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What Listerine can teach us about staying focused…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You should be doing less!

Today’s Preview

How staying focused…

(1) …helped Edna’s bad breath make $350 million

(2) …might be about doing less, not more

(3) …means understanding your goals

(1) A story from the past

It’s 1914. Listerine, originally developed as a surgical antiseptic, is being sold in stores as a germ-killing liquid and bad-breath banisher. It’s also marketed as “a cure for dandruff, a floor cleaner, a hair tonic, a deodorant, and even a ‘beneficial remedy’ for diseases like smallpox.”

You’d think that with so many uses, Listerine would be flying off the shelves. But no—at best, sales were “unspectacular.” With retailers threatening to remove Listerine from shelves, the company needed a solution—and quick.

So, what did it do?

The company decided to focus on addressing not a thousand problems but on just one: “halitosis”, from “halitus”, or Latin for breath, and “-oesis”, the Greek suffix for “diseased.”

Listerine plastered the serious-sounding term across their ads and highlighted real-life examples, like Edna: “Edna was a beautiful woman, except for one fatal flaw—Edna suffered from halitosis. Despite all of her charms, [she] was ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride.’”

The refined campaign worked: Listerine’s annual sales increased from $100,000 in 1921 to over $4,000,000 (four million dollars!) by 1927. In 2023, that’s roughly the equivalent of boosting sales from nearly $2,000,000 (2 million) to exceeding $70,000,000 (70 million) per year.

Fast forward and Listerine is one of the bestselling mouthwashes in the United States, with annual sales surpassing $350,000,000 ($350 million) in 2018

So, the next time you use mouthwash in the morning or see a Listerine bottle at the store, remember: It may have never made its way to your bathroom sink—or survived on store shelves—had the company not focused on promoting one use instead of every possible one.

L to R, clockwise: An original Listerine bottle (circa 1906), a Listerine ad (circa 1925), a Listerine bottle today (2023), and another Listerine ad (circa 1928). (Images belong to the Smithsonian Museum and Listerine.)

(2) A study of the present

It’s easy to look at Listerine’s early days and think, Who would ever do that??

Well, it turns out that none of us are immune to committing such absurdities. 

According to 2021 research published in Nature, we “tend to solve problems by adding things together rather than taking things away, even when doing so goes against our best interest.”

More specifically, the authors discovered that when participants were told to arrange colors to make a design fully symmetrical, half of them “added complexity to the design instead of taking it away, even though doing so required more work and hurt their performance.”

(Psst… scroll to the bottom of this post to try the symmetry experiment yourself.)

Results showed a similar pattern across seven other experiments, including stabilizing a Lego roof, “editing a written document, modifying a mini-golf course, and improving a university.”

So what? It’s tempting to do more and add more. Don’t! 

(3) A strategy for your future

The next time you find yourself thinking, “Let’s do this… and this… and this…,” try this:

(1) List out all of your ideas.

  • E.g., “I could start a podcast, host a conference, do a webinar series, do a mailer, start a newsletter, post on social media, write a book, create an app, and go to grad school…”

(2) Fill in this blank: “In the end, I’m trying to _______.”

  • E.g., “In the end, I’m trying to get new clients for my new coaching side hustle.”

(3) Look at your list and rank them from “moves the needle the most” (AKA: makes the most progress) to “moves the needle the least” (AKA: makes the least progress).

  • E.g., (Surprise! Actually, none of the above examples are as effective as asking people you already know and then asking for introductions.)

(4) Now, go focus on that one thing that “moves the needle” the most.

Resist the temptation to just do more. Just do one thing really, really well. The rest is a distraction.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When putting together my job, internship, and program compilation lists this summer, I initially planned to have a giant directory filtered by every possible criterion. I stressed myself out… until I realized that I was already “moving the needle” simply by compiling a list. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start!!



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Bonus brain teaser

Here’s the brain teaser from the research study referenced earlier! The full instructions read: “Make [the square] perfectly symmetrical from left to right, and from top to bottom. To do so you may change the color of any square from blue to white, or vice versa. The goal is to accomplish this using the fewest color changes possible.” Happy solving!