In Praise of Laziness

October 03, 2013

photo of sleeping panda

We were going to write this blog post earlier, but after doing all this research on the value of laziness in business, we didn’t get around to it.

No, seriously. After years of telling executives how to be more efficient, how to make better use of their time, how to get more done, those same experts are telling executives to cut it out already and just kick back for a while.

“The biggest problem in the business world is not too little but too much — too many distractions and interruptions, too many things done for the sake of form, and altogether too much busy-ness,” writes The Economist. “Office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.” Instead of “leaning in,” to quote Sheryl Sandberg’s recent management book, , executives should be leaning back, the magazine writes.

Indeed, being constantly busy can simply be a way of creating the image of someone who’s so very, very important — and, in its own way, may be a form of laziness that allows people to avoid spending time thinking about how to improve business. “When we fill our schedules with appointments and hands with phones, we divest ourselves of downtime. When we're endlessly doing, it's hard to be mindful of what we're doing,” writes Drake Baer in Fast Company.

It turns out that the best way to be creative, innovative, productive, and all those other “ives” that executives (see what I did there?) like so much is, simply, to not be so busy doing other things, like e-mail and meetings.

“The most obvious beneficiaries of leaning back would be creative workers — the very people who are supposed to be at the heart of the modern economy,” the Economist continues. “Creative people’s most important resource is their time — particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time — and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.”

In fact, the most successful managers are also the laziest, writes Richard Koch, who just published The 80/20 Manager—The Secret to Working Less and Achieving More. “Because they had plenty of time to reflect, and because their reflections were dynamite, they were able to change the world and have a very congenial life into the bargain.”

As you go higher up in the organization, this becomes even more true, writes Joel Trammell, CEO of Cache IQ and chairman of the Austin Technology Council, in an article praising the lazy CEO.While hard work is valuable in any business the job of the CEO often calls for a more measured and thoughtful approach,” he writes. “I believe that there are many cases where the CEO should not ‘grab a shovel and start digging’ just because a problem presents itself. I have often observed CEOs who are so busy digging every day they cause more problems than they solve.” CEOs need to hire good people and leave them alone to do their jobs, rather than getting involved in every decision — which, in turn, will make those employees happier, he writes.

The recent spate of articles on the virtues of laziness suggest that executives must ensure they have good employees, delegate as much to them as possible, look for ways to automate routine tasks, and, in general, examine their lives to see how many email messages, mailing lists, meetings, and other activities they can stop doing.

The phrase “Work smarter, not harder” often comes up in these articles, as do aphorisms such as Hlade's Law: “If you have a difficult task, give it to a lazy person — they will find an easier way to do it.” As Koch puts it, “The determination to find a much better solution involving much less effort is the highest form of laziness.”