Making Your Work Work For You
Peak performers have figured it out for themselves. LISTEN TO THEM and you can too.
By Jerry Useem

(FORTUNE Magazine) - He did his best work after dark, when the world was still and he could blow off steam on the office pipe organ.

Around midnight Thomas Edison and his team would break for pie, ham, beer, and group sing-alongs. Refreshed by catnaps under his desk, the inventor would push himself and his dozen-plus researchers till dawn, when the sun finally reintroduced the concept of time. Clocks in the Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory stood still--Edison having removed their springs so that everything would revolve around his work. He would later say, "I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom."

You probably wouldn't want to copy Edison's methods--and even if you did, you probably wouldn't get the same results. (Although he did bequeath a practical benefit to workplaces everywhere: Burning the midnight oil no longer requires oil.) Yet the problem Edison solved is the one you still face: How do you make your work work for you?

It's not a question we're accustomed to asking ourselves--or others. So FORTUNE went ahead and asked it, seeking out a variety of exceptionally effective people. In the pages that follow, you'll discover how Carlos Ghosn, A.G. Lafley, Vera Wang, and nine others answered the question. They've developed remarkably diverse solutions to the problems of managing time, people, and the flood of information.

But first, you. You might begin by asking yourself these three questions:

1. What are you supposed to accomplish in your work?

2. What do you actually spend your time doing?

3. Have you achieved wu-wei?

You are not expected to know the answer to question No. 3 yet (so keep reading). And don't be surprised if you have trouble answering No. 2. Chances are, you've never watched yourself work. If you are anything like the subjects of a University of California at Irvine study of businesspeople, though, you are interrupted once every 11 minutes. After any interruption, you take 25 minutes to return to your task. Put together those two observations, and it's easy to see why so few people are ever fully focused at work (for the full story, see "Getting Out From Under"). And if you wonder about the disconnect between questions 1 and 2--How can I be so swamped and yet get so little done?--you are not alone. Business is the great affliction of modern business.

Business is not about getting the right things done. It's about doing things. Lots of things. Probably too many things. Business makes profligate use of your two least replenishable resources--time and energy--and provides a return that, in the investment world, would be grounds for firing your broker. Yet in the absence of a sound investment strategy, business happens by default.

Anyone who toils in the modern global economy has to figure out a way to survive the outcome of two forces. The first force, the reengineering movement, transferred the problem of efficiency from the organization to the worker, who is now asked to work both harder and smarter. It streamlined the organizational chart but vastly complicated work. The second force is simply the amount of communication coming at you. Imagine you came to the office one day and found a stack of WHILE YOU WERE OUT slips at least 160 high. If e-mail were translated into 1980s terms, that's what it would look like.

The trouble is, nobody was taught how to deal with this onslaught. In school you finished all your work; at home you cleaned your plate. But now that information is cheaper than fast food, you have supersized in-boxes heaped with things you should probably ignore. And your in-box, as a rule, can yell louder than your out-box--a fine recipe for accomplishing nothing, and doing it around the clock.

How you solve this challenge depends on where your job falls on the spectrum of work. On the one extreme, there is the lone monk copying a manuscript. His job requires no communication--so interaction is pure distraction. A taxi dispatcher's job, on the other hand, is nothing but communication. Talking is doing. So a vow of silence would bring job performance to zero.

Chances are your job falls somewhere in between, and it's up to you to find your one best way. Google's Marissa Mayer likes to work with a television on. Federal judge Richard Posner says he almost never picks up the phone. Bond king Bill Gross stands on his head. And by shadowing three top executives from dawn till quitting time (see "All in a Day's Work"), we show minute-by-minute how effectiveness can take radically different forms.

But we will say this: If you want to take back control, begin by acknowledging that you really can't. The earth will not slow its spin; the clock will always run clockwise; the conference call will run past 11:30. These things have always been and will always be. They are more powerful than you--but they are not against you. Which brings us to our Taoist concept of the day.

Wu-wei, which translates literally as "nondoing," is a mantra best kept to yourself. Otherwise it will make you sound like a mystical slacker and earn you a cruel office nickname. A better translation would be more like "effortless effort"; wu-wei describes a state in which the world seems to be working for us. We feel calm yet alert, focused yet receptive, drawing force from the storm while standing in its eye.

Like the marathoner who feels pulled forward, we accomplish the most with the minimum of energy. In this state hard work does not feel like hard labor. Nor does it feel like play. It feels a lot like the Aristotelian concept of happiness: the full exercise of the thing we are meant to be doing. Edison and his researchers felt it at Menlo Park. They didn't get much sleep, but many would later look back at the period as the happiest of their lives.

"There is no substitute for hard work," Edison said. And indeed, we go rotten without it. Top of page

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