Here’s how you can accomplish more at work–and be less busy.
Consider how we look at top performers in any field.
Lindsey Vonn may very well win another Olympic gold medal.
And if she does, we’ll want to know more about her backstory, her training program, what she eats for breakfast, and more.
All of which is a distraction that takes us away from the most important lesson, which is that you get results when you focus on results.
We’ll talk about the importance of process later on in this post, but first we must establish a mindset of accomplishment. Because your mindset impacts your actions more than anything else.
Fortunately, a simple thought experiment can illustrate this perfectly.
Imagine updating your resume. Which of the following would be more powerful?
A) summary of your busy schedule, complete with double-bookings, late nights, and crossed-out to-do items,
B) A summary of the results you created.
My guess is you chose B. Because that’s what really matters when you look back (or to the future).
So why do you spend most of your day mired in things that don’t get results?
One reason is that both things feel the same. A full calendar, a long to-do list, and an active email box all seem like they will lead to results.
But these activities can be ineffective. In fact, they can easily lead you exactly in the wrong direction if you’re not careful.
The way to stay on track is to do another little thought experiment.
As you plan your work and work your plan, think forward in time and imagine how you will look back on these things?
When you finish this project, how would you write up the final report? When you leave that important meeting, what will you have accomplished? When you land that job or that new account, what is it you will have said that convinced them?
If you think about what your future self will be focused on, the answer is crystal clear.
By taking yourself on this little time travel mission now, you can gain a crucial perspective while you have a chance to impact those results.
You see the potential results of your actions more clearly. You can start to understand just which actions you are planning or doing will really make a difference in the end. And which ones won’t.
What I learned in school
One of the most important things I learned in school was how to learn. And how to get results.
After many struggles with focus, comprehension, keeping up with the work, and more, I began to understand my own learning style.
What worked for me was to attend class and give the professor my total attention. Resisting mind-wandering and distracting activities in class helped me to see the concepts and ideas more clearly.
This single action paled in comparison to any efforts to catch up by other means. There wasn’t a study group or fellow student’s notes or anything else that helped as much.
Amazingly, as I got better at learning, my grades improved dramatically. But not for the reasons you might be thinking.
Yes, I was probably getting smarter. Taking in concepts, understanding ideas. And getting a lot more out of my classes by paying attention and participating more actively.
Eventually, however, I realized the real secret to my success. I was completely tuned into the results that the professor was focused on.
If you watch and listen carefully, I found, each professor ends up being pretty revealing about what is most important to them.
They have goals for your learning. They have measures for your accomplishment.
As I learned later on in life when I became a professor myself, there are clear goals. The professor establishes learning objectives, develops methods for teaching them, and implements ways to measure understanding in order to see that the objectives were met.
Now that you see this, you can see how paying attention helped me to stumble onto a higher grade track. It was by paying attention that the professor’s objectives became clear to me–as well as the ways these objectives would be measured.
Seeing this, it becomes pretty apparent what is going to be on the test. It becomes clear which concepts are most crucial to master. It becomes blatantly obvious what measures the professor will use to grade your work.
And that makes all the difference.
Because once you are focused on results, you know where to work hard. And you know where your efforts can be diminished or abandoned altogether.
That changes your strategy from keeping busy with all the work, to keeping focus on the work that matters most.
But it’s not all about what’s on the test
Here’s the thing.
You need to have your own goals too. You need to have things that you want to accomplish.
You have to have things that are important to you as a leader, as an individual, as someone who is contributing to the greater good.
Maybe you aspire to a higher position. Perhaps you want to establish a certain culture on your team. Probably you want to help others in some way.
None of these need to be seen as in conflict with what is established by others as important results.
Your job is to weave this together into a soup of action that only you can make. This is the part where you get to (need to) bring your full self into your work.
And that’s exactly the part that can get lost if you get distracted by busywork that doesn’t really matter in the end.
By keeping those accomplishments in the forefront of your mind, you can being to see much more clearly what you should be doing right now, and in the immediate future.
You can start to see how the pieces will fit together to either accomplish things or not.
This gets you off the hamster wheel and onto the track. Because you’ve got places to go.
Accomplishment and motivation
The wonderful thing is that, when you focus on accomplishing things that are important, it comes with a healthy dose of motivation.
Because it feels good to reach goals. And it makes you want to go after more goals.
Think about something simple from your personal life.
Have you ever wanted to pay off a credit card? Learn to cook a meal? Run a marathon?
What happens when you reach a goal like that? You feel like you can take on the world.
And you can!
Now, imagine that you setup a series of goals that are important to you and others.
You’ve figured out how to coordinate them and to orchestrate your efforts. As you achieve results, you gain momentum. You become eager to take on more, to lift your pace, to feel proud and excited about what you’ve done.
Would you like to work with someone like that? Someone who brings that kind of energy to the table? With someone who is organized around results that matter?
Yes, you probably would. And so would everyone who works with you. Plus those who will want to work with you. (Your motivation becomes contagious.)
All you need to do is start thinking and acting this way now. Small steps are ok. In fact, that’s exactly what Lindsey Vonn recommends:
“Start small, build into it and enjoy it. Find things that give you pleasure but set a time where you can actually achieve. That way you’ll have more confidence, and you’ll feel good about accomplishing something.”
That good feeling will snowball over time.
The importance of process
With an accomplishment mindset in place, you can shape your process.
While you want to aim directly at results that matter, you simple can’t control the outcome all the time. Particularly as your goals become bigger, involve more people, or interact with the marketplace.
Your goal may be to get a new job, but you can’t accomplish that directly. What you can do is focus on the things that you can control which will increase the likelihood of landing that new job.
Here is where you can start to parse things out.
With an accomplishment mindset, you will more easily recognize that endlessly wordsmithing your resume may feel productive, but doesn’t really move you toward your goal.
Getting the resume (even if imperfect) submitted to places is what matters.
The same is true if you are leading a project, running a team, or managing a department. You can identify activities that will increase the likelihood of accomplishing your goals.
You may determine that you must establish trust among team members in order for them to be able to reach a goal. You should then determine the things you can do to establish that trust and make it part of your process.
Here you can see that a strategy overlays your activities.
Every team must hold meetings to coordinate activities, make decisions, and do other things to reach their stated objective.
But if you know that you need to establish trust on the team in order for them to be successful, you can see more clearly that your structure and process must be adjusted to accommodate this.
With the accomplishment mindset, you can recognize (and act on) this and shape the organization of the meetings accordingly.
This is the power of the accomplishment mindset and why you must use it to change your approach to your work.
In this way, you will be more able to gain leverage. You can put more energy toward things that matter in terms of achieving outcomes. And you can ignore things that won’t matter in the end.
Lindsey Vonn wants to win another Olympic gold medal. That’s her goal. But she can’t directly control that outcome.
What she can do, and what she does, is to modify her process for preparing so that it maximizes the likelihood of accomplishing her goal.
She trains intensively. She does the hard work required. And she focuses all of those efforts toward accomplishment.
You can bet she is not just keeping herself busy. Every action has a purpose.
She has other personal goals too. Recognizing that 2018 could be her last Olympic games, she is focusing on “soaking in every moment” and thoroughly immersing herself in the experience.
She has a goal to be less lonely in her travels, so she got a dog for company.
Multiple goals. Strategy for accomplishment. That’s how people like Lindsey achieve so much.
And you can too.
It’s a confidence game
Strategy and tactics are nice, but you need to realize one more thing. To accomplish more, and to stay on track doing so, is a confidence game.
You are going to need to stand up against the crowd in some ways. Maybe not dramatically like in the movies, but certainly you will be doing things differently than most people.
That’s what exceptional people do, right? If they didn’t, they’d be normal instead of exceptional.
You have to recognize that what you are about to do is not average. It’s not even above average. It’s exceptional.
Too many of us get distracted, confused, and muddled in the mayhem of working life. The cultural norm still involves a lot of useless meetings, monotonous bureaucracy, and counter-productive email threads.
You are going to buck the norm.
Not everybody will commend you for that. They might be jealous, they might not like change, or they may not respect ambition (a surprising truth in today’s beaten down workforce).
Even the seemingly very well accomplished can, in reality, be “insecure overachievers.”
You don’t want that. You want the real thing. Which is harder, but also very worthwhile.
To do this, you will need to find ways to build your confidence. Ideally, you will be able to enlist others who can help you, give you feedback, and provide encouragement.
But most importantly, you will need to believe in yourself enough to stand strong and do what you think is right. Right for you, your team, your company, your project, whatever.
You will have to build your confidence.
The good news is that the way you do this is through accomplishment. It’s self-reinforcing system.
The simplest way to begin is to write things down.
By declaring what you want to accomplish, by being deliberate in your approach, and by recognizing when you are on-track and when you are off-track (and adjusting accordingly), you can be clear on all of this.
You will report to yourself. You review your work. You will acknowledge your accomplishments and celebrate them. You will adjust your process where necessary.
Others can help you validate all of this, but ultimately you report to yourself. You are the CEO of you.
Getting used to that is a big step toward making real accomplishments. And it is an important taste of freedom. Maybe more than you’ve ever had in your career.
The bottom line
We admire people who accomplish things. But our culture often confuses busy with results.
You can get yourself on the path to true accomplishment by becoming more strategic, in your mindset and in your actions.
Using simple “time travel” tricks, you will be able to imagine how “future you” will evaluate what you are doing today.
You can do the same exercise to imagine how others will measure your progress. Focusing in on what your boss, organization, and other important people in your world will value in the future will help you work smarter.
With a mix of goals in mind, you can hone your process to support these. Relentless focus on accomplishment means whittling down time and energy on things that just don’t matter. That gives you room to double down on the things that do.
A strategic overlay on your activities will help shape your day toward accomplishment. You and your team benefit when you approach every meeting, task, and conversation with intentionality toward accomplishment.
The hard part is gaining confidence in yourself. But you can do this too.
As you plan and work more deliberately toward accomplishment, recognize what you are doing. Be clear with yourself, ideally in writing, that you are setting out to reach goals. Goals that you have decided are most important.
Recognize your progress. Celebrate your wins. Even if you are the only one that appreciates some of them right now.
Because, in the end, it will be your accomplishments that you take with you wherever you go. They are part of your story. A story that you chose, that you shaped, that you made happen.