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Obsess on less for greater success

The Hamilton Spectator by Maja Jovanovic 22 June 2018

When someone asks something of you, do you usually say “yes” without hesitation? Do you say “yes” more often then you’d like and then regret the decision or resent the request? I have recently become obsessed with how people make decisions and the consequences of poor decision-making on productivity. I have found that the ultrasuccessful have very specific strategies for decision-making that we can readily implement.

We all have 168 hours in a week, yet some people seem to be incredibly efficient with their time, highly prolific with their work, and it has to do with how they make decisions.

The latest research by psychologist and management professor Morten Hansen shows that some people do, in fact, perform better than others, and it has nothing to do with working harder, longer or smarter. Dr. Hansen’s five-year study of more than 5,000 employees and managers in North American companies showed that the No. 1 practice for productivity is do less, then obsess. People who decided to focus on a few key tasks at hand and then obsess about them scored 25 percentage points higher. So, if you are at the 60th percentile, and you do less than obsess, you increase 25 points, so now you are at 85th percentile, meaning, you are more productive than 84 per cent of the rest of the people. Who would not want to gain 25 percentage points of productivity, whether you are learning a new language, developing a new skill, working on a project, or writing a paper?

According to Dr. Hansen, we do not apply the do-less-then-obsess strategy for two key reasons; first, we are obsessed with saying “yes” to every darn request that comes our way. Some of us suffer from the disease-to-please, thinking that saying “yes” is synonymous with niceness, and that a yes will protect us from rejection or confrontations. Journalist Sarah Knight wrote a bestselling book about women’s obsession with saying yes and encourages women to ask themselves three questions before saying yes (“Do you have the time, money or energy to say yes to this request?”)

The second reason for not adhering to the do-less-then-obsess strategy is we are a nation addicted to multitasking. The neuroscience research is robust on how devastating multitasking is for our brains, our efficiency and our productivity, yet, we persist. Everyone thinks multitasking is a badge of honour — an admirable trait to mention in a job interview, for instance — but research shows us the opposite. People assume they can handle multiple things at once, but you can not. Your brain can only concentrate on one issue at a time. When you attempt to do multiple things, you may feel like you are multitasking, but your brain is simply rapidly switching from task to task. Can you speak on the phone while writing an email? Not really. Every single interruption, no matter the size, wastes time and depletes the brain of nutrients.

So, how do we stop multitasking and implement the do less, then obsess strategy?

Start saying no more often than you would like to. One way to get comfortable with this is to implement what Brendon Burchard (New York Times bestselling author of “High Performance Habits”) calls the rationalization tool. When a request is made of you, ask yourself a series of questions. Is this a planned request? Will this help you grow or lead? Is this a passion of yours? Is this really your issue or problem to deal with?

Set yourself up for success by pre-empting distractions and interruptions. When you do your work, ensure your phone and messaging alerts are off. Keep track of how long you can enter what Cal Newport calls deep work (distraction-free concentration that stretches your cognitive abilities) versus shallow work (noncognitively demanding work).

Every single decision you make moves you either closer or further away from your ultimate goals for yourself. Whether you choose to be constantly multitasking or saying yes to needless requests of your time are both decisions that you can change. If we want to become more productive and efficient with our time, we need to break some bad habits that lead to poor decision-making; multitasking and our obsession with saying yes.

Prof. Maja Jovanovic is a sociologist at McMaster University, a guest expert on CTV’s “The Social,” and is a member of the Leadership Forum.