivity: do less, obsess more

Quality beats quantity, but only if you're single-minded, says Morten Hansen.

by Morten Hansen
Last Updated: 05 Mar 2018

In October 1911, two teams raced to be the first humans to reach the South Pole.  One leader and his team achieved the extraordinary, while the other team perished in the polar night. Why?

In our book Great by Choice, Jim Collins and I attributed Roald Amundsen’s success to better pacing and self-control. Others have pointed to good planning or even luck to explain Amundsen’s success and Robert Scott’s failure. However, many accounts neglect one critical part of the dramatic South Pole race: the scope of the expeditions.

Captain Scott commanded three times the men and twice the budget. He used five forms of transportation: dogs, motor sledges, Siberian ponies, skis, and man-hauling. If one failed, he had backups.

Amundsen relied on only one form of transportation: dogs. Had they failed, his quest would have ended. But Amundsen’s dogs didn’t fail. They performed. Why?

It wasn’t just the choice to use dogs—Scott took dogs, too. Amundsen succeeded to a large degree because he concentrated only on dogs and eschewed backup options. He had spent two winters apprenticing with Inuits who had mastered dog sledging, learning how to urge dogs to run, how to drive sledges and how to pace himself. Amundsen also obsessed over obtaining superior dogs.

Scott, on the other hand, was so busy arranging for five separate transportation methods that he couldn’t focus on any of them. Rather than venturing to Siberia to secure ponies, he sent his aide, Cecil Meares. But Meares didn’t know about ponies—he was a dog expert. So Scott’s team ended up with twenty ill-suited ponies, which slowed the team down.

The story of the race to the South Pole challenges two common beliefs about work. The first is that we should increase the scope of our activities, pursuing multiple responsibilities and options. We believe that by taking on more tasks, we accomplish more and improve our performance. The second misconception concerns the idea of focus. Writers like Daniel Goleman and Stephen Covey have argued that people can only perform at their best if they select a few items to work on and say no to others. This view is incomplete. Picking a few priorities is only half the equation. The other half is the harsh requirement that you must obsess over your chosen area of focus to excel.

In our quantitative study of 5,000 people, we found that employees who chose a few key priorities and channelled tremendous effort into doing exceptional work in those areas greatly outperformed those who pursued a wider range of priorities.

But doing more has advantages, doesn’t it?

If you work on more tasks, you get more done, and that pleases your boss. Spreading yourself across multiple clients or projects gives you more options. Hedging your bets seems smart. There are, however, two big problems with scattering your efforts in this way. The first is the spread-too-thin trap. As economics Nobel-laureate Herbert Simon quipped, ‘A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.’ The more items we attend to, the less time we can allot to each, and the less well we will perform any one of them.

A second is what I call the complexity trap. In racing to the Pole, Captain Scott not only had to manage many modes of transportation; he also had to deal with their interrelationships, which proved difficult as they moved at different speeds. Coordinating between priorities requires mental exertion.

Research shows that rapidly toggling between two items — e.g. reading emails and listening to a colleague’s presentation—renders you less effective at both. Each time you switch, your brain must abandon one task and acclimate itself to the other. A study of 58,280 court cases before Italian judges in Milan found that those who handled many cases simultaneously (multitasking) took longer to complete them than those who performed them in sequence. The researchers estimated that a 50% increase in multitasking led to a nearly 20% increase in the number of days to finish cases.

How to do less, then obsess

1. Shave away unnecessary tasks, priorities, committees, steps, metrics, and procedures. Channel all your effort into excelling in the remaining activities. 

2. Set clear rules ahead of time to fend off temptation and distraction. Create a rule as trivial as not allowing yourself to check email for an hour.

3. Say ‘no’ to your boss: Explain that adding more to your to-do list will hurt your performance. 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.

Morten Hansen is a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information. This article was adapted from his book Great at Work: How top performers do less, work better and achieve more (Simon and Schuster).

Image credit: nomad_soul/Shutterstock

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