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For Some Executives, Doing Less Means Getting More Done

2014-05-06 15:19:18Source:The Wall Street JournalAuthor:

Most managers are familiar with the idea that no matter how busy they are, they could do more. There's always another project to take on, another meeting to attend, another email to answer.

Well, now there's a new school of thought about how managers are supposed to get more done—and done better.

They should just do less.

"Everybody says their days are too short," says J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and author of "Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader." The key to unlocking greater productivity, Dr. Murnighan says, is to just say no: to switch off the email pings, decline meeting invitations and get home in time for dinner.

In fact, dozens of studies all say the same thing: Doing less, and doing it without interruptions, can be the key to being a more productive manager and entrepreneur. A 2008 study by researchers at University of California, Irvine, and Humboldt University in Berlin, for instance, found that constant interruptions cause work to suffer and "people to change not only work rhythms but also strategies and mental states."

According to study co-author Gloria Mark, a professor at Irvine, "Stress went up significantly when being interrupted." The cause of the stress, she says: "having to keep shifting your attention."

It Won't Be Easy

But while executives may understand intellectually that busy days at the office don't equal productivity, putting laziness into practice is more difficult than it sounds. Reorganizations that allow executives to focus less on day-to-day tasks are crucial but can take months or years, says Stephan Liozu, a corporate consultant and adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University. Other helpful steps, he says, can be enforcing interruption-free vacations and requiring detailed job descriptions that free up senior managers from work that can be easily delegated to others.

Even when companies say they want to make a change, Mr. Liozu says, most don't act on it. "They are stuck," he says. He adds that he often asks executives to stop sending emails on weekends to make it clear to others that they are off the clock. But many executives don't know how to slow down and meet more reasonable deadlines.

"Being busy and acting busy can be addictive," Mr. Liozu says.

Clear Mornings

Despite such general skepticism, there are executives and managers who follow the do-more-by-doing-less principle and find that it works for them. Kyle McDowell, a Tampa-based vice president at UnitedHealth Group Inc., says he keeps his morning calendar clear to assess strategic goals. And when looking at job candidates, he ranks passion for the work above having the exact skills needed. He feels confident delegating even the most challenging projects to his enthusiastic reports, he says, because they are more willing to take chances. "A lot of folks confuse output and effort," says Mr. McDowell.

Jeff Zwelling | Success comes from 'not overwhelming myself with everyday tasks.' Zwelling Family
Jeff Zwelling, a founder of five tech companies, recently spoke to a group of potential investors about his latest company, Convertro, a media measurement firm based in Santa Monica, Calif. Mr. Zwelling, chief executive and co-founder of the company, says he told the group that he personally follows an eight-hour workday—a rarity in the startup world known for 90-hour weeks.

"I may go to Pilates at 3 p.m. and don't want you to think I'm a crappy CEO because of that," Mr. Zwelling says he told the group. "You're buying into someone who has a track record of success," he says he assured them. Success, he adds, comes from "not overwhelming myself with everyday tasks."

Mr. Zwelling says he prefers hiring employees who have serious hobbies outside of work. It makes them more effective on the job, he says, because they want to have time left over for their other interests. He also leads by example, he says, explaining to each new hire that he works hard while at the office, which means not wasting time on social media or surfing the Web.

At office-furniture-maker Steelcase Inc.,Donna Flynn, director of workspace futures, works at her own pace and lets her staff of behavioral researchers do the same. "There are a lot of benefits to walking away from a problem you are fixated on solving and letting your subconscious do its work underneath the surface," says Ms. Flynn, whose office is on her 20-acre ranch in Nederland, Colo., while the company's headquarters are in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Quality Time

Ms. Flynn's team is based all over the world. Rather than scheduling video conferences and calls to stay in daily contact, the researchers work on long-term projects on their own time and meet in person only two weeks a year.

Not keeping in constant contact, Ms. Flynn says, allows everyone to work more effectively. "It's about having higher-quality work time, because you spend more time nourishing your well-being," she says.

To be sure, not every personality is cut out for the kinds of behavioral adjustment that doing less on a daily basis can require. According to Dr. Murnighan, many executives feel the need to keep up appearances and find it tough to fight the natural inclination to stay busy.

"A lot of people are Type A," he says. "Our ancestors wouldn't have survived if they weren't proactive."