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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Secret to Success Isn't Doing More—It's Doing Less

I was in a Starbucks this morning and looked around. Every single person I could see—dressed in his or her business finest—was perched in place, looking down at a phone. Swiping, texting, and furrowed brows galore.

Being busy seems to be the national pastime. Just think: How many times have you picked up your cell phone at 11 PM and fired off responses to email? More is better—right?

Our always-on mindset may have deluded you into thinking that’s true, but research doesn’t agree. There’s a science-backed reason we have a 40-hour wor kweek. Researchers proved that 40 hours optimized productivity. After 40 hours, the more work hours added, the less that actually gets done. It’s called the law of diminishing returns.

And if you look at the most successful people in the world—from corporate executives to elite musicians—their lives also prove that more is, well, not more. If you want the same kind of success in your career, look to these star performers and learn how to do less.

Think Like an Executive

Look around at the executives in your organization. Do they know exactly what it’s going to take to earn their quarterly or year-end bonuses? Of course they do! Do they answer every email they get? Probably not—especially not the ones that don’t align with their key performance goals.

Spend a week or two observing those executives. They are singularly focused on what they’re accountable for achieving. Every request they make, every question they ask in a presentation, and every email they send out is focused on those goals.

Now, apply that to your own work. If your compensation was tied only to you achieving your top goals, how would that change your day? Would you really drop everything to attend that meeting that doesn’t actually require your input? Would you spend 20 minutes on a conference call, when you could easily get the notes from a co-worker? Think about it.

If you aren’t clear on what your goals are, get with your manager and make sure you know exactly how your performance will be measured. Then become the CEO of your job (because that’s exactly what you are!).

Practice Like an Elite Musician

Elite violinists may not be bound by the same 40-hour work week, but the same principle applies. Research found that these high performers practiced no more than the mediocre musicians. Instead, they simply focused their practice times to twice-daily 90-minute sessions, took breaks in between those sessions, and got more sleep.

The results? They outperformed the average musicians who spread their practice times throughout the day.

Elite violinists consistently and deliberately practice twice a day for 90 minutes each time, without interruption. Then—recognizing the law of diminishing returns—they walk away.

You can compress your key priority work into similar sessions. Simply focus solely on your most valued tasks, without interruption or distraction, for 90 minutes. Take a break in between, and then get back to your deliberate focus.

That interruption-free zone is important. Numerous studies conclude that focused, distraction-free work zones allow you to get more done in less time. Not convinced? Try working for one day without constantly checking email, social media, or texts while you work. You’ll clearly see that avoiding interruptions is your path to productivity success.

Sleep Like a World-Class Performer

No matter how much you work, working in a fatigued state sabotages your results.

Those elite musicians I mentioned? They took naps in the afternoon and got a solid eight hours of sleep per night. It turns out that being able to embrace a relaxed state—by getting enough sleep and feeling rested—is essential to being able to perform at a world-class level.

As a busy professional, it can certainly be challenging to get the recommended amount of sleep each night. But adjusting your schedule is worth it—you’ll immediately begin to reap the benefits, from lower risk of health issues to improved productivity.

By starting these practices now, you’ll start getting in shape for your own elite career performance. Being distracted by social media and constant interruptions takes your eye off the ball—and off your chances to excel. If you think like an executive and behave like a world-class musician, you’ll be building the discipline, rigor, and patience to get more done by doing less.

Photo of relaxed woman courtesy of Shutterstock.

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