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Try this surprising strategy for upping your excellence over the long haul of remote work

The authors of ‘Unleashed’ argue that now more than ever, we need to use our resources strategically and give up the fantasy that we can excel in every aspect of our lives.

Try this surprising strategy for upping your excellence over the long haul of remote work
[Source image: Paul Campbell/iStock]

We appear to be entering the long-haul phase of working from home, at least those of us lucky enough to have that option. As we write this, COVID-19 is gaining momentum again, and an increasing number of companies have told their employees to do their jobs remotely for the foreseeable future. People are breathing sighs of relief and, frankly, of exhaustion.

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We believe the remote hustle has produced some healthy workplace changes such as shorter meetings and less time spent on office politics. But it’s also created a culture of work that’s both relentless and, paradoxically, isolating. We’re constantly producing while feeling less connected to our coworkers. Meanwhile, work and life have blurred into a surreal, boundary-free existence where it’s often hard to delineate one day from the next, much less the differences between work time, personal time, and even bedtime. We’re wearing PJ bottoms to Zoom calls, and we’re falling asleep curled up with our laptops at the end of interminable days.

Exhausted mediocrity

Where can you find relief in these strange times? Oddly enough, we think there’s a lot to learn about living and working better in this crisis from the research on good business strategy.

Strategy, once you boil it down, is about being better than your competitors at the things that matter most to your customers. This sounds simple enough, but here’s the hard part: In most cases, this means you also have to be worse than your competitors at other things, ideally the less important ones. Think Southwest Airlines, with its friendly service and low prices, in exchange for a stripped-down flight experience and out-of-the-way airport commute.

Companies such as Southwest that have great strategy tend to underinvest where it matters least in order to free up the resources to overinvest where it matters most. A major lesson of our decade of research on service companies is that
organizations that resist this truth and try to be great at everything usually end up in a state of “exhausted mediocrity.” Sound familiar?

Whenever we teach people about this idea, we get the same question: Does this logic work out of the office too? As we wrote in our latest book, Unleashed, the short answer is hell, yes. In fact, the idea is even more important in the middle of a pandemic, when resources (time, energy, capital) have become scarcer for so many of us. Now more than ever, we need to use those resources strategically—which means giving up the fantasy that we can excel in every aspect of our lives.

Dare to be bad (at something)

It takes courage to deliberately underperform, and so we call this approach “daring to be bad.” Let’s start with a simple example: a dare-to-be-bad approach to time management might mean that you choose to underdeliver on email in order to overdeliver on client engagement. In this tradeoff, you’d still respond to messages, of course, but you would no longer crush it. You might respond within 24 hours instead of two hours (or two minutes—you know who you are).

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In return, you’d invest your newfound time, focus, and sanity into nailing your next client proposal and listening actively when a client tells you what’s changed for them in these plague-addled times. Bad on email in exchange for excellent with clients. Seems worth it, right?

Here’s an exercise you can do at your desk/kitchen table/communal homeschooling workspace. Pick a person with whom you want to build a stronger connection. Maybe it’s your boss or your kiddo or the partner who’s making you crazy after quarantining together in a small apartment for the last six months. Consider the following tradeoff: what if Super You showed up when it mattered most to them, but it meant that Average You—or even Bummer You—showed up when it mattered least? How would your relationship change as a result?

Rank the activities you share with this person and/or the things you do for them, from most important to least important. Once you have a draft list, test it. Ask the person some variation on, “Of all the things I do, which are most important to you?” In our experience, their answers may surprise you.

Now give yourself a rough grade on your performance on each activity, 1-5, with 1 being terrible and 5 being outstanding. Where are you excelling (4s and 5s) and where are you falling short (1s and 2s)? Is your performance lining up nicely with how this person values each activity? Or, like most people, are you looking wearily at a long list of 3s?

Up your excellence game

For example, let’s say that you learned from your son that being fully present in the time you spend with him is the thing that matters most. This means that you’re not on the phone when you’re together and not secretly texting your boss from the bathroom when you’re supposed to be building Legos. (These are purely hypothetical scenarios used for educational purposes only. Obviously). Unfortunately, you’re now clocking in at a solid “2” for meeting this need. Pandemic living is no joke.

How can you get to a 5 here? Something has to give. Well, it turns out that what matters less to him is the beautiful, three-course meal you’re trying to put on the table every night. You’re scoring high on meal presentation, but he could frankly care less about what his food looks like. A dare-to-be-bad response to this kind of insight might be to permit yourself to reheat some chicken strips from time to time, or make cooking something you do together, or recruit another member of the household to share the meal burden with you. “Bad” at meal presentation in exchange for excellent at being present.

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Again, the idea here is to be quite ordinary at things that don’t matter in order to become extraordinary at things that do. In return, you get to thrive and not just survive—even in the era of COVID-19.


Frances Frei is a professor at Harvard Business School and recently served as Uber’s first senior vice president of leadership and strategy. Anne Morriss is a leadership coach and the executive founder of the Leadership Consortium.

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