Can “Do Less, Then Obsess” Make You More Productive?

Last week I wrote about Value-Based Work as one of  7 “Work smarter” practices described in the book, Great at Work by Morton T. Hansen. These practices are divided into two categories, four practices for the individual, and three practices when collaborating.

Another practice for the individual he calls “Do less, then obsess”. This practice takes direct aim at the idea of simply working longer hours in order to achieve greater productivity. Finding in his studies that by increasing hours your run into the law of diminishing returns. Like squeezing an orange: as you first start to squeeze you gain a lot of “juice”, as you get to the last of the juice you have to squeeze much harder in order to gain a mere fraction of what you obtained previously, and with a lot more effort. He points to studies that show that once you exceed 50 hours, you are entering into the “squeezing hard” stage with limited results.

He also points to two interrelated traps; 1) taking on more and more responsibilities and thereby becoming spread too thin, 2) the interrelationships are complex and require a serious expenditure of energy to manage them, leading to time wasting and poor execution.

Do Less: The First Part of the Key

So, how does “Do less, then Obsess” prevent these pitfalls and lead to greater productivity? He suggests three things, 1) Wield Occam’s razor, 2) tie yourself to the mast (remove distractions), 3) Say “no” to your boss. From Hanson’s studies, 38% of people are distracted by too broad a focus (#1). 21% of people with distractions (#2), and 24% by bosses who constantly add new tasks while expecting it all done in the same timeline (#3).

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s razor is a method made famous by William of Occam (c. 1287–1347). The method is one that demands simplicity and it can be used beyond science. In problem solving we might ask, “What is the simplest solution that satisfies all the factors?” In science, simpler theories are better because they are more easily tested then complex theories. In combat, the simple plan is preferred over the complex.

Hanson uses the method by asking, “How many tasks can I remove, given what I must do to excel?” The idea is to leave yourself with as few tasks as you can, and only as many as you must. Note, the intent is not born out of laziness but out of a desire to excel. Being busy does not mean you are effective or efficient. Unfortunately, many people look only to how busy they are as proof that they are effective.

Tie Yourself to the Mast

This would make more sense if you had read the book. This is a reference to Odysseus from Homer’s Odessey who before entering the waters of the Sirens, instructed the sailors to tie him to the mast and to ignore his pleading to be released. By doing this he delivered himself from the Siren’s call.

Hanson suggests that you identify those areas of temptation, areas where you are easily distracted, and you tie yourself off to avoid those areas. Whether it is using a program like, “Cold Turkey” (or something similar) to turn off social media or YouTube. Or, if it is people in your office, find ways to signal that you need to focus. Whatever distracts you will need to be prevented before you are tempted.

Say “No” to Your Boss

This one sounds scary and disrespectful. But it doesn’t have to be (and care should be taken with one’s boss here, don’t be an ass). As you wield Occam’s razor to simplify your task list, you will find that other people, often your boss, are constantly trying to add to your task list in an undisciplined manner.

Explain to your boss that you are endeavoring to excel at the tasks already assigned to you. One technique would be to show your boss what you are working on, that you are applying yourself 100% to that task, and that to add to it would mean that you will not be able to complete that task on time or in the qualitative manner that is required. Two tasks with comparative complexity and deadlines cannot be performed equally as well. A fair question would be, “If I take on this new task, are you OK with my current task being delivered late or with poor quality?” Or, “How would you prioritize these tasks? Is this new task more important?” Both those questions are valid. It may be too, that you have prioritized a task that doesn’t fit with the broader scheme of the company and this is an opportunity for your boss to explain that to you.

All too often, however, many tasks are dumped on us by bosses who don’t fully think through the effect that that will have on their employees and those employees don’t say “No”.

Obsess: The Second Part of the Key

Hanson further argues, that merely prioritizing does not then make you more effective. Prioritizing and obsessing over those tasks with focus and energy is what will push one’s performance from average to excellent. Because you have used the razor, removed distractions, and said “No” to additional tasks you are now free to use the full resources at your disposal while avoiding the two pitfalls of lots of tasks and the complex interrelationship between them.

What do you think? Will implementing these methods increase your performance at work? Let us know in the comments!

Tim Hoke – General Manager

Gould Design Inc.

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