Cut Your Work in Half This Holiday Season: Do a George Costanza!

The time before the holidays is one of the busiest times of the year for lots of people. We’re trying to get everything done before Christmas. Many companies now close down over the holiday; that provides a good break, but it also means we’re even more busy than usual. I’ve gotten several e-mails asking me to get things done before offices close down: send your invoices; get the slide presentation done; provide that update on the project. This happens at the same time as we’re getting busier in our personal life: holiday parties to attend, presents to buy, family vacation or get-togethers to plan. As a result, lots of people are more stressed than usual. And that’s ironic, because the holiday season is supposed to be festive and a time to do the opposite—relax and enjoy life a bit.

Let me offer a different tactic for this holiday season. Do the opposite. Remember the beloved character George Costanza in the sitcom Seinfield? One day he decides to the exact opposite of all the failed ways in which he goes about his daily life.  How would that look like during this holiday season? Well, let’s take a page from what the top performers did in my recent study of 5,000 people in corporate America (see my forthcoming book Great at Work for more details). Their tactic is the opposite of trying to fill every waking hour with stuff to accomplish. Instead they get rid of things, so that they can focus on what really matters. Here are three tactics they employ:

How about never?  Have the courage to cut things out, forever. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins recommends that we should not just have a to-do list (which is chock full this time of year), but that we should also have a stop doing list. For starters, what can you simply erase? I took a look at my calendar for the next two weeks leading up to Christmas and got rid of two meetings and one day of travel.

Cut everything in half. Here the other day I set up a new google calendar to coordinate activities for my book launch. I was shocked to discover that the default setting for meetings is one hour. As a result, we often schedule too much time for each activity. It’s a really different morning when you have 3 one-hour long meetings, versus having  three ½ hour meeting. Cut meetings to half the time. Write 5 powerpoint slides instead of 10. Make 5 minute phone calls, not 10. Schedule a 20 minute lunch break, not 40.  You will feel more productive. Last week a journalist from The Economist called to interview me, and I had booked one hour in the calendar for the interview. When she got on the phone, she said, “let me get straight to it,” and she asked 4 prepared questions in rapid sequence. She was done in 15 minutes. Now I suddenly had 45 minutes to get other stuff done, and it felt really good.

Avoid the siren songs: hide. We often fall prey a devastating scourge of modern work-life: interruptions and distractions. When a colleague pops into your cubicle and asks you a question, you have to stop doing what you’re doing, then talk to her, and then get back to what you were doing. Temptations work the same way: we go on the internet to check the latest news instead of finishing writing that email memo. We hear the siren songs (the pings on our phone) of e-mails, text messages and the latest news, and we get distracted. The upshot: our work takes twice as long as it should take to complete.

In my study, I found that the best performers hide. Many described making special arrangements that would let them work without interruption. Some went into the office an hour early before the rest. Others found a quiet conference room, put on headphones for a few hours, or left their smartphone behind. Employees at a beverage company installed fishing lines across the openings to their cubicles. That way, they could deploy swimsuit cover-ups like curtains and hide when they wanted time alone.

Try to do a George Costanza the next two weeks: Do the opposite of what you normally do leading up to a busy holiday. Rather than trying to jam all that stuff into a long day, get rid of lots of stuff.  My guess is that you will enjoy this time of year far more.

Why do some people perform better at work than others?

Morten Hansen reveals the answer in his “Seven Work Smarter Practices” that can be applied by anyone looking to maximize their time and performance.

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