I sat in an internal project meeting, frustrated at the lack of progress on a significant company initiative. Across the table was our head of application engineering, explaining why the project was behind schedule. Sure, they had worked on it here and there, but there were missing deadlines and had no plan to get back on track.
"Can you at least give me a new date when it will be ready?" I asked. "Nope, sorry," he said. "We'll get to it when we can." Then he said something I'll never forget. "You see, it's not about actually completing things, it's about showing we're making progress." My jaw hit the floor. Really?
Too many people and organizations are focused on effort. How much are you working? How many meetings did you attend? How many emails are you cranking out? How many sales calls are you making? The thinking goes that effort equals progress. The more you turn the crank, the more you produce. Right?
Wrong. That may have been the case in the industrial economy, but in today's knowledge and technology economy, effort does not always correlate to outcomes. In fact, some studies show that the reverse can actually happen. As we work harder, our stress increases and our health and decision making decrease. In the end, we're expending more effort to get worse results. The phrase "Work Smarter, Not Harder" should be the new battle cry for this century's workers.
So what does it look like to put outcomes before effort? Here are a few recommendations.
1. Define outcome-based personal and professional goals
Start by knowing where you're going. What do you need to accomplish for your organization? What do you want to do for yourself and your family? Setting a few key goals and revisiting them once a quarter helps ensure you're marching in the direction you want, rather than being buffeted by the winds of daily noise.
The goals should be straightforward, inspirational, and attainable. If you can make them measurable and create a target, all the better, but don't get hung up on specific metrics. Focus on the goals being directionally correct.
For instance, many people state a goal that they want to "eat healthy, exercise, and lose weight". Notice how those are effort-focused, not outcome-oriented? How about this as a goal instead (one of my recent ones): "Become proficient at Yoga and lose 30 pounds by the end of the year". We'll get to the "how" next.
2. Align effort toward your stated goals
We can't ignore effort. After all, if we believe in the power of a growth mindset, the only way to grow is to expend effort. But it's about smart effort, and the outcomes they produce.
Many people focus on efficiency when it comes to effort. Can they do more in less amount of time. But we should be focused on effectiveness: are we doing the right things, or are we expending effort in the wrong direction?
Take my above goal of getting better at a specific exercise and losing weight. What are the key efforts I should do to obtain these goals? And, can I "double dip" with activities that meet both goals? For instance, if I perform Yoga for at least 30 minutes four times a week, that helps me a number of ways: actually doing Yoga (an obvious one); getting exercise that will help losing weight; and being more mindful, which limits my drinking and binge eating response to stress. Three for the price of one!
You'd be surprised how much more effective you become when your effort aligns to your goals. Applied professionally, you find that the vast majority of your day is filled with mundane tasks that do not apply to your company's stated goals. Carve out a couple of hours each day to focus on that which matters most to you and your organization. The rest can wait.
3. Create a culture that praises outcomes AND effort
You can only do so much as an individual. If you're rowing well, but the rest of the organization is out of rhythm, you're still going to go in circles. So how can you create an outcomes culture even if you're not the head honcho?
For starters, you can lead by example. Focus on your own outcomes and congratulate others for their accomplishments, along with the smart effort to get there. We want to acknowledge hard work but in the right direction.
You can also ask how meetings, projects, and other activities fit into the organization's key goals. If you're met with silence, you're likely in a zone of ineffective work. Try to align or reshape the work to be more outcome-oriented.
In the end, we are what we create. The more outcomes we can produce while leveraging the right kind of effort, the better off we will be personally and professionally. Work Smarter, Not Harder. It's about time.
The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
I've distilled over 20 years of lessons into bite-sized actionable articles for you.