Get More Done by Doing Less — the Zen of Productivity for Leaders

If you hear the phrase “doing less and getting more” too often, it can start to make you numb — you want to believe, yet it’s not clear how you’re ever going to get there.

There are four possible combinations of doing (more and less) and getting (more and less).

We all know how to do more.  We know we can get more done by doing more, working harder, spending more hours.

We all know how to get less by doing less.

We all know how to goof off, and get less by doing more things that aren’t productive things.

If we’re especially honest we also know that, past a certain point, working longer hours actually accomplishes less, because we’re tired, unproductive, and error-prone — we make costly mistakes that set us further back.  That’s a fast path to personal burn-out, and a classic way to get less by doing more.

The one we all want, or say we want, is to do less and get more.  It can be done.  In fact human history is filled with examples, an obvious one being agriculture.

As recently as 150 years ago the majority of Americans — over 90% — lived and worked on farms, where they raised enough food for themselves, and just enough extra to feed people in cities.  Today, less than 2% of Americans work in farming and they grow enough food to feed the whole country plus enough left over to export to the rest of the world.

  • In 1945, it took up to 14 labor-hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on 2 acres of land.
  • By 1987, it took just under 3 labor-hours to produce that same 100 bushels of corn on just over 1 acre.

This is called productivity — the amount we accomplish per hour of work.

Or to take another example — you and I and Bill Gates all have the same 24 hours in our day, however we’re doing very different things, and I think Bill is making better use of his time than I have been.

We can create and enjoy the benefits of productivity in any area of work.  It’s just not obvious to many of us in leadership, just how to do that.

My first guest on this week’s program was Marc Lesser, CEO of ZBA Associates LLC. He is developing and teaching a leadership program at Google called “Search Inside Yourself.” Marc was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years and is the author of Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less, and Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration: How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work and Your Life. He has an MBA degree from New York University.

My second guest, George Hedley, owns a $50 million construction and real estate development business as well as HARDHAT Presentations. He speaks to 50 business groups a year, and will bring us his insights into Effective Delegation. He is the author of “Get Your Business to Work.”

Marc points out that we often confuse busy-ness with progress, and they may be polar opposites.

I shared my recent use of a focus technique that boosted my productivity — I would first write down what I was going to work on, I would clear off my desk and close all the computer windows not related to my chosen task, and I would set a timer and only work on the task for a fixed time — 30 or 60 minutes.  That helped me to focus, and I found myself being very productive and feeling really good about my effectiveness.

Marc suggests setting a daily goal of three key tasks and doing nothing other than those things, until they are done.  He counsels his coaching clients to state explicitly what a good day looks like, and how it would be measured.  What does success look like?  Is that shared with the other folks in the company?

When you know very clearly where you are going, when you can clearly describe the desired end state, that makes it easier to identify the next steps, and makes it easier to be on task.  When the future is vague it can be hard to identify the next step, which makes it easier to hide by surfing the net.

Marc suggests we start by “being present” — by being here, now.  Good delegation and good communication requires being open.  Yet how often do we hear that folks are “afraid to say the truth”?

If you are afraid to tell someone the truth, your communication is broken down.  Fix this by being present and open.

Most extremely, the effective treatment of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) starts (in the DBT tradition) with mindfulness and radical acceptance.

Business is in some ways very brutal and honest.  If you’re losing money, you cannot hide from that for long.  The bank balance is what it is.  This gives us wonderful opportunities to practice acceptance of the world as being what it is, and moving forward based on that reality.

So, where does a CEO start?

Marc describes the “Less Manifesto” as being five areas where we can do less and accomplish more:

  1. Fear — facing them, realizing we are not our fears, and accepting our fears without being caught by them
  2. Assumptions — noticing or realizing what assumptions we are making about other people’s inner states and emotions (and other things) and making them explicit, clearing the air
  3. Reduce Distractions — identify the things outside ourselves that we allow to dictate our days, and learn to subordinate them, and become inner directed
  4. Reduce Resistance — noticing the thing we don’t want to look at or acknowledge, and look at it
  5. Finding the One Who Is Not Busy — being still in the midst of chaos

For example, we can reduce our Fear by listing all of them on the left half of a sheet of paper.  Once we’ve listed them all — fear of losing a job, fear of having no money, and so on — we can then on the right hand half of that sheet, write down — next to each fear — what my next step is.

This reduces the terror of our fears, and empowers us by identifying specific things we can do.

Marc will often walk into an organization and find that it’s like walking up to a fish tank and seeing that the water is really dirty.  The fish inside may not really notice.  For people, “keeping the water clean” involves not allowing things to fester — creating a culture of openness to hearing bad news — doing surveys to find out how people actually feel, rather than assuming they are this way or that way.

Marc coaches people to ask “what can I do better?” or “what are two things I can do differently to make our team more effective?”  We also have to be open to hearing the answers, and then identifying the next steps we can take with that feedback.

Start by noticing.  Take a survey of our time and where it goes.  How much of our time goes into surfing the web, and how much goes into being focused and energetic.  Less than 10% of managers are both focused and energetic.  With energy we do things.  With focus we do the right things.

One focusing tool is to think about how short our lives are, and that we will all die.  Another is to visualize end states and identifying next steps.  Another is to answer email and voice mail only a few times a day.

Resistance is what we feel when we are avoiding something that we are afraid of — we fear our finances, so we avoid looking at the bills.

Almost all top tennis players have the ability to use the 20 seconds between points to dramatically lower their heart rates.  Many will close their eyes.  You can find a moment of stillness even in chaos, and use that to re-center yourself.

My second guest was George Hedley.

George started his business at age 25 with just a contractor’s license, a pickup truck and a hard hat. He built a $50 million business, step by step.

George understands the concept of delegation very deeply.  In short, he says, you cannot delegate a task that you have not clarified.  Delegation only works within the context of a system.

A “system” in this case is nothing more than a checklist and some descriptions of key steps.

When you create an effective system, you make it possible for key tasks to get done consistently and correctly.

“If you cannot let go, you will not grow,” says George.

You can only delegate when people know exactly what to do.  There was a survey of thousands of managers, to identify why workers don’t do what they should do, and the number one reason was, they don’t know what we want them to do, and the number two reason was, they don’t know how to do it.

When you tell someone what to do, and you ask “do you understand,” if they say “uh-huh” it really means “I have no idea.”  Verbal descriptions won’t do it.

A system involves creating a picture of some sort of the desired end state.  With systems you can delegate.  Without systems you cannot delegate.

One good way to create a brand new system is this:

  1. Turn on a voice recorder
  2. Take a new person through a task step-by-step, describing it verbally
  3. Give the recording to this new person
  4. Ask the new person to type up the recording into a procedure or system
  5. Have the new person tries to do the task using the description
  6. Have the new person write down all the places it didn’t work — that reveals where the description wasn’t clear enough or detailed enough

George likes to get the key people for the task into a room for 20 minutes to draft the new system, and have one person as a “Systems Czar” who is responsible for drafting and distributing the systems.

Each system is described fully on (usually) a single sheet of paper.

The key to systems is, everybody has to do them.  It’s 100% or 0%.  So folks who won’t get on board, will have to go.  There may be turnover.

Imagine a sports team where one player doesn’t want to follow the play the rest of the team is running.  The team isn’t supported, and the play doesn’t work.

It may be clearer in sports because the coach isn’t a player and knows it — there’s no temptation to run onto the field and take the ball.  Business owners often fall to that temptation.

George suggests that, if you are doing $2 million in sales and work 2,000 hours a year, your labor is valued at $1,000 an hour — and if you start doing $10 an hour work, you’re earning negative dollars — you’re losing $990 for that hour.

If you’re a new convert to delegation and systems, George suggests you start with really strong people.  We’re tempted to hire weak people because we can control them.  Instead, hire strong people and work with them to document your systems.

Then, identify each week the biggest problems, and start fixing them by building systems for each.  If you fix one thing every two weeks, by the end of the year you’ve got 20 good systems.

Each major function in a firm — finance, sales — only needs maybe 10 systems.

Within two or three years you will have an incredible company, you will not be micromanaging, and you’ll be able to spend the majority of your time on sales and customer service, which is where most owners are best.

George became a convert to systems when his company became plateaued — he wasn’t growing and was not making enough money.  He had an epiphany, and started by changing himself.  He was going to be less of a control freak.

He and his people made a list of the biggest problems they had.  They prioritized it by putting the biggest and most expensive problems first.

He established a standard weekly meeting with a fixed, standard agenda that covers all the hard issues.

And George decided that every Friday he would create another system.

Once the systems begin to be created, you must — you absolutely must — require that they be followed.  People who won’t follow them, have to go.

I related the story of the college coach whose star freshman player — the most-recruited kid of that year — showed up for practice with long hair and a beard.  The coach told him, “our standard is that we are clean shaven and our hair is off our collars.”  The kid said “this is my look; this is who I am.”  The coach said, “I respect your individuality, and we’re going to miss you.”  And the kid showed up at the next practice clean shaven and with his hair off his collar.

You have to stand up for your standards and enforce your systems.  Only then can you delegate with confidence and effectiveness.  And then you can let go of the details and work on the things you are best at.

For additional proof of the value of doing less, see also this excellent WSJ article, If You Need to Work Better, Maybe Try Working Less. Takeaway: “Sticking to a schedule of predictable time off can lead to improved productivity.”

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