How to be great at work?

The author, Morten T. Hansen, of Great AT Work wanted to know how top performers worked. What were their habits and techniques? So, in 2011, Hansen and a team of researchers set off to find out. They analyzed over 200 academic papers and interviewed and surveyed hundreds of professionals including both employees and their bosses.

Based on this information, the team was able to extract seven “work smart” practices that seemed to explain the top performers’ methods and mind-sets. To test their hypothesis, they surveyed 5,000 people and found that the seven factors accounted for a whopping 66 percent of their performance. They also found that the more factors an individual adhered to, the better their performance ranking.

To be more precise, the scoring went like this: Depending on how each of the 5,000 participants responded to the survey questions, they received a score that reflected how much of the seven factors they practiced. This score could then be turned into an overall performance ranking. So, if someone only used 20 percent of the principles within the seven factors, they’d get an overall 20 percent on their performance ranking, and so on. Sounds complicated? Let me go onwards with the details…

It is still a commonly held belief that if we want to get more work done, we should put in more effort and work harder for longer hours. But the real trick isn’t about working harder; it’s about working smarter.

The first step to working smarter is to do less – which means: stop juggling multiple tasks and instead prioritize your work so that you’re dealing with one task at a time. If you multitask and try to tackle a bunch of responsibilities at work, you’re bound to spread yourself too thin and waste both your time and effort. Since none of the tasks get your full attention, none of them will get optimal results.

Even judges are not immune to the inefficiencies of multitasking. According to a 2015 study of judges in Milan, those who multitasked and tried to handle a variety of cases at once were ultimately slower in processing those cases. The fastest judge spent 178 days on a case, while the slowest multitasking judge spent 398 days!

Now, instead of multitasking, you need to go further and obsess about the task that has your undivided attention.

Roald Amundsen knew a thing or two about the benefits of an obsessive focus. Back in 1911, the Norwegian explorer was in a race to be the first man at the South Pole. His competitor was the veteran explorer and Royal Navy Commander, Robert Falcon Scott.

Scott made the mistake of dividing his attention among a variety of transportation methods, including dogs, ponies, skis and motor sleds – all of which move at different paces. Scott also made the mistake of sending a dog expert to pick out his ponies, which resulted in a collection of 20 small horses that were all unfit for Antarctic conditions.

So Amundsen won the race, and he did it by focusing on one means of transportation: dogs. Not only that, he was thoroughly obsessed with finding out which dogs were best suited to the climate and terrain of Antarctica. So he immersed himself in research and reached out to the top experts.

In the author’s survey of 5,000 people, those who limited their focus but were still obsessed with their priorities performed better by an average of 25 percent. Let’s say you have a peer who is always outperforming you. You might decide to double down on your current work regimen. Instead of rethinking how you work, you’ll work harder.

However, rethinking or redesigning the way you work is exactly what you should be doing if you want to improve your output. In the author’s survey, 5,000 participants ranked a series of work-related statements, such as: “Reinvented their job to add more value” and “Created new opportunities in their work – new activities, new projects, new ways of doing things.” The results clearly showed that those with a willingness to redesign the way they worked performed better.

For a really beneficial redesign, you should think beyond simple productivity goals and focus on the ways in which your work provides value. Anyone can add hours to their workday, or think in terms of dollars and cents, but a genuine redesign should find ways to generate more value – whether it’s for your customers, your teammates or your suppliers. This value can take many forms, such as streamlining a process that makes it easier for a colleague to work, or improving the development stage for new products.

So don’t just think of ways to better reach your goals or accomplish your tasks. At the end of the day, these steps could add zero value.

For example, a dentist might redesign her process to see more patients during a workday, but this could end up reducing accurate diagnoses. Similarly, a lawyer might bill a lot of hours, regardless of whether he has provided valuable counsel.

Along with this focus on value, a meaningful redesign should also find a good balance between quality and efficiency. Quality goes hand in hand with accuracy and reliability. So, if your work involves transcribing audio recordings, don’t measure your performance by how many words you can transcribe, but rather how few mistakes you make. In this case, more accuracy equals a higher quality and better performance.

However, you don’t want to prove inefficient, either. If being accurate in your transcriptions means you only get through ten words every minute, that’s not very efficient work and, therefore, it doesn’t add much value.

Just because you’re working, doesn’t mean you have to stop learning. This is the basic idea behind the learning loop, a technique for getting smarter while you’re on the job. The principle is to get constant feedback and check on your results so you can regularly make little tweaks to your process and improve those results.

In other words, learning loops are a great way to improve performance. However, when asking for ideas, make your questions specific and phrase them in a way that suggests you’re inviting participants to share ideas they already have.

So, instead of a general question like, “Do we have any new ideas?” you should ask a more inviting question like, “What kind of ideas do we have for improving our food service?”

A great way to start a learning loop is to spend 15 minutes of your workday improving a certain skill. If you’ve spent time trying to figure out the best career choice, you’ve probably been told, “Do whatever it is you’re passionate about.”

But in reality, passion is only part of the solution, since you need to direct that passion with purpose. Passion is great for helping you identify what you love, but it’s purpose that creates meaningful work – the kind that has clear value and contributes to other individuals, organizations or society.

According to the author’s survey, when people find both passion and purpose in their work, they perform 18 percent better than those who feel neither. The author also found that when passion is met with purpose, it galvanizes people and allows them to access a more focused energy that makes their work smarter.

The results of his survey also showed that while purpose and passion aren’t predictors for how many hours people will work, they do predict how much effort will be given during those hours.

If you feel like your passion or purpose need a good boost, you may need to discover a new role for yourself. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to quit your job altogether. You may be able to experience that boost by simply finding a new role within your current organization.

That’s what Steven Birdsall did. As the COO for global sales at the German software giant, SAP, he found his passion levels were bottoming out. Birdsall missed the thrill of being an entrepreneur and having direct contact with customers, so he considered quitting his job until he realized that he could scratch that entrepreneurial itch by launching a new business within SAP.

Birdsall’s new line of business would focus on rapid deployment solution (RDS), which would allow outside organizations to use SAP software for a set amount of time at a fixed price. RDS had some market demand but, prior to Birdsall’s initiative, it hadn’t been a priority for the sales department.

There was a certain amount of risk in Birdsall’s plan, but he had both passion and purpose on his side as the endeavor allowed him to put on his entrepreneurial hat and shake hands with hundreds of potential customers. It paid off, too: within a couple of years, RDS was generating an annual revenue of $1.3 billion.

Check out my related post: Is multitasking really possible?

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