Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More - by Morten T. Hansen



The term “focus” consists of two activities: choosing a few priorities, and then dedicating your efforts toward excelling at them. Many people prioritize a few items at work, but they don’t obsess—they simply do less. That’s a mistake.

We often disparage obsessions in our daily lives, viewing them as dangerous or debilitating. But obsession can be a productive force.

As few as you can, as many as you must. Instead of asking how many tasks you can tackle given your working hours, ask how many you can ditch given what you must do to excel.

WHEN YOU SHOULD NOT FOCUS: There are two circumstances when you may want to “do more” and not focus, at least temporarily.

  1. When you need to generate many new ideas. When we start a new task, we often don’t know what the best option will be. In this phase, academic research suggests it’s best to generate and consider many ideas.
  2. When you know your options, but are uncertain which to choose.

Tie yourself to the mast: Set clear rules ahead of time to fend off temptation and distraction. Create a rule as trivial as not allowing yourself to check email for an hour.

Say “no” to your boss: Explain to your boss that adding more to your to-do list will hurt your performance. The path to greatness isn’t pleasing your boss all the time. It’s saying “no” so that you can apply intense effort to excel in a few chosen areas.


The advice “start with goals” when planning an effort, is wrong. We need to start with value, then proceed to goals. Ask yourself: what benefits do your various work activities produce, really?

When people redesign, the key is not the degree of change they’re undertaking. Instead, it’s the magnitude of the value they can create.

Don’t just see yourself as an employee—see yourself as an innovator of work. Hunt and cure pain points, ask stupid questions, and zoom in on how you can redesign and create value for others.

Explore five ways to redesign work to create value:

  • Less fluff: eliminate existing activities of little value
  • More right stuff: increase existing activities of high value
  • More “Gee, whiz”: Create new activities of high value
  • Five star rating: improve quality of existing stuff
  • Faster, cheaper: do existing activities more efficiently.


  • LOOPING TACTIC #1 CARVE OUT THE 15 Take about 15 minutes of work time every day to improve a skill using the learning loop. Stick to the Power of One: Pick one and only one skill at a time to develop.

  • LOOPING TACTIC #2 CHUNK IT A micro-behavior is a small, concrete action you take on a daily basis to improve a skill. The action shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes to perform and review, and it should have a clear impact on skill development.

  • LOOPING TACTIC #3 MEASURE THE “SOFT” You can measure micro-behaviors associated with softer skills, as well as the result of those micro-behaviors.


  • LOOPING TACTIC #5 DIG THE DIP People who pursue the learning loop typically see their performance dip over the short term as they introduce challenges and experiment with ways to solve them. But they realize gains over time. The challenge, then, is to learn to tolerate failure in the short term.

  • LOOPING TACTIC #6 CONFRONT THE STALL POINT People seek out new improvements, but only until they reach a certain level of satisfaction. Then they stop, judging themselves “good enough.” Top performers don’t rest. They keep learning. Push beyond “stall points” by de-automating your routines.


Purpose and passion are not the same. Passion is “do what you love,” while purpose is “do what contributes.” Purpose asks, “What can I give the world?” Passion asks, “What can the world give me?”

There are three ways to expand your passions and sense of purpose:

  • Discover a new role. You can likely find that match right where you are; you don’t have to leap to another profession. Seek a new role within your existing organization that better taps your passions and gives you a stronger sense of purpose.
  • Expand the circle of passion. Feeling passionate about work isn’t just about taking pleasure in the work itself. Passion can also come from: success, creativity, social interactions, learning, and competence. Expand your circle of passion by tapping into these dimensions.
  • Climb the Purpose Pyramid. Find ways to add more value (from chapter three), taking care that your contributions don’t cause harm. Second, pursue activities that are personally meaningful, no matter what others think. It helps to reframe one’s job to experience the significance it might just hold for you. Third, pursue activities that have a clear social mission.



Forceful champions use a variety of behaviors to arouse emotions and inspire coworkers to support their efforts:

  • They make people angry about today and excited for tomorrow.
  • They show and don’t just tell, using striking photos and demos to evoke intense emotions.
  • They make people feel purpose, connecting daily tedious work to a grander purpose.

Forceful champions display smart grit to break down opposition and garner support for their projects:

  • They consider the perspective of opponents (“standing in their shoes”), tailoring their tactics to address opponents’ specific concerns and agendas.
  • They confront opponents, when needed.
  • They make concessions they can live with to appease opponents.
  • They co-opt opponents, so that they, too, feel a sense of ownership.
  • They exert pressure by mobilizing people to advocate on their behalf.



  • Present new data: “I pulled some market data from Atlanta that is interesting . . .”
  • Jot down three questions beforehand (and especially around key assumptions): “Does your number assume that customers will buy additional products?”
  • Jump into a dissenting role: “For the sake of argument, let me state an alternative point of view . . .”
  • Build on other viewpoints. (“If we expand your idea to a larger market . . .”)
  • Change your mind from time to time. Fight for the best idea, not for yours.

TIPS FOR LISTENING WELL (so that you can build on what others say)

  • Don’t interrupt. Let others finish their thoughts (except for that long-winded colleague).
  • Don’t listen just to prepare your own answer. First listen to understand (a golden nugget from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits).
  • Paraphrase what someone else said and check it for accuracy (“Did I get that right?”)
  • Make eye contact with whoever is speaking.
  • Don’t snooze. Or doodle. Or cross arms. Even if you are listening, your body language may suggest that you are not.
  • Ask nonleading questions. Look for the truth, not for confirmation of your views.
  • Put away that smartphone (multitasking doesn’t work).

To have a productive fight in meetings, pursue the following strategies, either as leader or participant:

  • Maximize diversity, not talent
  • Make it safe to speak up
  • Prod the quiet to speak
  • Show up as an advocate, not a salesperson
  • Ask nonleading questions.

To improve team unity, try the following:

  • Ensure everyone has a voice (being heard creates buy-in)
  • Commit, especially when you utterly disagree
  • Confront the prima donna
  • Sharpen the team goal
  • Stop playing office politics and get behind decisions.


Disciplined collaboration consists of the following five rules:

  1. Establish the business case—a compelling reason—for any proposed collaboration initiative, small or large. If it’s questionable, say no.
  2. Craft a unifying goal that excites people, so that they prioritize this project.
  3. Reward people for collaboration results, not activities.
  4. Commit full resources—time, skills, and money—to the collaboration. If you can’t obtain those resources, narrow its scope or kill it.
  5. Tailor trust boosters—quickly—to specific trust problems in the partnership.


  • SPEND YOUR TIME DIVIDEND You have two choices: You can reinvest that extra time in work, or you can spend it on outside personal and family time.

  • KEEP YOUR PASSION IN CHECK Even if you’re working a reasonable number of hours, don’t let your passion for work seep into your leisure time. If you’re thinking about work while you’re having dinner with friends or watching your kid’s baseball game, you’re too passionate about work. If you have trouble falling asleep at night because you’re thinking about work, or you find yourself checking your email in the bathroom at 3 a.m., you’re too passionate about your job.

  • DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY—AND DON’T FIGHT NASTY Don’t shy away from “mental” fights in meetings, but be sure to fight in the right way. As we discussed in chapter seven, don’t make your fighting in team meetings personal, and don’t take the comments cast in your direction personally, either. Avoid inflammatory language (“that’s a stupid idea”), because such toxic language upsets people. Likewise, when other people make disputes personal in a meeting, try to reorient them. One great tactic is to get more objective, highlighting impersonal data, facts, and numbers as opposed to emotion-laden opinions. Another is to play “devil’s advocate,” a tactic that reduces interpersonal conflict by allowing you to play a role rather than speaking for yourself (“for the sake of argument, I am going to disagree”). Make fights about ideas, not people. The quality of your debates will improve, the emotional conflict will subside, and your sense of well-being will be better.