Cal professor, ‘Great at Work’ author, says ‘do less’ to achieve more

When he first started his career, Morten Hansen was a consultant who thought working up to ninety hours a week was the secret to success. But as the management professor at University of California, Berkeley, details in his new book “Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, And Achieve More,” overworking himself was not working.

Instead, Hansen noticed that his consultant coworker Natalie was outperforming him even though she never worked late and had a normal work-life balance. The secret to Natalie’s success was part of the genesis for Hansen’s five-year survey study on 5,000 employees and managers. As part of the study, Hansen recruited people across diverse careers, including store managers, plant foremen, brokers, lawyers, and engineers, to complete work habits surveys on themselves, their bosses, and their subordinates. Here are the research-backed tips he shared with Ladders on how the top performers in these fields are able to get more out of doing less, so that we can do the same:

Survey: The hardest hustlers aren’t necessarily the best workers 

Hansen’s quantitative results found that if you work more than 50 hours, your job performance plateaus. In fact, if you work more than 65 hours a week, your performance and productivity sharply declines.

What he discovered debunks the belief that working long, crazy hours leads to better work. “If you want to be really great at your career, do not fall into the trap of thinking that being busy — volumes of activity — is the same as accomplishment,” Hansen told Ladders. “The number of meetings you go to, the number of frequent flier miles you rack up flying on your job, the number of business trips you take, the number of phone calls you make, the number of customer visits you make, the number of emails you send — these are not accomplishments, they are just activities. The question is: what are the results of those activities? That’s where we need to have a mental shift.”

On how we need to be selectively obsessive

Instead of boxing ourselves into the “do more, then stress” group of workers, Hansen wants us to become “do less, then obsess” kind of workers. Backed by qualitative and quantitative data from his 96-item survey, Hansen’s recommendations go beyond the usual “work smarter” advice of starting a calendar and being better at delegating and prioritizing. Hansen found that the top performers were not just working less, but they were obsessively focused on the value they created with the hours they worked.

“If I focus on the work that creates the most value to my organization, and I do these exceptionally well, that’s going to get noted. That is going to stand out as exceptional work. That is what the data says, and I see it time and again,” Hansen said.

Hansen’s book shares the cautionary tale of a Hewlett-Packard engineer who wasted hours of his day writing a quarterly project status report that was read by no one in the research department. “He had met his goal according to his job description, but he had contributed zero value,” Hansen said. But if you want to climb the ladders of a career, you need to do more that just accomplish goals—you need to find and meet goals that matter to your organization’s success.

On why ‘follow your passion’ is not enough

In Hansen’s study, employees who were able to match passion with purpose scored 18 points higher in their performance than passionless and purposeless employees. But if you feel like you’re in a dead-end job with no passion, quitting is not the only answer to finding meaning in your work.

Hansen said that we should expand our definition of what passion is beyond enjoying everything about our job. Maybe, you relish the sense of competition, or you enjoy collaborating with your teammates, or maybe you love creative problem solving. “Take those different passions and see if you can find areas at work where you can do that little by little,” Hansen recommends. “If you like learning and development, try to get into some training seminars…In other words, you start maneuvering yourself. In most jobs, there is some room for maneuvering…We found people who could do this.”

On how to stop a boss who is overworking you

We may want to individually apply Hansen’s lessons, but may also feel constrained by managers who demand more and more of our time. But taking every opportunity that you are assigned will not serve you well, Hansen found. “Being a yes-person is a great way to underperform,” Hansen said. “When your boss piles on stuff on you, and you say ‘yes’ …you start producing substandard work.”

To stop your work from suffering, Hansen said that you need to be assertive and set boundaries with your boss.

“You don’t say ‘no’ I don’t want to take on this assignment,” Hansen said about how you broach the conversation. Instead, he suggests telling them: “You’re giving me a new task to do and I just want to sit down with you to go through the priority list. Of these priorities, which one do you want me to do first and concentrate on? Now, we have a dialogue. You’re putting it back on the boss.”

In his book, Hansen details the story of James, a junior management consultant, who was able to successfully get his work partner to back off from piling on more work when he told him frankly that, “The merger project requires all my attention for the next three weeks, and there is no slack in the schedule. The key is to deliver the best quality, so we will need some more people on the merger project if you want me to help with the sales bid.” The honest conversation required James to be assertive about his needs and attentive to the value he created for his gamble to work.

The bottom line

These lessons on focus, and matching passion with purpose, and tactfully saying “no” show us that being great at work does not depend on bosses and coworkers. It starts with us realizing that we have agency and power over our careers to make each workday matter.