Book review: Great at Work

I used to believe there was such things as perfect systems for managing every area of your life and that the goal was to find those perfect systems. But time and experience have taught me that that’s not quite true. Good systems require flexibility; what works best depends on dozens of factors; and those factors change with your circumstances, experience, and goals.

Whenever I come across a book that promises to change your life—whether it’s to help organize your life once and for all, to be more productive than ever, or to outperform your peers—I read a bit skeptically. It’s not that I doubt there’s truth in its pages; I just know there is no guaranteed principle that will unlock the secrets of the universe.

Great at Work

That brings me to today’s book review: Great at Work: The Hidden Habits of Top Performers by Morten T. Hansen, PhD. Summarizing the results of a five-year study of 5,000 professionals, Hansen identifies seven traits that set top performers apart from their peers.

These aren’t activities you can implement overnight—they’re habits you build over time—and I don’t believe these principles will magically transform you into a top performer independent of other factor. Nonetheless, it’s a good read with plenty of anecdotes that demonstrate the principles at work.

Although Hansen outlines seven principles, today I want to share just a couple of my favorites and how they can be applied to your work life!

Do less, then obsess

Entrepreneurs and overachievers have a tendency to try to do all the things. The problem, of course, is the more you try to do, the less time, energy, and brainpower you have to devote to any one thing. You might appear busy, and you’ll probably get quite a bit done. But the quality and depth of your work will inevitably suffer.

Instead of trying to do everything, Hansen encourages readers to be ruthless about identifying a key priority and giving it your full attention, even when it means setting aside other priorities.

This means setting rules that govern how you spend your time and making sure you carefully guard the time around your most important work. If you work under someone else, you’ll also want to share your priorities with them. This will help garner their support when you need to say no to the things that may distract you from your goals.

Redesign your work

If you’ve spent any time studying productivity principles, you’re likely familiar with this idea. It’s similar to Stephen Covey’s advice to focus on the important rather than the urgent. In fact, I shared more about this principle recently on Instagram.

The idea is to redesign your work so you can spend your time on tasks that actually have an impact rather than wasting time on busywork. To begin this process, look for recurring tasks you can outsource, automate, or eliminate altogether. This process frees up time for you to do your most important work instead.

You need passion and purpose

There’s a lot of talk these days about finding a job or career you’re passionate about. However, Hansen contends that passion isn’t enough. In fact, doing work you’re passionate about can easily lead to burnout because there’s a tendency to go all in without the checks and balances you might put in place otherwise. To fight this type of burnout, he recommends both finding your purpose both in the work you’re doing as well as through activities outside of work. Doing this will help you create and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Fight and then unite

This last principle is one I’m passionate about professionally and personally. (We even have a whole post on this topic!) When people are willing to fight for the best idea without taking it personally or allowing that fight to lead to hurt feelings, everyone benefits. Top performers can model this principle by fighting for their ideas as well as by getting behind the decisions of others even when their idea doesn’t “win.”


Great at Work breaks down these principles even further, providing plenty of examples and anecdotes alongside each of them. In addition, Hansen includes a summary of the best ways to not only become a top performer at work but also to achieve that elusive work-life balance.

Whether you’re a productivity geek or simply looking for ways to improve your work performance, you’re sure to walk away inspired to work smarter rather than harder.

Mandi Ehman

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