My former colleague, Morten Hansen, has written a terrific new book titled, "Great at Work: How top Performers Work Less and Achieve More." Hansen built a dataset of roughly 5,000 individuals from all levels of organizations, from the C-suite to the factory floor. He examined their performance, as well as their habits, routines, and work practices. In the book, Hansen describes seven principles that characterize the approach of top performers.
His first principle, and perhaps most interesting one, is "doing less, then obsessing." Hansen published an essay in the Wall Street Journal recently, in which he describes this principle. He writes,
The common practice we found among the highest-ranked performers in our study wasn’t at all what we expected. It wasn’t a better ability to organize or delegate. Instead, top performers mastered selectivity. Whenever they could, they carefully selected which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel. We found that just a few key work practices related to such selectivity accounted for two-thirds of the variation in performance among our subjects. Talent, effort and luck undoubtedly mattered as well, but not nearly as much... In our data, people who focused on a narrow scope of work, and said no to maintain that strategy, outperformed others who didn’t. They placed an impressive 25 percentage points higher in the performance ranking—the difference between being a middling and an excellent performer.
Of course, setting priorities, and saying no to those things that are not priorities, can be extraordinarily difficult for many of us. We don't just work extra long hours to please our boss. We also take on too many tasks at times out of our desire to be collegial and to be viewed as a team player in the organization. We don't want to let our peers down. Sometimes we take on more work now, in hopes that our peers will reciprocrate when we ask for their help. The inability to focus can be costly though. It can diminish our productivity, increase our stress, and reduce the quality of the output that we create.