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This is how to “work smarter not harder”: 3 secrets from research

“Work smarter, not harder.” Sounds good. But how do you actually do that?


Well, luckily someone finally took up the challenge of finding a clear answer…

UC Berkeley professor Morten Hansen looked at 200 academic papers, interviewed 120 experts, ran a pilot study on 300 subjects, and built a framework which he then tested on 5000 participants from various industries and backgrounds.

He found 7 behaviors that made up 66% of the difference in how people performed. (By comparison, standard metrics like education, age, and hours worked were only responsible for 10% combined.)

His new book is Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More.

We’re gonna look at 3 of his findings so that we can get better work done in less time — and even achieve that mythical “work-life balance” unicorn everyone is always talking about.

Let’s start with the single most effective strategy he uncovered …

1) Do less — Then obsess

Everyone agrees we need to quit trying to accomplish 9000 things at once and stop multitasking. But when Hansen looked at the data he found that this was only half the solution.

Top performers definitely focus on fewer goals — but they also obsess like crazy over them.

From Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More:

Once they had focused on a few priorities, they obsessed over those tasks to produce quality work. That extreme dedication to their priorities created extraordinary results. Top performers did less and more: less volume of activities, more concentrated effort. This insight overturns much conventional thinking about focusing that urges you to choose a few tasks to prioritize. Choice is only half of the equation— you also need to obsess.

This strategy alone took your run-of-the-mill performer at the 50th percentile and shot them into the 75th percentile. So how do you do it?

By using a variation on a classic scientific principle. “Occam’s Razor” says the simplest answer is often the best. So start ruthlessly cutting all the activities in your workday that aren’t producing value.

From Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More:

Shave away unnecessary tasks, priorities, committees, steps, metrics, and procedures. Channel all your effort into excelling in the remaining activities. Ask: How many tasks can I remove, given what I must do to excel? Remember: As few as you can, as many as you must.

Cut things and see what happens. Do you have to check email every 5 minutes? Will the world end if you don’t go to that meeting?

And if you’re really scared, do as Georgetown professor Cal Newport recommends and have a conversation with your boss about priorities. You’re probably making a lot of inaccurate assumptions about what “must” be done and how important some things are.

Reduce the number of activities you perform — and reallocate that time to intensity.

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Alright, so you’re doing less and obsessing more. Another way to “work smarter, not harder” is to get better at your job. But how do top performers keep improving — with a minimum amount of effort?

2) Use “The Learning Loop”

Everybody knows about the 10,000 hour theory of expertise. What most people forget is that it’s 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” — challenging yourself — not 10,000 hours of sleepwalking through your job.

Deliberate practice seems straightforward in sports, music or chess. But how do you do it in the modern workplace? Hansen offers some clear steps:

  • Pick one and only one skill at a time to develop. It’s “do less and obsess” all over again. Trying to get better at everything at once gets you nowhere. Right now you want to be better at giving presentations. So creating better reports will have to wait.
  • Carve out your 15. Dedicate 15 minutes a day to reviewing your performance on a workplace skill. Evaluate what you’re doing and how you could get better. What do those people in the best TED talks do that you don’t when giving presentations?
  • Isolate micro-behaviors. Just like a baseball player might try to improve a specific element of their game (batting, fielding, or running), you want to break down what goes into a good presentation and set a goal. “I’m going to make more eye contact” or “I should speak more slowly.”
  • Get feedback. After the presentation, ask people how you did and what you can do to improve.

Some might think this sounds like a lot of work. And trying to improve means inevitably making some mistakes. Why not just do what you’re already good at and always look competent?

Because the research is clear: that works in the short term but it’s a path to mediocrity in the long term.

Doctors that only worked on easy cases performed better initially… but those that took on difficult problems improved their skills and went on to surpass those who didn’t challenge themselves.

From Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More:

For a clinic’s first 100 cases, doctors who stuck with less complicated patients enjoyed a higher success rate. After 100 cases, doctors who had treated more difficult patients all along snuck into the lead, because benefits from their learning kicked in. At 400 cases, their success rates surpassed those of the “easy case” doctors by 3.3 percent, and their learning continued.

Hansen found that those who pushed themselves to get better ranked 15 points higher on performance metrics.

(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

This all sounds great but where do you get the energy to obsess and engage in all this deliberate practice?

3) Feel passion & purpose

Top performers didn’t merely “follow their passion.” They also had a sense of purpose in what they did. This combo produced huge results. It boosted energy levels and increased the amount of effort they were able to exert.

From Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More:

Analyzing our data, we discovered a strong association between intensity of effort and having both passion and purpose. We performed an additional analysis called “structural equation modeling” where we disentangled two types of effort— the number of hours worked per week, and effort during those hours. The analysis showed that passion and purpose strongly predict effort during working hours, and not the number of hours worked per week

But some people will say they’re not passionate about their work. Here’s where things got interesting. Hansen found that there were people with passion and purpose in everyindustry and job he studied.

At least 10% of people in every arena and role examined had passion and purpose. How is this possible? Some jobs just don’t seem all that exciting and sexy…

It’s because people think passion has to come from being excited about the tasks you perform. It doesn’t. Hansen found there were 6 ways to derive passion from your work:

  • Task passion: The obvious one. What you do excites you.
  • Achievement passion: A salesperson might not be keen on the product, but they get a high every time they close a big deal.
  • Creative passion: An engineer might not be thrilled about the project, but they love solving hard problems.
  • People passion: The company or the job might not be that great, but you love supporting and interacting with the people around you.
  • Learning passion: We’ve all heard someone say that they love what they do because they learn something new every day.
  • Competence passion: We all get excited when we’re doing something we’re good at.

And purpose is about creating value for others in a way that is personally meaningful to you. Like passion, this is less about the actual tasks you perform and more about how you frame them.

Shoveling elephant poop does not seem terribly meaningful. And when looked at in that limited frame, it isn’t. But when you love animals, it can be deeply meaningful — as a study of zookeepers revealed.

From Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More:

In a 2009 study of zookeepers, researchers found that some saw cleaning cages and feeding animals as a filthy, meritless job, while others saw it as a moral duty to protect and provide proper care for the animals. Same job, different feelings of purpose.

Passion can come from many angles. And purpose is all about how you see the value you create for others.

(To learn 6 rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)

We’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and see how these “work smarter, not harder” tips can lead to better work-life balance…

Sum up

This is how to work smarter not harder:

  • Do Less, Then Obsess: As Mark Twain quipped, “Put all your eggs in one basket — and watch that basket!”
  • Use The Learning Loop: Push yourself now and your job gets easier later.
  • Feel Passion & Purpose: You don’t have to play in the NFL or be the next Beyoncé to feel passionate about your job. And purpose can even involve elephant poop.

“Do less, then obsess” had huge positive effects on work-life balance metrics — a whopping 26 percentile points. However…

“Passion & Purpose” actually reduced work-life balance. Makes sense though: when you’re passionate about your job, you spend more time doing it, and those hours have to come from somewhere.

From Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More:

Previous studies of employee engagement— a concept similar to passion— have also suggested a link between passion and poor work-life balance. A study of 844 firefighters, hairstylists, educators, caregivers, bankers, and other working adults in the United States revealed that employee engagement— measured by an employee’s degree of vigor, dedication, and absorption in work (“when I am working, I forget everything else around me”)— increased work’s interference with family life (“my work keeps me from my family activities more than I would like”).

But this is one of those problems that’s good to have.

When we think about work-life balance, we’re usually worried about being overwhelmed by stressful duties that interfere with our personal lives.

If you’re filled with passion and purpose in your work during the day and finding joy with friends and family during the evening, well, that’s a work-life balance problem we’d all be lucky to have.

Balancing “work” and “life” is stressful — but balancing two different sources of passion can be wonderful.

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How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

This column first appeared at Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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Eric Barker

Eric Barker is the author of "Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong." He is also the author of the website by the same name.