Typically, people start a new year resolved to achieve more than the previous year.
How, though? Some people make what I have always thought is a frankly strange commitment to “say yes to everything”. Others do the opposite, resolving to say no more frequently. In reality, either of those extremes could lead to bad outcomes.
Take the commitment to be busy, busy, busy all the time. Workaholism beckons for those who cannot turn down requests. Being absorbed in the task can mitigate workaholism’s worst effects, according to an Academy of Management Discoveries study published last year, but still anxiety about the job or obsessive ambition paves a pathway to health problems.
Accumulating multiple commitments poses other risks, too. If you try to do more than one thing, you will not be as efficient as if you concentrated on a single task. A 2001 paper found that people toggling between tasks took longer to solve complex maths problems than those who concentrated on one job. A separate 2015 study of Milanese judges determined that those who tried to handle several cases simultaneously took longer to complete them.
Still, the cult of busyness is a powerful one. If you started this year with a view to doing less, you will quickly have felt guilty about the jobs you turned down — and the possible missed opportunities. I am always reminded of overachieving sitcom shrink Frasier’s retort, when his brother Niles reminds him that “less is more”: “Yes — but if less is more, think how much more ‘more’ will be!”
Academic Morten Hansen, whose book is out this month, is Norwegian. To illustrate the importance of prioritising, he cites his compatriot Roald Amundsen, who won the race to be the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911.
In the UK, this is usually told as a tale of heroic failure: explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his team arrived at the pole to find the Norwegian flag flying. On the return leg, they were caught in the encroaching winter blizzard, falling a few miles short of safety and perishing in the Antarctic snow and dark.
Prof Hansen believes Amundsen’s success came down to his obsessive focus on using only dogs and sleds to transport his team. Scott was better resourced: he had raised more money, had a larger crew, and set off with multiple options, including motorised sleds, ponies and dogs. But the complexity of the Scott approach — in an ominous insight, the naval officer referred to his “disorganised fleet” — proved fatal. The different British cohorts had to set off at different times and try to co-ordinate their speed. Amundsen, who had concentrated on getting the best dogs, the best handlers and the best training, was far quicker. “By the time Amundsen reached the pole, he was more than 300 miles ahead,” writes Prof Hansen. “Amundsen had chosen one method and mastered it. He had done less, then obsessed.”
That catchphrase is an antidote to the assumption that just saying no will automatically yield a better outcome. Doing less “comes with this harsh requirement that . . . you have to obsess [about what you choose to do],” Prof Hansen told me, “because if you don’t obsess you don’t have an advantage over the people who are doing more things”.
Prof Hansen studied the performance of 5,000 people and discovered that those who pursued a strategy of “do less, then obsess” ranked 25 percentage points higher than those who did not embrace the practice. He and his team also found that it was dangerous to assume that “passion” was a key to success. In fact, passion can lead people down the wrong road, to failure or burnout. The best performers in the study were those who matched passion for their job with a purpose, which could be as simple as making a meaningful contribution to the organisation.
Beware the danger of collaborating too little — or too much. While sharing important information can be critical, the fad for “busting silos” can go too far. Expert teams may be distracted by “helpful” outside contributions they did not need. “Think about actual corn silos: if you bust those, you’ve got corn everywhere,” points out Prof Hansen.
Finally, do not assume that achieving more is entirely down to the individual. Managers have a responsibility to help employees exercise self-discipline. Too often, organisations measure success by volume of work done — the law firm’s billable hours, say — or try to match the size of a team to the perceived importance of the project. Sometimes, though, the best approach may be to simplify a process, cut the size of a team, or impose a new strategic focus. How can you and your team achieve more this year? Try taking something away.
Words by Andrew Hill
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