As a newly promoted managing director, I was transferred to the London office to start up a new business line. I knew I had a lot to prove but was committed to doing whatever it took to make a success of it

Full of energy and excitement but without a ready-made team waiting to help me, I soon realized I had vastly underestimated the scope of the task I had taken on. I ended up doing most things myself – too many things.

Always a hard worker, I just kept redoubling my efforts and working harder. I worked longer and longer hours. My family hardly saw me and when I was home, I was too tired and preoccupied with work to be any fun.

But the human body can’t sustain that level of work and I found myself becoming less effective with people and making poor decisions. And by driving myself too hard for too long, I almost burned out.

Just as redoubling my efforts stopped delivering better results beyond a certain point, working harder probably isn’t the answer for you and your team either.

In fact, more isn’t always better

To get better results when you’re already working as hard as you can, here are three steps you can take. These worked for me and I hope they work for you too.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. How far are you from optimal?
  2. Innovate on the “how”
  3. Flex your standards

Let’s start with the first step.

Figure out how far you are from your optimal point

We all have an optimal mix of work and play that delivers the best results. If you were to work out your muscles for 8 hours straight without taking a rest, they wouldn’t develop. You need time to recover.

As the saying goes, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” We all need a mixture in our lives to do our best work and be our best selves.

One way to measure the right blend of work and play is to consider the concept of diminishing returns. I learned this in my intro to economics class decades ago and it provides a visual way to identify whether you’re working too hard.

Diminishing returns graph

At first, by working harder and putting in more time and effort, you get more results. But at some point, you’ll get tired and putting in that extra hour of work won’t be as effective as the first few hours of work you did when you were fresh.

And if you keep pushing yourself like I did, you’ll end up on the downward part of the curve where you get worse results from that extra hour of work. That’s when your results will improve by sleeping, exercising or taking a break instead.

Think about yourself. Where are you on the curve? To what extent are you driving yourself (and your team) too hard?

Maybe you’re working on a presentation and insisting on drilling down until you finish it in one sitting when it might take less time overall and turn out even better if you broke it into 2-3 sessions over a couple of days.

Or perhaps you’re spending hours trying to solve a problem and frustrated that you’re getting nowhere. To get out of that diminishing returns territory, you could simply take a walk or listen to music so you can come back to the issue refreshed. You might even come up with better ideas by taking a break and allowing your brain to surface new ideas behind the scenes.

If you’re at the optimal point, congratulations. If you’re regularly on the diminishing returns side, it’s time to pull back and focus on step 2.

Challenge yourself to innovate on the “how”

I love the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”. That’s the bit I missed when I landed in London. Instead I kept using the strategy that worked for me for 10 years: keep working harder.

I needed to find new ways of getting things done and driving toward results. If you do too, then here are a few questions that can help you innovate on how to get to the end result you want.

  • How could you get more done with and through others?
    Think about who’s in your network and how you could leverage those contacts and relationships to generate new ideas, get feedback or enlist help implementing your strategy.
  • How could you systematize the process and gain efficiencies?
    When you have recurring types of projects, consider breaking it down into its component tasks and figuring out how to create templates so you can save time in the future. This will also make things easier to delegate.
  • What new approaches could you discover from another sector or function?
    Sometimes connecting the dots from one area of your life and applying it to another gives you a simpler and more effective solution.
  • What assumptions are you making about constraints and obstacles?
    Which ones do you need to pressure test to see if they’re real or artificial? Like assuming there’s no budget for something when the problem could be solved easily by investing some money and you could easily make a compelling case for that spending being worthwhile for your unit (or your family)?

The goal is to see how you can improve your process and approach to use less time and energy to achieve the same result or better. And to do that in a sustainable way.

Alongside innovations, you’ll want to think about step 3.

Flex your standards

When you’re a hard worker, it often comes along with a perfectionist streak. In my case, that meant having high standards and applying those standards of excellence to everything I did. Even when “good enough” was good enough. But that can backfire.

Like the time my boss asked for information on a client and I did a ton of research and produced a 10-page PowerPoint deck complete with footnotes and color graphics. But when I handed it to him 6 hours later, he was disappointed. “I just wanted a quick and dirty one pager, not for you to spend so much time on it.”

So before you tackle your project, start by getting clear on what’s “good enough” for the situation and audience you’re serving.  This isn’t about doing bad work, but rather about being able to choose the level of excellence to suit the situation.

And if you struggle not to do things to the highest standard, think about whether you could consider what you’re doing a pilot version, after which you can always roll out versions 1.0, 2.0 and keep iterating.

But what if you like working hard?

Working hard is great, but make sure you’re working on the right things and setting a sustainable pace for yourself.

And if you’re leading others, remember that each of us has a different capacity and work style. Just as you need to respect your own ways, make sure you respect theirs too. So resist the inclination to make everyone around you feel like they must do the same as you.

Just don’t sabotage yourself by making these two common mistakes

The first mistake is treating your time and energy as limitless.

It’s essential to set boundaries to preserve your energy, creativity and time for the other things that matter to you in your life. And if you insist on doing everything yourself, that leaves less development opportunities for your team… which is one of the things that makes someone a bad boss.

The second mistake is thinking what worked for you up until now is still the best strategy going forward.

As you become more experienced and senior, the expectations of you will change. The things that people look to you to provide will be different. Just as the CEO who came up through the Sales department isn’t expected to spend her time making sales calls to hit a quota anymore, you’ll need to change your way of working too.

So the next time you have the urge to simply “work harder” to generate results at the next level, remember to run through these three steps first:

  1. Figure out how far you are from your optimal point… and stay away from diminishing returns territory.
  2. Challenge yourself to innovate on the “how” – as they say, what got you here won’t get you there.
  3. Flex your standards – it’s not one size fits all. What’s “good enough” for the situation and audience tends to create the best overall result.

Which of these steps would most help you produce better results without working even harder?

Leave a comment and let me know.