Do Less, Obsess More

November 14, 2019

“Do less” dare I say! In the culture of “do more” where increasing the scope of activities, pursuing multiple responsibilities is believed to be the only way we can accomplish more and improve our performance doing less sounds like blasphemy doesn’t it? Lazy and unproductive is probably what you are thinking. But doing less is only half the story. Simply choosing a few things to work on and saying no to others is not the idea here. The other half is the harsh requirement to obsess over those few chosen areas of focus to a point of perfection.

Why is this important? Spreading too thin means less time is allotted to each, and the less well we will perform on any one of them. As economics Nobel laureate Herbert Simon once said “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. Research shows, rapidly toggling between two items (ie. multitasking) renders you less effective at both. Each time you switch your brain has to abandon one task and acclimate itself to the other. Case in point? A study of Italian judges in Milan showed that the judges who handled many cases simultaneously spent 398 days to close the cases. While the ones who performed them in sequence took only 178 days – less than half the time. (Same workload, cases were assigned randomly and they were all comparable). The research concluded that a 50% increase in multitasking led to a nearly 20% increase in the number of days to finish cases. Other studies show that switching between tasks can decrease your productivity by as much as 40%.

Sukiyabashi Jiro serving President Barack Obama and the PM of Japan – Shinzo Abe

On the flip side is extreme focus. Here is my favorite story of this from Tokyo, Japan. Somewhere in an underpass of a subway station is a door that leads to a sushi restaurant – Sukiyabashi Jiro. This place is run by a 91 year old, Jiro Ono for the last 50 years. The place is rather basic – kind of like the menu. There isn’t one. No cocktails, No shrimp tempura or any thing else whatsoever. If you need to use the restroom it’s outside in the subway corridor. The only thing offered is 20 pieces of sushi. Sushi so exquisite that it has earned Jiro not one, not two, but three Michelin stars. He is considered the best sushi chef in the world and he puts it all in preparing these twenty pieces of sushi. How does he do it? He is a classic example of do less, then obsess.

Every morning his eldest son who has trained with his father for thirty years heads to the fish market to select a single superior piece of tuna. Not one of the best pieces but the best in the entire market. If he can’t have the single best he won’t buy any tuna that day. How can you serve the best sushi in the world if you don’t have the best slice of fish. 

Then it’s the preparation of the octopus. To ensure it’s tenderness Jiro massages the octopus by hand. How long do you think that takes? Jiro massages the octopus for at least 30-minutes but says that peak tenderness is achieved after 40-50 minutes of massaging. This task is delegated to an apprentice. An apprentice who has worked in the restaurant for ten years – the first eight spend washing and preparing fish – finally graduated to the role of preparing the omelet sushi. To ensure he got it right Jiro forced him to cook 200 omelet batches. Not 50, not 100. But a whopping 200 batches before he was allowed to prepare one that was served to customers. That’s the kind of rigor he has afforded himself when he has to make only twenty pieces. He is able to channel his full energy in each one – something he spent a lifetime perfecting. 

To achieve greatness at anything an obsession over quality and an extraordinary attention to detail is a must. In the world we live in obsession is seen as something dangerous or even debilitating. But obsession if channelized well can be a productive force. Alfred Hitchcock required more than seventy shots to perfect the shower scene in the movie Psycho. James Dyson created 5000 prototypes over a period of 15 years before he got it right. That begs the question: Which camp are you in? The “do more” camp? Hope I have inspired you to consider doing less, and obsessing even more!

This blog post is inspired by Morten Hansen’s latest book “Great at Work”. A book in which he brings together some game changing principles to excellence at work. This is the second post I have written about his work.

A note about the featured image. Fugu Sashimi – The most dangerous and hardest thing for any chef to every make. Just how dangerous?1,200 times deadlier than cyanide. The toxin is so potent that a lethal dose is smaller than the head of a pin, and a single fish has enough poison to kill 30 people!

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