Four words are the telltale sign of mediocre performance in today’s workplace. They are: “I am so busy!”
This refrain that was once a badge of honor is now a career killer. Burnout and busyness have given way to the “do less, then obsess” mentality coined by management thinker Morten Hansen.
After examining more than 5,000 employees over five years in a groundbreaking study on high performers in the workplace, Hansen discovered that mustering elbow grease isn’t necessarily a recipe for high performance. In fact, it tends to be the exact opposite.
Hanson, author of Great at Work, found that the highest-performing employees do work hard, but they don’t overwork themselves. In fact, his research revealed that overall performance declines when you work 65 or more hours a week. According to Hansen’s research, “You need to work hard – about 50 hours a week – but beyond that you reap no real performance benefit from adding more hours.”
The highest performers in his study chose fewer activities to focus on, said no to others, and then obsessed over what they were doing with a maniacal intensity. Those who adopted that approach to their work placed 25 percentage points higher than their lower performer counterparts: those who “do less with no stress” and those who “do more and then stress.”
And here’s the kicker: Both the stress-free coasters and the stretched-too-thin tribe perform about the same.
But is just whittling down your to-do list enough to guarantee success?
What is the defining “it” factor to top performance?
Hansen’s work is just one of many studies from performance and leadership experts alike who are studying the best performers to figure out how they do it.
University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth, author of GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is leading the charge to find out what distinguishes those who show up and hang in there to win. She studies “grit,” which she describes as “stamina in your direction, stamina in your interests.”
In a nutshell, it’s how likely you are to display unbridled persistence toward long-term goals.
Whether looking at retention rates at West Point, teacher performance within the Teach for America program, or success in the spelling bee, grit is often the most predictive variable of real-world performance.
According to Duckworth, “We know grittier students are more likely to earn their diplomas, grittier teachers are more effective in the classroom. Grittier soldiers are more likely to complete their training, and grittier salespeople are more likely to keep their jobs.” In fact, the more challenging the domain, the more grit seems to matter.
So how do you amp up your grit quotient? Duckworth provides three suggestions:
Ignite your interests: Research suggests that interest precedes the development of talent. If you aren’t sure what interests you, it won’t help to ruminate over it. Whatever it is you want to be the best at, you need to be doing it, not thinking about it. Get out there and try stuff. Experimentation is the best way to find what fires you up. And when you find it, the desire to obsess over your craft (and dump the rest) is simply irresistible.
Pursue purpose: If you are lucky to land on your passion, don’t stop there. It’s important to match your passion with a deeper sense of purpose. The grit-imbued find meaning in what they do and that meaning involves serving others. Studying over 16,000 people, Duckworth found that “grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life.”
Have hope: We’re not talking about the glass-is-half-full kind of hope. Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that your own efforts can improve your future. Don’t just hope that tomorrow is better; resolve to do all you can to make tomorrow better.
Why the success formula feels like a moonshot in today’s workplace
The laser-like focus that grit requires may seem like an insurmountable challenge in today’s workplace. As economics Nobel-laureate Herbert Simon said: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
The more items you try to attend to, the less time you can allot to each, and the less well you will perform any one of them. A recent Harvard Business Review article found that the surfeit of information leads employees to waste as much as 41 percent of their time on things that offer little personal satisfaction and do not actually help them get their work done.
Moreover, the effort to balance everything vying for our attention leads to a workplace compulsion known as “action addiction.” The phenomenon is an uncontrollable urge to be doing something and a discomfort with being still. You delude yourself into believing you are productive because of your back-to-back meetings and constant stream of emails. But rather than feeling a sense of true accomplishment, the best you can do is gain relief in knowing you felt productive. Meanwhile, your most important goals get left behind in the dust.
If it seems bleak, the comforting take-away from all the research is to remember Benjamin Bloom’s groundbreaking work. In studying world-class performers, he discovered that rarely were they elite at the start. The Olympic swimmers actually didn’t win their earliest swimming competitions. The musicians who achieved greatness typically did not appear to be prodigies early on. No matter what the domain, the finding was the same: Achieving excellence didn’t magically happen – it was a long, hard, effortful process.
Are you ready to start your journey to high performance? Heed the experts’ science-backed suggestions: Work less, focus more, shave the superfluous activities, and – most importantly – when the going gets tough, dose a healthy amount of purpose and hope into your new-found grittiness.