The art of productive laziness

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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.

The other day I had a drink with a friend who is one of the busiest people I know. For years she has been holding down a big job in a big organisation, dealing with an ex-husband, assorted children and decrepit parents. But six months ago something happened to her. She fell in love and wanted to spend every spare minute with her new man.

The trouble was she did not have even minutes to spare and so rather than make further inroads into the time she devoted to her children, she started working less — much less. Because she is senior enough to control her schedule, she gets in to the office later. She leaves earlier. She has stopped going to most meetings. She no longer sends emails in the evenings or at weekends. She avoids networking events. Instead of having lunches with contacts, she sees her boyfriend instead.

Last week I asked her what the cost of all this slacking had been to her career. None, she said, a triumphant gleam in her eye. Instead, she had had her best six months ever, her biggest bonus and an even larger job had been dangled in front of her.

I speculated that the happiness of love must be the reason. It had made her feel invincible; life has the unfair way of offering great things to people when they are already on a roll. Nonsense, she replied. She has simply discovered that less is more. She has become lazier, which has made her much more focused. She spends time only on the things that really matter, and everything else, she either does not do at all, or delegates to someone else.

This experience has led her to a new theory of success that says laziness is good. It is only by being lazy that we become truly efficient, and come to see what is important and what is not. The trouble is that we try too hard. We make ourselves martyrs to industriousness, and far from that being our secret advantage, it is our undoing. If only we were lazier we would do better.

Not only is she right, her theory is thrillingly seditious. “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. My friend is not the first person to see the wrongness in this.

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.

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