Real Leaders

How to Work Less And Achieve More

In the U.S., the 40-hour work week actually averages 47 hours, according to a Gallup poll. Specifically, salaried employees average 49 hours of work per week, and 50% of them work anywhere from 50 to over 60 hours weekly. Even when workers are off, they tend to be tethered to their digital devices, responding to work-related phone calls and also text and email messages.

Employees at every level report stress and increased work demands, and a variety of issues are causing executives to be sleepless in the C-suite.

Working harder, however, is not the answer, according to Morten Hansen, management professor at the University of California Berkeley and co-author (with Jim Collins) of “Great by Choice.”

Hansen conducted a five-year study of more than 5,000 managers and workers, and discovered the reason some people perform better at work than others. His findings form the basis for his new book, “Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More,” which is one of 11 leadership books recommended by The Washington Post for 2018.

We asked Hansen to share a few findings from his book.

Working harder isn’t the key to improving performance

In the classroom and the workplace, there’s a tendency to think that an increase in effort leads to an improvement in performance, but this is not necessarily the case.

“The working hard model is like squeezing an orange,” Hansen says. “As you improve the number of hours and you go from 30 to 40 hours, it will increase performance, but then you keep squeezing to get to 60 hours.”

At this point, your efforts are counterproductive.

“There’s less juice, and you’re getting less quality and you’re actually detracting from your work,” he explains. “At some point, there’s only pulp coming out and you’re getting diminishing returns.”

Hansen’s study of 5,000 people in corporate America found that going from working 30 hours up to 50 hours does indeed result in an improvement in performance, but, he explains, “from 50 hours to 65 hours, the curve is flattening quite a bit, and at 65 hours, it starts going down.”

So, while working harder seems to be the ethos of our workplace culture, Hansen warns, “the evidence does not support this and top performers don’t do this.”

The disadvantages of working harder

An increase in workplace effort deceives both employees and leaders into thinking that they are working hard because they are working more hours. But, they’re actually doing something else.

“You start ruining your life because your work is really encroaching on your private time,” Hansen explains.

If you work 50 hours per week, he says you’re dedicating 10 hours per day to your job—and even if you’re just checking emails or making phone calls from the convenience of your home, he says you’re still working.

“This is a severe tradeoff—you’re willing to sacrifice a part of life thinking it is going to make you more successful and the evidence is that it is not,” Hansen explains.

“Believe me, I’ve been guilty as well: when I graduated from college, I was working 60 or 70 hours a week.” But then, he says that he met colleagues who were performing at a higher level even though they were working fewer hours.

How leaders and employees can work smarter

“Work smart, not hard” has become a common workplace phrase, but Hansen doesn’t think most people really know what that means.

“It’s become a cliché, and obviously, no one wants to work dumb.” But, if people don’t understand how to work smart, not hard, there’s no way they can make the necessary adjustments.
His first recommendation is to be selective about what you do.

“It’s about having the ability and willingness and courage to really focus on the very few things that matter the most.”

While you may have a long list of things to do, Hansen says there are really only a few things that you must do—and you need to do those few things well.

“Decide what to focus on in every area: your meetings, your collaborations, your tasks, your projects.”

Hansen shares his definition of smart work.

“You select a few key activities that maximise what you do, then apply intense, targeted effort, and then you have to say ‘no’ to the rest of the activities.” He believes that working smart requires focusing on—actually, obsessing over—these few key activities.

How bosses can help their employees work smarter

Leaders have a greater degree of freedom in choosing how to spend their time. Employees, however, are not afforded as much leeway since they’re subject to the dictates of their bosses.

“There are ‘do more’ bosses and ‘do less’ bosses: the problem with ‘do more’ bosses is that they give employees a lot of things to do,” Hansen says. “They’re piling on the work, so they need to stop and ask themselves how they can trim those priority lists.”

Often, bosses are also overwhelmed with work; however, Hansen says that a good boss doesn’t pass the pressure and unrealistic workload on to their employees.

“And it is bosses that most of the surveyed people blame for having too much to do,” he says.

Communicating simply, thoroughly and clearly can also help employees to understand and focus on what’s important. Hansen advises against convoluted emails and an overabundance of PowerPoint slides.

“Even if you give really good directions, but your language is muddled, people don’t know what you mean,” he explains. “If you say ‘we’re trying to be the best retail store in the city,’ what does ‘best’ mean? Is that selling the most bikes—which means that selling is the priority? Or is it delivering the best customer service?”

In addition, he believes that bosses need to do a better job of inspiring their employees. Yes, workers get a paycheck, but Hansen says that’s not the only reason they come to work. Companies should be concerned if employees are not inspired or engaged, since drudgery is unlikely to motivate them to work smarter.

“They want to feel what they do is important and they want to be uplifted,” Hansen says. “My data says inspired employees perform better.

Terri Williams is a freelance writer who covers leadership topics for The Economist Careers Network.

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