Get More Done by Focusing Less on Work

When people want to get more done at work, they double down on the time they put into their jobs. They adopt a new productivity approach, stay at the office late, work weekends, revamp to-do lists, and try to cram more into every day. But what if the secret to performing better at work, and feeling more satisfied, isn’t to putmore effort and energy into work but less? Instead of working harder and longer, what if you better integrated the four domains of your life – work, home, community, and self?  My research has shown just that: By focusing more on the areas of life you care most about, even if those aren’t work, you’ll perform better at your job.

In July 2013, I wrote a piece and launched an assessment on meant to help readers take a clear view of what they want from — and can contribute to — each domain of their lives. My advice to people was to carefully consider the people who matter most to them and the expectations they have of one another. I then suggested that they experiment with small changes to see how those tweaks affected all four domains over a short period of time — what I call “four-way wins.” I gave practical guidance derived from my book on how to conduct the experiment. (See this article for more on designing four-way win experiments.)

But — as I’ve seen in thousands of cases from years of field research, teaching, and practice — there are serious barriers to this type of integration, and even to trying small experiments. Those barriers are fear, ignorance, and guilt. People are afraid of change, don’t know how to go about it, and feel guilty even trying because they worry it will negatively impact others. If you can learn to minimize these barriers, you make it far more likely that you will try something new and successfully experiment, thereby getting more done and creating greater harmony in your life. Here’s how:

  1. Lower risk by scaling the intended new action down so it’s manageable, and less frightening. Let’s say the experiment is to shut down your digital stream periodically so you can focus on people at home and in your community. Instead of setting the goal for three hours of detox every day, try three hours per week.
  1. Gather information about what might and might not work by sharing ideas for action with stakeholders who’ll be affected. For example, let your boss know that for the next month, you’re going to try shutting down for three hours per week — and which specific hours you plan to do so. Explain to her how you believe this will benefit her and ask her what her concerns might be. If need be, adjust your plan so she sees it as a win for her, as well. Ideally, she’ll then want you to do this more often.
  1. Deliberately assess the positive impact you expect your actions to have not just on you personally, but on the people who depend on you at work, at home, and in the community — reducing any sense of selfishness you might feel because you’re doing it for themand for you. With your boss, for example, agree on a metric (e.g., your attentiveness to co-workers or your level of crankiness) that assesses an aspect of your performance that matters to you both. Then, figure out a simple way to collect data on this metric so you can quickly capture the results of your experiment and inform any further adjustments.

It might seem counterintuitive that you will perform better at work if you spend more time with your kids, leave work early to volunteer at a local nonprofit, or take an hour out of your workday to go to the gym. But that’s just what happens.

My research team observed in a 2005 study of 300 business professionals a paradoxical result (reported in my book Total Leadership): when you undertake smart experiments with the intent of better aligning your actions and your values in a way that’s consciously designed to benefit yourself, your work, your family, and your community, you are likely to spend less attention on work while experiencing enhanced well-being and better performance (as assessed by others) in all domains. Consider the following chart:





As the chart illustrates, we found that what’s important to individuals didn’t change much over the course of the four months of the experiments we studied. People still rated each domain with the same level of importance. But participants shifted their focus of attention to better match what they cared about — that is, generally away from work to other domains — family, community, and self (mind, body, spirit). At the same time, their satisfaction in every domain increased, particularly in self. It’s easiest to make gains in this domain because it’s (usually) rated lowest to begin with, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Further, the positive spillover from better experiences in the other parts of your life has an especially good effect on your mind, body, and spirit. And not only did people’s sense of well-being improve across the board, their ability to meet performance expectations — as reported to them on a standard scale by key stakeholders — went up in all domains, too.

But, how can performance at work improve with less attention paid to it? There are several reasons:

  • Clearer focus on results that really matter to the people around you.
  • Less wasted effort on activities that aren’t that important.
  • Reduced psychological interference across domains as a result of being less distracted, because you’re taking care of critical needs in those other parts.
  • A virtuous cycle of benefits from one part of your life spilling over to other parts; for example, greater confidence, less crankiness, and a stronger sense of control.

Barriers to creating meaningful changes in where you focus your attention — your most precious resource — are real, and there are ways to surmount them. Take action that’s within your control and that you believe will benefit the people who matter most to you in all the different parts of your life, gather data on your impact, and continually adjust so you’re increasingly able to do what’s good for you and for them. Your mindset will shift as you start to see more opportunities for realistic four-way wins. You just have to look for them, as a leader, in all parts of your life, by doing the basics: Envision a better future and bring others along with you.

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