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.
In the spirit of focus, Baumeister and Tierney, in their book Willpower, recount a story which set my own attitudes about priroitising for years to come.
So how exactly does a modern general plan for the future? That question was put to a group of them recently by a psychologist who had been invited to give a talk at the Pentagon about managing time and resources. To warm up the elite group of generals, he asked them all to write a summary of their approach to managing their affairs. To keep it short, he instructed each to do this in twenty-five words or less. The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.
The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: “First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three on down.”
The other generals might have objected to her approach, arguing that everyone has more than two goals, and that some projects—like, say, D-day—require more than two steps. But this general was on to something. Hers was a simple version of a strategy for reconciling the long-term with the short-term, the fussy with the fuzzy.
The simplicity of just two priorities is viciously hard to keep to – but incredibly powerful if you can do it. The most striking thing about the story is not just that only one general had the best answer, it was that they were the only one with an answer. The others couldn’t describe a system – and therefore didn’t have one.
We’re working with OKRs, a goal setting and reporting system popularised by Intel and Google, for the first time in my team at Brilliant Noise. So far I’m enjoying the process – I like that the OKR approach is as is about the process and the trying as much as the end goals. Do-or-fail end metrics warp incentives and undo alignment as much as create it sometimes.
Creating better systems that move you in the right direction, rather than big, binary targets that sound great to say, but feel awful to actually set out and achieve, can be very demotivating. As Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert says in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big:
If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.