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In Praise of Laziness | The Economist

Stashed in: Time, Productivity, Management

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Business people would do better if they did less and thought more.

Schumpeter writes:

THERE is a never-ending supply of business gurus telling us how we can, and must, do more. Sheryl Sandberg urges women to “Lean In” if they want to get ahead. John Bernard offers breathless advice on conducting “Business at the Speed of Now”. Michael Port tells salesmen how to “Book Yourself Solid”. And in case you thought you might be able to grab a few moments to yourself, Keith Ferrazzi warns that you must “Never Eat Alone”.

Yet 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. The Dutch seem to believe that an excess of meetings is the biggest devourer of time: they talk of vergaderziekte, “meeting sickness”. However, a study last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is e-mails: it found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to them.


80% of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.


Ronald Reagan also believed in not overdoing things: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody,” he said, “but I figure, why take the chance?”


In the early 1990s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, asked 275 creative types if he could interview them for a book he was writing. A third did not bother to reply at all and another third refused to take part. Peter Drucker, a management guru, summed up the mood of the refuseniks: “One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste-paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours.” 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.

Less is more — more or less:

Managers themselves could benefit. Those at the top are best employed thinking about strategy rather than operations—about whether the company is doing the right thing rather than whether it is sticking to its plans. When he was boss of General Electric, Jack Welch used to spend an hour a day in what he called “looking out of the window time”. When he was in charge of Microsoft Bill Gates used to take two “think weeks” a year when he would lock himself in an isolated cottage. Jim Collins, of “Good to Great” fame, advises all bosses to keep a “stop doing list”. Is there a meeting you can cancel? Or a dinner you can avoid?

Junior managers would do well to follow the same advice. In “Do Nothing”, one of the few business books to grapple with the problem of over-management, Keith Murnighan of the Kellogg School of Management argues that the best managers focus their attention on establishing the right rules — recruiting the right people and establishing the right incentives — and then get out of the way. He quotes a story about Eastman Kodak in its glory days. A corporate reorganization left a small division out in the cold—without a leader or a reporting line to headquarters. The head office only rediscovered the division when it received a note from a customer congratulating the unit on its work.

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