Do less to succeed in business
Jan 30, 2018

The study

How to Succeed in Business? Do Less by Morten T. Hansen

In 2011, I de­cided to try to an­swer the ques­tion of why some peo­ple out­per­form oth­ers. I re­cruited a team of researchers with ex­per­tise in sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis and be­gan gen­er­at­ing a set of hy­pothe­ses about which spe­cific behaviors lead to high performance. We then con­ducted a five-year sur­vey of 5,000 man­agers and em­ploy­ees, including sales reps, lawyers, ac­tu­ar­ies, bro­kers, med­ical doc­tors, soft­ware programmers, en­gi­neers, store man­agers, plant fore­men, nurses and even a Las Ve­gas casino dealer.

Key takeaways

The top performers mastered selectivity.

Whenever they could, they carefully selected which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel.

Apply Occam’s Razor.

The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry neatly formulated the same idea in his memoir: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

Say no to your boss.

The next time your boss piles on new work, en­forc­ing an old-fash­ioned “work harder” men­tal-ity, try ask­ing if he or she would like you to repri­or­i­tize, giv­ing less at­ten­tion to pre­vi­ously dis­cussed tasks. Put the de­ci­sion back on their shoul­ders. In our data, peo­ple who fo­cused on a nar­row scope of work, and said no to main­tain that strat­egy, out­per-formed oth­ers who didn’t. They placed an im­pres­sive 25 per­cent-age points higher in the per­formance rank­ing—the dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing a mid­dling and an ex­cel­lent per­former.

What value can I create?

The best performers instead ask a crucial question before they draft their goals: What value can I create? And by value, they mean the key benefits they bring to customers and others, not themselves.


So much in our workplaces is premised on the conventional wisdom that hard work is the road to success, and that working the hardest makes you a star. Our analysis suggests the opposite. Yes, the best performers work hard (about 50 hours a week in our data, like Natalie), but they don’t outperform because they work longer hours. They outperform because they have the courage to cut back and simplify when others pile on, to say “no” when others say “yes,” to pursue value when others just meet internal goals, and to change how they do their jobs when others stick with the status quo.

We should no longer take it as an au­to­matic com­pli­ment to hear that we’re “hard work­ing.” Hard work isn’t al­ways the best work. The key is to work smarter.