What’s it take to improve your level of work? On the Harvard Business Review blog, author Tony Schwartz pairs his personal research with that of Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson to come up with an answer. Their findings? To improve your work requires six key steps, the same steps utilized in a well-balanced and acutely planned workout. Schwartz:
We’ve found that it’s possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we do a muscle: push past your comfort zone, and then rest…it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work…
Here, then, are the six keys to achieving excellence…
1. Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.
2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else…
3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity…
A common misconception about improving our quality of work is that constant practice is all it takes. But, as Schwartz explains, deliberate practice is only one key to improvement. To get the most benefit from our practice we have to be excited about the work we do, know how to challenge ourselves effectively, and understand the immense value of a well-timed break.
Get all six of Schwartz’s keys to moving towards better work over on HBR.
No one really cares that you’re an overachiever. As creative professionals, we’re seldom satisfied with our output because it’s seldom perfect. But more often than not, good enough is perfect. Head of Creative & Design at HubSpot, Keith Frankel, shared a simple guide to recognizing when a deliverable can be considered “good enough.”
- It successfully solves the problem, addresses the need, or conveys the message intended.
- It is clearly and distinctly on brand.
- The quality of work is consistent with or above the level of previous work.
- It has been thoroughly yet objectively scrutinized by other qualified individuals.
- The final decision of preference had been left in the hands of the creator.
According to Ayelet Gneezy, Associate Professor at the University of California in San Diego’s Rady School of Management, “You really, really want to keep a promise, and anything beyond that is marginal, if anything…Don’t kill yourself trying to over deliver.”
If you’re struggling to feel motivated, using tricks or treats may be all you need to get the momentum going again. Illustrator James Victore swears by the unique approach to getting unstuck:
The first step of getting motivated: identify the type of motivation problem you’re having. Are you not motivated by the work itself (such as it doesn’t excite you) or are you lacking internal motivation (like a lack of energy because you didn’t sleep well last night)?
Once you know the type of motivation problem you’re having, you can motivate yourself with tricks like forcing yourself to work for one hour by using a stop watch, or promising a co-worker or peer that you’ll get something done in the next 30 minutes. Anything that can “trick” you into getting started on the work.
Alternatively, the treats approach is just that — a literal treat. If you make progress on (or finish) the work, reward yourself with something you’ve been wanting for a long time.
We’ve all been there. Attended an exhilarating conference, met fascinating people and left charged… Only to get back home, feeling overwhelmed, pulled quickly back into our day-to-day, to the point that we don’t follow-up or follow-through to maximize our conference experience.
On Linkedin Pulse, Nedko Nedkov offers strategies for acting on the learning that takes place at conferences. He suggests:
Before you leave the conference there’s two things you need to do. One, is schedule a 30 minutes meeting with your team for the very first day when you arrive back in the office. The second is schedule a one hour slot for yourself either on the very first day or the very next day when you get back.
During the team meeting, Nedkov suggests a conference debrief of what was learned and what’s to come, including any assignments. During your personal one-on-one, he suggests that you go through any conference notes and start identifying to-dos and what’s next.
The intentionality of sharing and considering what you learned and turning that knowledge into action can possibly make the difference between harnessing that electric energy that we feel after an awesome conference and feeling guilty that we did nothing.
Projects fail all the time. Rather than wait for an ugly postmortem that often follows, why not try to help avert real failures before they happen by playing devil’s advocate.
In an interview with The McKinsey Quarterly, psychologist Gary Klein advocates for the use of what he calls a “premortem” in the planning phase, a concept he first introduced on HBR:
Before a project starts, we should say, “We’re looking in a crystal ball, and this project has failed; it’s a fiasco. Now, everybody, take two minutes and write down all the reasons why you think the project failed.”
By making it safe for resistors to voice their concerns during the planning phase, you can improve your project’s chance for success.
Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project conducted what he calls The Energy Audit with 160 bank executives and discovered a series of startling things which further supported his theory that we’re all experiencing an under-recognized personal energy crisis:
Energy, after all, is the capacity to do work. In the face of relentlessly rising demand, fuelled by digital technology and the expectation of instant 24/7 responsiveness, employees around the world are increasingly burning down their energy reserves and depleting their capacity.
Tony urges us to think of our energy as divided into four layers:
Your physical energy – how healthy are you?
Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
Your mental energy – how well can you focus on something?
Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?
Building up all four of these elements for a greater capacity of physical energy will build the base for getting better at whatever it is you want to improve.
Trying to nail down a great idea in a large group of intelligent individuals can be unwise. For every reason to go forward with an idea, someone will think of a reason not to. By overanalyzing the concept, any progress gets paralyzed.
In advertising communicator George Lois’ book Damn Good Advice, he tells creatives to avoid collaboration with large teams until after you have your big idea:
The accepted system for the creation of innovative thinking in a democratic environment is to work cooperatively in a team like ambience. Don’t believe it… The greatest innovative thinker of our age remains Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, a modern-day Henry Ford. Jobs was not a consensus builder but a dictator who listened to his own intuitions, blessed with an astonishing aesthetic sense.
Lois says to trust your gut. Collaborate with a maximum of three people so decisions can be finalized. Once you have a solid idea, then use teamwork to bring the idea to life.