May 28, 2021
Is there someone on your team who seems unusually productive? Someone who gets a huge amount done — without working longer hours?
Super-productive people are in every industry. The most productive software developers write nine times more usable code per day than the average developer, according to research by Michael Mankins. He also found that the best fish butcher at Le Bernardin Restaurant in New York can prepare three times as much fish as the average, the best blackjack dealer keeps their table playing five times longer, and the best sales associate at Nordstrom sells eight times more clothes.
How do they do it? That’s what their coworkers usually wonder. We wanted to know too.
We collected data on over 7,000 people who were rated by their manager on their level of their productivity and 48 specific behaviors. Each person was also rated by an average of 11 other people, including peers, subordinates, and others. We identified the specific behaviors that were correlated with high levels of productivity — the top 10% in our sample — and then performed a factor analysis.
Seven consistent clusters emerged that identified the skills that the most productive people regularly practiced:
Set stretch goals. Think about your last day off. Did you decide to do some projects around your house or apartment? Maybe you puttered around, doing a few small tasks in a random way. Or maybe you selected a major project to tackle and were amazed at how much you were able to get done in a day.
A big project encourages you to pick up your pace and eliminate all distractions. There is some great magic that occurs when people become riveted by the thought of achieving a stretch goal. The people in our study who got the most done made setting stretch goals a habit.
Show consistency. We all know people who are 100% reliable. If they say, “It will be done,” it will get done. In our study, the most productive people did not see their productivity ebb and flow over time; they didn’t procrastinate only to pull all-nighters later on. Instead, they figured out how to consistently deliver results, week after week and month after month. There was a cadence and a rhythm to their work that seemed to keep them going.
Have knowledge and technical expertise. Few things kill productivity faster than a lack of knowledge or expertise. When you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to sacrifice quality for speed. You can get things done both quickly and well. You don’t need to spend time searching online for a good tutorial, or asking a colleague for advice. The most productive professionals in our study didn’t hesitate to ask for help when they needed it…but they didn’t need it that often. They also intentionally acquired new skills and worked to expand their expertise. That helped them be skillful, exacting, and quick in their execution.
Drive for results. Most people are willing to accept responsibility for accomplishing goals and to work at a reasonable pace to achieve expected results. But there are a few super-productive people who have a great desire to accomplish results sooner and quicker. They are overjoyed to be able to check something off their to-do list. They’re competitive — and they compete not only with their colleagues but also with themselves. They like to set new records for performance and then beat their own best.
Anticipate and solve problems. The most super-productive people are great problem-solvers. They come up with innovative solutions and accomplish work more efficiently. They also tend to anticipate roadblocks and begin working on solutions in advance, and so avoid some of the problems that other people run into. Social psychologists call this mental contrasting — thinking about what you want to achieve and what might get in the way of your achieving it — and have found that it helps people achieve their goals.
Take initiative. For many people, the hardest part of getting a job done is starting. The most productive people start quickly, and they never wait to be told to begin. They ask for forgiveness, not permission. And indeed, their bias for action can get them into trouble sometimes — they might start executing a project before all parties have bought in, say. But their bosses rarely complain, because their results tend to speak for themselves.
Be collaborative. So far it might sound like we’re describing a person who is a brilliant individual worker but can’t work well with others. But that’s not what our study showed. In today’s complex organizations, very little gets done by someone acting alone. Everything is highly interdependent. The most productive people in our study were highly collaborative and worked well with others. They didn’t have to spend a lot of time soothing ruffled feathers, because they didn’t ruffle many feathers in the first place.
If you want to be more productive yourself, take a look at this list and ask if there’s something you can improve. Do you struggle to get started? Could you be more consistent? If you’re a manager trying to help one of your employees get more done, ask yourself if there’s something here that could help. Maybe your employee is working hard but doesn’t have the skills they need to really increase their productivity. Can you help them get those skills? Can you help them set motivating stretch goals?
The most productive people might seem to get it all done through magic — or cutting corners — but as it turns out, extreme productivity is just a set of skills. Skills that more of us can acquire and use.
– Joe Folkman and Jack Zenger
(This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review.)
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