Work Smarter—Not Harder—to Greater Positivity and Success

June 8, 2017

Dr. Raj Raghunathan is a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin and the author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? He is interested in exploring the impact that people’s judgments and decisions have on their happiness and fulfillment. Raj’s work has appeared in top journals, including The Journal of Marketing, The Journal of Consumer Research, The Journal of Marketing Research, and The Journal of Consumer Psychology. 

Following is an excerpt from our ebook called "Make Your Work Matter: 7 Thought Leaders on Why Work Isn't Working For You and How You Can Change It." You can download the free ebook here.

Imagine that you want to identify the best violin players for an orchestra group you are assembling.

You interview some exceptionally talented violinists to come up with a shortlist, and ask all of them two questions that you believe to be diagnostic: 1) How anxious do you feel about practicing on an everyday basis? and 2) How many hours do you practice a week?

Like many other managers, you too believe that those who are more anxious to practice are more likely to succeed. Why? Because you take anxiety as a sign of earnestness; so you believe that the anxious violinists are more likely to take their job more seriously.

See our post "5 Project Management Skills Every Marketing Manager Should Have" to learn how to hone your management skills.

You also believe that those who work harder are more likely to turn out to be the superior—versus average—violinists. So, you assemble a group of anxious violinists who practice hard and congratulate yourself for a job well done.

But guess what? You’ve almost certainly put together a group of worse, rather than better, violinists!

A study that looked at the practice habits of elite vs. average violinists found that those who are more relaxed on an everyday basis, rather than stressed, are more likely to become better at their craft.

Further, the study also revealed that beyond a certain number of hours of practice—around 50/week—more work doesn’t necessarily lead to greater mastery.

These results may be surprising to many, but they are actually very consistent with findings from research on the link between happiness and success, and on the role of so-called “flow states” in nurturing skills.

Why Happiness Leads to Success

Contrary to what many of us believe, being anxious actually undermines, rather than promotes, chances of success—particularly in creative or intellectual tasks. There is an important reason for this.

When we feel stressed, a part of our brain’s capacity is occupied by the stress. The more stressed we feel, the more we are likely to be distracted by questions like, “Will I be able to complete this task on time?” and, “Will the output turn out to be as good as I would like it to be?”

Thus, we aren’t able to devote our brain’s full capacity to the task at hand when we feel stressed. By contrast, when we feel relaxed or happy, a larger share of our brain’s capacity is available for the task at hand.

Being happy versus anxious promotes success in at least two other ways. First, you are likely to be able to work longer and harder when you feel happy—should the situation demand it. For example, happier employees take fewer sick days off.

Second, you are likely to be a better team player when you are happy than when you are not. So, you are a better co-worker when you feel positive than when you don’t.

Organizations appear to recognize these benefits of happiness, which is why happier employees earn higher wages than do their less happy counterparts.

The Link Between Hard Work and Success

The link between hard work and success is a little more intricate. To understand this link, it will be useful to first get familiar with “flow states.” Perhaps the best way to understand flow states is to recognize two of their most important features.

The first feature may be characterized as a “paradoxical perception of time.” Specifically, during a flow experience, time may appear to slow down. For example, if you experience flow when playing tennis, you may feel that the ball is hurtling towards you in slow-motion.

As a result, you are able to cover the court more efficiently. You may also feel that you are able to see the ball much better. And yet, when the match is over and you glance at your watch, you may be surprised that it took far longer than you thought it did.

Thus, time seems to both slow down (during the experience) and speed up (once the experience is over).

The second feature of flow has to do with a loss of self-consciousness. Typically, when we are involved in a task, a part of our brain is monitoring our performance. This is the part of the brain that’s constantly commenting, judging, and evaluating how well or how poorly we are doing the task.

In flow, this voice is silent. The reason for this has to do with a very interesting fact about when flow states happen.

Flow states are most likely when there is a match between how much ability is required of you to achieve the task at hand and how much ability you have available for it.

Imagine that you are a tennis player with an ATP rating (the objective method that determines qualification for tournaments) of 4.0.

You wouldn’t experience flow if you were playing someone with a rating of 3.0 or lower—your “available ability” would overwhelm the “required ability” and you would thus feel bored.

Likewise, you wouldn’t experience flow if you were playing someone far superior, with a rating of 5.0 or higher; your opponent would overwhelm you, leading you to feel anxious. So, flow happens when there is a match between required ability and available ability.

In fact, even a perfect match between required and available abilities is not ideal. Flow is most likely when the required ability is slightly higher than available ability.

For instance, back to the tennis example, flow is most likely when you, with an ATP rating of 4.0, are playing against someone with a rating of around 4.1 or 4.2.

Note that something interesting happens when you are challenged beyond your current skill levels, but not by too much. In such situations, the only way you can succeed is by stretching your current skill levels.

That is, you can only succeed if you are upping your skill levels even as you are engaging them. As a result, you will need to bring everything you’ve got to the task at hand.

That is, you can’t afford to let even an iota of capabilities be engaged in something else—like judging on how well or poorly you are doing the task. This is why the “voice in your head” vanishes when you are in flow; you need even that part of your brain to be involved in the task.

Experiencing flow states, it turns out, is critical for nurturing skills. Why? Because when experiencing flow, you are not just getting familiar with a task, you are learning and growing as you are doing the task.

This is why, if you can string together about 10,000 or more hours of flow-like experiences in any domain, you are most likely to become a master of that domain. Flow states, in other words, are the real, and often unsung, heroes of success and mastery.

This basic understanding of flow, and the role it plays in fostering mastery is sufficient to tackle the original issue with which we started: the link between hard work and success.

Because flow is most likely when available ability is pushed to its limits, it makes sense that we are likely to progress most rapidly towards mastery when we feel sufficiently well-rested and energetic.

Why? Because that’s when the ability that we bring to the table—the available ability—is likely to be higher. This, in turn, means that it’s important to feel mentally fresh and physically well-rested when we get to work.

That’s when we are most likely to experience flow, and thus most likely to further develop our skills and talents. 

Celebrating the 40-Hour Work Week

Where does all of this leave us? Well, it suggests two things.

First, it suggests that the popular belief that people who feel anxious or stressed are more productive may be a misconception. This is not to say that anxiety and stress cannot motivate us to get started on a task, or keep us motivated to complete it.

Rather, it suggests that, by and large—and particularly in intellectual tasks and in those that involve teamwork—those feeling relaxed and happy are more likely to succeed in the long-run.

Second, it suggests that there is something to the popular saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

The research on the link between work and success suggests that you would be better off if you worked smarter—not harder. And part of what constitutes smart work is to take the time needed to recharge yourself both mentally and physically on a regular basis. 

These conclusions suggest a relatively straightforward implication: the more managers instill positivity in employees, the higher the employees’ productivity is likely to be.

To instill positivity in employees, managers could start off meetings by encouraging everyone to share a recent positive experience. Another way to boost positivity is to allow employees to donate any unused sick-leave to help out other employees in need of extra days off.

A final idea is to encourage employees to spend no more than 40 hours/week at work. When you work 40 hours/week or less, you will have the time to refresh and rejuvenate.

As such, you will feel more positive and will also be more likely to get into flow states. This is why employees in some of the most productive countries in the world, like Germany and France, work, on average, only about 35 hours/week.

Watch our on-demand webinar called "How to Fall Back in Love with Your Marketing Job" for tips on rekindling your passion for your job.

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