To Boost Your Performance Do Less, Then Obsess

We all want to improve our performance. The benefits are almost too obvious to state. If we have the leadership bug and want to climb the ranks of our organizations, then constantly improving is essential. Even if we don’t wish to chase after the gold ring, improving performance will keep our superiors happy and give us the satisfaction that comes from honing our craft.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear how to improve performance. The value of the work we do can sometimes be a little mysterious. In a manufacturing or agrarian setting, we get crystal clear feedback on our performance. If crop yields are high or we make a lot of widgets on the assembly line, then our strong performance is self-evident. 

In the office environment, on the other hand, performance is a far more ambiguous notion. For example, if we double our output of briefing notes, does that mean our performance is twice as good? Not necessarily, especially if we’ve sacrificed quality for quantity. And how to measure quality? Certainly, proper grammar and spelling are necessary but not sufficient. Some notes seem to have an impact on the policy-making process, while others do not. If we could improve our ability to predict when a note will have an impact, that would improve performance more than churning out more notes. 

Notes are something tangible. However, many of the things that factor into our performance are far less so. For example, sometimes our most effective action is to pick up the phone or walk down the hall. By talking through a policy problem, we may be able to chart a path towards a resolution. However, in the short run, there is nothing to signify the changed reality beyond a momentary disturbance of air molecules between us.

Studies are challenging what we think we know about performance

Government is a highly complex system with many moving parts. The relationship between all the parts is complex, and the complexity increases exponentially with every additional part to consider. Even the most experienced practitioners of the craft of government are playing a guessing game, although, with time and diligent practice, we start to get many more things right than wrong.

How then can we improve our performance when it’s so difficult to objectively measure it in the first place? A number of management experts, who back their advice with science and groundbreaking research, are pointing us in the right direction. Along the way, they demolish a number of myths about this confusing topic.

“Do Less, Then Obsess” boosts performance and supports better work-life balance

Morten T. Hansen, author of “Great at Work,” conducted a five-year study of more than 5,000 managers and employees. He argued that the work smarter practice that gives the greatest performance boost is “Do Less, Then Obsess.” To implement this strategy, we identify the areas that we truly excel in and we focus our energy on these areas. At the same time, we eliminate or drastically reduce time and energy spent in low-value areas. 

According to Hansen’s research, on average, adopting this practice leads to a 25 percent increase in performance. For example, if you are currently a middling performer – at the 50th percentile for all employees – then you can expect to raise your performance to the 75th percentile, above three-quarters of your colleagues.

Notice that this advice is contrary to the standard advice. Often, an employee will be encouraged to identify their weaknesses and diligently work to correct them. This may be necessary if the weakness relates to a critical skill necessary to perform competently in your role. However, this is not always the case. A far more beneficial strategy would be to continue to develop and fully master areas that align most closely with your passion and talents.

Deep Work is the key to skill mastery

Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” offers advice that dovetails nicely with Hansen’s. While Hansen tells us to focus on the skills that add the most value, Newport describes in detail how exactly to do this. For him, the key is to allocate time for deep thinking without distraction.

This may seem impossible in our hectic day. However, there is a surprising amount of flexibility in our schedules if we look. For example, do emails really require an immediate response? What if you only check and respond to emails four times a day? Still not possible? How about every hour or every fifteen minutes. Choose the maximum time interval that is consistent with the demands of your job. Even giving your full attention to a task for fifteen-minute intervals will build your capacity to concentrate and result in surprising progress on difficult and high-value work.

Try the advice from Hansen and Newport. Begin to shift your time to activities with higher value, delegating or dispensing with low-value activities. The advice might require a serious discussion with your manager, but the data is convincing that you can work smarter and significantly boost your performance. This should win your manager over as you change the way you work.

John Burton is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

Playing to your strengths is something that feels like a no brainer, seemingly unless you’re talking to your manager/supervisor. This is certainly a great lesson as we close out the year and inch closer to performance reviews. Also from personal experience- deep work really works! I usually try to batch task while in a “deep work state” to really expedite tasks.

John Burton

Yes, agreed. It does seem so obvious to play to our strengths, but the more common practice seems to be to try to do too much, and not develop our unique talents to the highest level. That’s great that you manage your tasks that way! I’m getting better at it and love how it’s boosted my performance.