What happened to achievement?

Several years ago, my son came home from school with a report card that included mostly B’s and A’s. When asked about the B’s, his response was that his teacher said that B’s were good. In fact, he said that his teacher told him that it’s okay to strive for B’s or even C’s (“as long as you pass”)—and not work so hard to get A’s.

We have become a society of underachievers.

Consider these facts: workaholics have higher social status, exceptional achievers live longer, and the ten most workaholic nations in the world produce most of the world’s GDP.

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about how much e-mail and smartphones have taken over our lives. But let’s get serious for a minute. Has technology really taken over our lives? Or are we saying we’re overworked because technology runs our lives?

When we let technology run our lives, we end up wasting time on e-mail, cell phones, playing games on smartphones or computers … so much so that we become underachievers. Underachievers don’t complain about working hard on the trivial, but when it comes to working hard on the important, a proclamation of “overwork” is made.

The world’s most influential people such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and others rise to the top because they worked (and continue to work) hard to accomplish the important. Their passions drive them to succeed. These people are not overworked. It is not possible to be overworked if you love what you are doing.

For those that underachieve and proclaim to be overworked, perhaps the blame rests with personal coaches, bosses, teachers, and other authority figures—those who say, “There, there, you will do better next time.” Failure does not guarantee success next time. And giving an “’atta boy” for each failure only reinforces the failure.

With continued underachievement, our society’s general level of ambition is also threatened. Chamorro-Premuzic observes this about the younger generation: “If you go to China and East Asia, Gen Y is totally different, consumed with ambition, very similar to post-Second World War Americans and Canadians, who took advantage of a booming economy to set out to run the world.”

Now ambition is withering. He says: “We’re behaving like people who say that we don’t like chocolate ice cream because we can’t get chocolate ice cream. In the rest of the world, they want chocolate ice cream.”

The way to become an achiever and never be overworked again is to stop working in a job, get a career, and embrace hard work. These are the only ways to succeed—both personally and for your organization.

Working to Death

A recent reader survey shows that British Columbia’s business professionals are working long hours, trending to near 70-hour work weeks. If you’re in this group, you’re setting yourself up for serious health and safety problems, most of which stem from sleep deprivation. In addition to these concerns, working long hours is counterproductive and does more damage to your organization than you might think.

The more you work, the less efficient you become. This results in more waste and less productivity. If the cycle continues, the end result can range from absenteeism due to stress and sickness to accidents on the job and even to death. One of the best ways to get yourself off the cycle of overwork is to pay attention to your work when you’re at work. Become efficient and productive during your regular working hours and you’ll never again need to put in regular overtime.

Here are ten things you can do right now to improve your productivity – i.e., do more in less time:

  1. Eliminate your physical and electronic clutter. Both are wastes that inhibit your performance. A clean office with sparse décor and no stacks and piles of stuff is more conducive to productivity.
  2. Zone in on your work. Organize your work items in zones based on how frequently you access or need an item. For example, if you use a paper cutter only once a month, there is no need for it to be in your office (zone 1).
  3. Move email out of your inbox daily. At the end of the day, your inbox should contain ZERO items – each email you open must be handled immediately. Use the B-F-A-T rule. After you open an email, read it and then B-bring it forward (if further action is required), F-file it (no action is required), A-act on it immediately (if a short response will do), or T-delete (toss) it.
  4. Prioritize tomorrow’s activities the day before. Then work on your priorities as scheduled. Stick to your schedule.
  5. Stop procrastinating at work. Socializing and playing computer games while at work only adds to your workload. Get help for procrastination – it could be as simple as taking a day off to refresh and recharge.
  6. Don’t ignore overwhelm. Figure out why you’re overwhelmed, resolve your issues, and move forward. If you’re constantly overwhelmed with work, maybe you’re in the wrong job.
  7. Think before you act. Productive people spend a lot of time thinking about and planning how to accomplish tasks before they actually do them. This helps prevent re-doing work.
  8. Configure your office space. The most efficient office space is a U-shape. It enables efficient workflow, saving you time. Better yet, ask your boss to consider an open space design for the entire organization. It will help improve your creativity and productivity.
  9. Use project management skills for big projects. If you’re new to project task estimating, take a best-guess at how long a task will take and then multiply that time by three to get a true timeframe.
  10. Use standards and procedures. If your organization does not have standards and procedures for EVERYTHING that needs to get done, then you are spending more time on tasks than necessary.

Implementing these ten tips will help you decrease your hours at the office, so you have more time to spend with family and friends doing the things you love. And at the end of the day, you owe it to yourself and to your employer to return to work mentally refreshed the next day.