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Why many of the best workers don’t burn the midnight oil

The lowest work rate of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament by a non-defender was recorded by its most valuable player, Argentine goal machine Lionel Messi, right.Javier Soriano /

At the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament in Brazil, the U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley put up a statistic that wowed folks back home: He ran farther than anyone else. Through three games, Bradley had covered a total of 23.4 miles, according to a micro-transmitter embedded in his cleat, while his team finished tops among nations in work rate, a simple measure of movement per minute, otherwise known as running around.

Commentators at the New York Times, U.S. News and NBC Sports were duly impressed. Left unmentioned was the fact that the lowest work rate of the tournament by a non-defender was recorded by its most valuable player, Argentine goal machine Lionel Messi.

It seems strange that soccer’s greatest player spends most of his time moving at a golfer’s pace. And also that those hustling Americans couldn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

But forthcoming research by the Norwegian-born business scholar Morten Hansen supports the idea that people who do the most work aren’t the ones who do the best work. And it raises this interesting question: Could North America’s valorization of hustle be a cause of failure?

Hansen, a management professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has just wrapped up a five-year study of American workers. His main finding, as summarized in a recent interview: “The top performers in this data set do less.”

It’s not that successful people don’t work hard, though they tend not to be the ones pulling the longest hours. It’s that they do fewer things, and seem to have better developed mechanisms for deciding what not to do.

For his research, Hansen signed up 4,964 people (store managers, plant foremen, sales reps and one Las Vegas casino dealer) to record the work habits of their bosses, their subordinates and themselves.

It turned out that some people who did less just accomplished less. But the top performers also did less, and seemed to have a knack for figuring out how to sidestep inessential tasks to obsess on a few important things. Just as Messi’s long periods of inactivity allowed him to focus on explosive runs toward the goal, these corporate paragons were able to bring extraordinary force to bear on a few vital activities because of committees not joined, initiatives not undertaken, podcasts not recorded.