The myth of laziness how to get more done by doing less.
Reading time: 4 mins
There is an apocryphal story that keeps doing the rounds about the time Bill Gates once said that he would always "hire a lazy person to do a difficult job" at Microsoft. Why? "Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it."
This seems to fly in the face of everything we get told from school onwards about how we would never get anywhere in life if we were lazy and how hard work is one of the critical foundations for lifetime success. We should question whether the notion of hard work for it’s own sake is as effective as we are always told. There is a difference between working hard all the time and knowing how to work hard when needed to achieve specific aims. After all no one readily aspires to be a busy fool yet just like the boiling frog analogy many of us find ourselves inhabiting this situation by stealth.
These are some of the ways you can use your ‘laziness’ or more appropriately ‘effectiveness’ to your advantage and turn procrastination into an asset.
Pack early pack twice – in favour of procrastination
If you wait until the last safe moment to complete a task, you are forced to focus on the project at hand. Pack early pack twice is a mantra that we used to use all the time in the military; we were forever packing personal kit and equipment and getting ready to deploy on a training mission or a live operation. With time scarcity and frequent changes of plan almost guaranteed then personal efficiency and effectiveness became paramount. We always used to laugh at that one person who whittled away precious downtime in favour of forensically packing their kit only to conduct multiple repacks and reviews once the efficient ones amongst us started packing our own. Not only does nature abhor a vacuum but so too does administration and work – the more time you give it the more it takes.
Outsource and delegate as much as possible
Phones, lifts, cars, all these things were invented to avoid or minimise work. Lazy people automate, outsource and delegate as much as possible. This is because they value their time to such an extent that they conserve both it and their available resources for only the most pressing concerns. Rather than tweeting throughout the day, for example, you might use a service like TweetDeck to schedule tweets for the whole day in one go.
Surely one of the benefits of technological revolution is that human beings are supposed to work less, not more, or at least reduce the mundane in favour of the truly impactful. In his 1930 work Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that by 2030 he expected a system of almost total "technological unemployment" in which we'd need to work as few as 15 hours a week. This utopia still seems distant yet trials of 4 day work weeks in Finland and elsewhere are showing precisely that we become more productive when we have less time available to do the work.
Working less doesn't mean being less effective. Devotees of the "Pareto Principle" believe in the 80-20 rule: basically, just 20pc of your efforts deliver 80pc of the results - there is the "vital few and the trivial many". The idea was originally conceived in 1906 by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who created the formula to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in his country (20pc of people owned 80pc of the wealth). However, it is now a much-vaunted time-management technique.
Of the things you do during your day, only 20pc really matter - in theory. Lazy people can cut down on 80pc of their workload by identifying and focusing only on those things
Effectiveness matters more than hours worked
You may be perceived as lazy because you’re actually just good at your job. Really efficient people will naturally have more downtime than their peers. If you finish a task, and find yourself watching cat videos or liking endless pictures on Facebook, is it because you've finished your work early? Are you twiddling your thumbs because you have nothing else left to do?
Take Tobi Lütke, the CEO of the e-commerce platform Shopify. He couldn't be bothered to work with difficult customers anymore, so he got rid of them. Lazy? Perhaps. But the result was that he could spend more time focusing on valuable customers.
"If you go into business school and suggest firing a customer, they'll kick you out of the building," he says. "But it's so true in my experience. It allows you to identify the customers you really want to work with."
In 2007, Tim Ferriss published his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, in which he extolled the virtues of the Pareto Principle and of working as little as possible. The self-help book was a worldwide success, selling 1.35m copies in 35 languages. According to Ferriss, to be truly productive, we must check our email just once a day and outsource every small daily task to virtual assistants, focusing only on those tasks that generate the largest return.
Laziness implies cleverness
Could it be that a new theory of success might describe laziness as a good trait? Perhaps it is only by being lazy that we can become truly efficient, and come to see what is important and what is not. “Lean in”, says the corporate queen, Sheryl Sandberg, while every big name CEO warns their acolytes that if they do not like getting up at 4am and doing their emails while on the rowing machine, they are not going to make it to the top. Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, head of the German army got there nearly a century ago by devising one of the world’s first management matrices. He assessed his officers on two scales: clever vs dim and lazy vs energetic, and came up with the following four permutations. – Dim and lazy — Good at executing orders. – Dim and energetic — Very dangerous, as they take the wrong decisions. – Clever and energetic — Excellent staff officers. – Clever and lazy — Top field commanders as they get results. Officers who were both clever and lazy were qualified for the highest leadership duties, because they possessed the intellectual clarity and the "composure" necessary for difficult decisions. They are masters at avoiding “busywork” such as pointless meetings, he claimed, they delegate to others to get things done efficiently, and they focus on the essentials rather than being distracted by unnecessary extras.
The system worked only too well for the German army, and could surely work just as well in modern corporations. Alas, instead of deploying something so bracingly honest, management theorists have taken von Hammerstein-Equord’s idea and ruined it by turning it into the wishy-washy modern “skill-will” matrix. According to this, the person who is clever and lazy (or “high skill/low will”) is not deemed to have won the lottery. They are deemed to be in need of coaching. Laziness, according to the modern view, is like an illness or something we need to be coached out of. Perhaps the reverse is true — it is something senior executives need to be coached into. Just to be clear: the sort of laziness to encourage is not the slobbish variety that means you do bad work. That is not laziness: it is stupidity. Instead, we need the clever version that comes from knowing there is an opportunity cost to every minute we spend working, so we use our time wisely. Never has the elevation of laziness been more needed at the very top. Hard work is not only harming sleepless executives but is hurting the companies that employ them. According to a study at Bain last year, one weekly executive meeting at one large company ate up 300,000 person hours a year. A similar McKinsey study showed that only half of company leaders spend enough time on business priorities, frittering away their days on email, meetings, schmoozing and fire fighting.
Make money while you sleep – the utopia of recurring revenue
Lazy entrepreneurs build businesses that generate revenue. The best build digital businesses that generate revenue even when they aren't anywhere near their desk. Online products such as training videos, e-books or subscriptions to online content or services could all make money while you sleep, and require minimal input from the business owner. The power of the Software as a Service model for large enterprises comes from the infinitely replicable digital product/service that they have across an enormous client base that has perpetual need for the work. Build once and sell many times with no additional cost. Few would describe this as a lazy business model. The magic that powers successful long term investing relies on what Einstein called the 8th wonder of the world – compound interest; “he who understands it earns it, he who doesn’t pays it”.
Towards a more effective society
Working just four hours a week might seem ridiculous to many, but how about a four-hour workday? Or even a 4-day week? A shorter working week would have interesting theoretical benefits. If everyone worked fewer hours, more people would be required to get the job done, reducing unemployment. Less productivity would produce slower economic growth however which is something our current system is allergic to although it might also reduce the consequences of that growth, such as: pollution, extreme’s of economic volatility and increased inequality. Work, as a commodity, would increase in value - sweat equity is frequently dismissed these days because everyone puts in such long hours. It might also go someway towards solving the eternal question: how to achieve a work/life balance. Health benefits would accrue such as a reduction in burn-outs, stress and inactivity which would help to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's. Either this or we simply find a more effective way to absorb lazy peoples spare capacity to the better benefit of the capitalist machine…