Being Good at Prioritizing Is More Important Than Working Hard

A conversation with Morten Hansen, author of ‘Great at Work’

Legendary sci-fi author Robert Heinlein once said, “Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”

The man who gave us the brilliant war satire Starship Troopers would’ve made for a shrewd management consultant, because the quote expresses a universal truth about high-achieving professionals — they work smart, not hard.

The new book Great at Work by Morten Hansen, a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley, more or less proves this maxim. In it, he finds that one of the shared characteristics between high performers in the workplace is that they don’t really work all that hard (at least by our current, flawed definition of “hard work”).

They weren’t lazy, per se, but they’re not the “bill 100 hours a week,” “I slept on the office furniture because I was up late poring over the slide deck all night” types, either. They tend to work only about 50 hours a week. They’re just more selective with how they spend their time, and therefore, they spend it more effectively.

In other words, they’re lazy in the best way possible.

Now, the fact that 50 hours a week — 10 more than is considered full-time — seems light reveals how sick our work culture truly is. But Hansen’s research, which includes survey data on 5,000 different workers from many different industries, finds America’s overworking problem is a function of a flawed system, one that values vanity metrics over results-based ones, and confuses quantity of hours worked with the quality of that work.

I recently spoke to Hansen about the other characteristics shared by all the high achievers in his research, as well as how you turn down extra responsibilities at work without alienating your co-workers, or your boss thinking you’re a lazy-ass.

There have been a billion books claiming to have finally figured out what separates the hyper-successful from the rest of us middling failures — and how us in the latter group can move ourselves to the former. So why, of all these social science/business books, should we read yours?
I wanted to answer a very simple question — why some people perform better than others? — and I wanted the answer to be rigorous and backed by evidence. We surveyed 5,000 workers — men, women, young people, old people, junior level, senior level — across an array of industries — retail, tech, healthcare, utility jobs. And with that sample size, you can do a legitimate statistical analysis. That’s what’s behind the findings in this book.

Beyond working smarter as opposed to harder, what were some of the other common characteristics you found among the high achievers?
There are seven:

  1. They focus on only a few tasks. Ever office tip will tell you how to focus, but they won’t tell you how. Successful people focus on only a few priorities — they go all in working on those. So if you’re a salesperson, for example, you shouldn’t just cold call everyone in the book. You should focus on a few great prospects and work obsessively hard on those.
  2. They create value. Ask yourself, What value can I create in my job that I currently do not? Creating value is very different from hitting your “goals.” If you’re just meeting goals that people don’t care about, and you’re just checking boxes, it’s only a matter of time before someone says, “We don’t need those boxes checked anymore,” and you’re out of a job.
  3. They’re always trying to learn. After they establish their priorities, they constantly try to improve at performing them. They’re always thinking about how to improve their sales pitch, or run their meetings more effectively.
  4. They have passion and purpose. The great performers, they care more about the paycheck. They have passion and purpose, which aren’t the same thing, and it’s important to have both. Passion alone is dangerous.
  5. They champion their ideas. First, they inspire people. They make their co-workers excited about the work. Then, they persuade other people to their ideas, which is being good at playing politics, essentially.
  6. Fight and unite. So much work today is done in meetings. Too much. Meetings should be had for one reason only: to have a lively debate between the people in the room so you can come to a decision.
  7. They don’t collaborate too much. We tend to think the more collaboration, the better. That’s wrong. People over-collaborate at their jobs. What’s better is disciplined collaboration. Successful workers only agree to a few collaborative projects.

What’s the distinction between accomplishing a goal and creating value?
Goals are arbitrary metrics, like expecting a salesperson to make a certain number of cold calls a day. Take, lawyers. They’re billed by the number of hours they work, and not the extent to which they solve their clients’ legal problems. Then look at doctors, who are measured by whether they administer the right diagnosis and treatment. The first is a goal. The latter is value.

Why, then, do so many seemingly intelligent employees and companies continue to use these vanity metrics?
Because it’s harder to measure value. It’s much easier to look at how many hours a person worked and think, They’re working hard. We also have this perverse belief that being busy is the same as actually doing stuff. It’s lazy management, essentially. We need a management revolution, where we measure the right things.

Is that why some workers are obsessed with putting in an insane number of hours at the office?
It’s an appearance thing. If I can impress upon my boss and colleagues that I’m a hard worker, maybe they’ll think I’m also an accomplished worker. When I started in management consulting decades ago, the mindset was Sacrifice your life to succeed. You have to work so many hours, and travel so much. But the new generation, millennials, are different. They want to have exciting lives, and do exciting work. And it turns out you can. That’s what “do less, then obsess” helps you accomplish. You do less work, better, so you can actually go have a private life.

Isn’t it, though, unrealistic that everyone is going to find happiness and fulfillment in their work?
That depends how you define fulfillment. In one of our case studies, we focused on a concierge at a hotel, and how she felt she was having a direct impact on the guests and their experience at the hotel. That gave her purpose and meaning. I’m not suggesting everyone can find that in every job, but it’s far more doable than we think.

Say a person is struggling to find meaning in their job. What should they do?
That’s where adding value to the organization comes in. Take, for example, the woman who was a business consultant at this insurance company. The insurance agents always complained about the complicated claim forms they had to file, so she took it upon herself to find the software department, and work with them to create an easier online system. That’s creating value for your organization. Then there’s personal meaning, like the concierge who takes pride in helping ensure people have a good stay. A third tactic is to do some volunteering outside of work, something with a societal mission.

Whatever the choice, we have to get out of the mindset that your job only has purpose if it’s alleviating poverty.

These people who are so great at prioritizing their work, do they procrastinate?
They don’t waste their hours. They don’t go on the internet on all day.

So you’re saying successful people don’t waste countless years of their lives dicking around on the internet? Interesting.
There a couple of techniques you can employ to change that behavior, though. One I call tying yourself to the mast, like Ulysses in The Odyssey did to resist the Sirens from luring him on to the rocks. If you don’t want distractions, find a quiet room. Or come in an hour earlier so you have your quiet time. Put software on your computer that prevents you from going on certain sites. Find a 90-minute window when you can actually concentrate and work.

One company I studied had a very simple system. The employees put a red rubber band around their wrists when they didn’t want to be disturbed.

Also, successful people don’t go to any meetings they absolutely don’t need to attend.

What’s the balance between being selfish with my time, and coming off as a total dick to my co-workers?
Saying “No,” especially to your boss, is a critical skill in today’s workplace. If you’re already busy, and your boss asks if you can do more work, you should ask them, “Which task would you like me to do first?” That puts the job of prioritization back on them, and lets you know which tasks you need to focus on. It’s totally fair to do that. Just communicate.

Telling your boss no is easier said than done, especially in today’s economy, where people feel so expendable.
Right. But if you don’t do it, it comes back to hurt you. We did case studies of people who say yes to too many things, and their work suffers. Then they get a bad review. Then they’re gone from the company anyway.

You said your data analysis and findings explain only two-thirds of why some people succeed and some don’t. That seems to suggest some people are just naturals.
Yes, part of the difference is unexplained. That could be talent, luck, experience, education, a bunch of other things. Or they’re naturals. He’s a brilliant salesperson. She’s a brilliant engineer. But, for most jobs, it’s not about that innate gift. It’s about the way you work. And two-thirds of performance can be attributed to these seven practices. The takeaway is if you can improve on these seven, you can go a long way of boosting your chances of far better performance.