Work With Common Sense
Great at Work

Work With Common Sense

Morten T. Hansen Ph.D. shares the results of his prodigious research into how to work smarter.

Morten T. Hansen Ph.D. — management professor at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member at Apple University — launched a massive research project into what “working smarter” actually means. He tracked the practices and performance of 5,000 managers and employees and distilled the data into seven top-performance principles. The principles are simple — for example, winnow your tasks to the important few and focus on them intensely. However, Hansen recognizes that putting his principles into practice amid the pressures of modern business is more difficult.

Being great at work means performing in your job, infusing your work with passion and a strong sense of purpose, and living well, too.Morten T. Hansen

His team found that the top performers don’t work longer hours. Instead, they make each hour count by following seven “work-smart” principles.

“Do Less, Then Obsess”

When people strive to excel, Hansen points out, they often believe they should work more than everyone else. These people often multitask constantly, shifting their attention among activities, thus reducing their effectiveness at each task.

Rapidly toggling between two items — reading emails and listening to a colleague’s presentation for example — renders you less effective at both.Morten T. Hansen

The best performers commit to a smaller range of priorities and concentrate on doing those tasks correctly. Hansen suggests that instead of calculating how many tasks you can finish, see how many you can eliminate and still reach your overall goal. Remove internet capability from a work-only laptop. Arrive at your office an hour early and stay an hour late. Ask your boss to identify priorities, and make it clear you want to focus on the most important ones.

Principle Two: “Redesign Your Work”

To prioritize the elements of a complex, unwieldy workflow, Hansen advises streamlining your load to increase your efficiency. Calculate the importance of a task by assessing the value it provides for you, your co-workers or your firm. Value is a more effective metric than conventional quotas or productivity targets. 

When you create value for your organization, you contribute and your work has purpose.Morten T. Hansen

To measure value, the author recommends considering an activity from an “outside-in view.” Conventionally, businesspeople take an “inside-out view” to measure performance by internal targets. This view conflates accomplishment with activity. With an outside-in view, the main metric isn’t how fast a task gets done, but how it benefits other stakeholders, such as your customers, your colleagues or the business as a whole. 

“Don’t Just Learn — Loop”

Hansen offers “the learning loop,” which calls for integrating a learning practice into your daily responsibilities. Carry out your tasks, solicit feedback on your performance and tweak your techniques in response.

Small changes in behaviors can have a disproportionate effect on outcomes.Morten T. Hansen

Concentrate on one skill at a time, and devote a quarter-hour daily to honing it apart from other tasks. Practice one micro-behavior, such as learning how to ask questions that spark creative thinking. Monitor your growth in the number of new ideas that your team members propose. Regularly ask a co-worker, a boss or a mentor for concrete evaluations of your performance.

After you improve a skill, your performance will drop slightly because you’ve moved up to a new level of expertise you have yet to master. When you master a skill, you do it without thinking.


Passion matters, but Hansen notes that passion can’t guarantee success. Combine your passion with your purpose; in his terms, that’s P-squared. 

Some people pursue passion in navigating their careers, but they also manage to connect this passion with a clear sense of purpose on the job; they contribute, serve others, make a difference.Morten T. Hansen

Passion involves the enjoyable parts of a task. Purpose describes the benefits it provides to others. P-squared generates energy. To find P-squared in your work, reframe your job, or design a new role for yourself. Seek opportunities to generate value and meaning. Appreciate how your work benefits others. Seek responsibilities that serve society, as did, for example, the Scripps Health manager who mobilized a team to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. 

“Be a Forceful Champion”

Successful persuaders, Hansen relates, combine logical arguments with appeals to emotions. To stir people’s emotions, try demonstrating your points visually instead of talking about them.

To work smart means to maximize the value of your work by selecting a few activities and applying intense targeted effort.Morten T. Hansen

Inspire purpose by connecting your proposals to a greater cause. As you try to persuade your listeners, modify your approach based on what you learn about your opponents. As Hansen notes with his core of practicality, when you understand their perspective and reasoning, you can counter it effectively or make concessions that neutralize it.

Co-opt your adversaries by inviting them to join your project. They won’t regard your proposal as a threat if you let them share in its success. 

Principle Six: “Fight and Unite”

Bad meetings often waste time and produce a need for more meetings. Hansen suggests two contrasting modes to get past useless meetings: Fight, or allow debate in which participants challenge each other’s opinions, dissect assumptions and examine options; or Unite, or before adjourning, come to a firm decision and have every participant commit to it.

 “Two Sins of Collaboration”

When a team with expertise in a certain area solicits help or advice from other departments, it often performs worse than when it operates solo. That’s the sin of “overcollaboration.”

Getting our work done hinges on our ability to gain support from others, including bosses, subordinates, peers, colleagues in other departments and partners.Morten T. Hansen

Avoid this pitfall by seeking help only in areas where you lack proficiency. On the other hand, avoid the sin of “undercollaboration” by breaking down silos that discourage effective communication.

Beyond Work

This book is a crucial basic text. Hansen’s comprehensive research provides a treasure trove of counterintuitive and contrary-to-popular-mythology advice. If you follow only his urging to work fewer, more productive hours, you will gain great value from his prose. And you will gain great pleasure from the clarity with which Hansen describes his research and what he and others learned from it.

Hansen does not offer self-help, exhortations or slogans. He provides a meticulous, common-sense plan for garnering greater success and pleasure from your labors. His awareness of the natural human tendency to self-contradictory thoughts and actions makes his practical advice all the more valuable.

Morten T. Hansen also wrote Collaboration and co-wrote the New York Times bestseller Great by Choice with Jim Collins.

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