In Praise of Laziness

Very good piece in The Economist on disruptions, endless meetings, and pointless tasks. Many people mistake being busy for being productive, whereas they’re often not correlated!

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.

Which of these banes of modern business life is worse remains open to debate. But what is clear is that 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.

All this “leaning in” is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night. Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 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.

Not just business people, but everyone would be better off if they did less and thought more.

The “I Don’t Have Time” Myth

Matt Swanson, with a few examples, highlights the notion that “slow and steady” is the path to getting things done, perhaps even reaching mastery of a skill or concept:

How do you get the inertia to start when the finish line seems so far away?

                   I’d like to write a book, but I don’t have time to do all that work.

But do you have an hour to outline a table of contents? Could you write 500 words today? How about emailing five bloggers that might be interested in reviewing your book this week?

Nathan Barry, a normal guy from Idaho with a wife and kid, found the time to write his book inthousand word chunks.

                      I’d really like to start drawing, but I’m no good and don’t have time to learn.

Do you have time to draw one sketch today? And again tomorrow? Could you steal enough time to read a chapter in a book every week? To visit an art museum once a month?

Jonathan Hardesty, an aspiring artist who started at “rock bottom”, did one sketch or painting every day. It took him years of work, but he went from untrained to professional artist.

You really should follow the links above for some perspective of those people were able to accomplish.

I don’t believe in the “I don’t have the time” mantra. We all have the same amount of time every day. It’s how we choose to allocate our time that matters. What you choose to do with the limited time you have speaks of your priorities in life.

Milton Glaser: Ten Things I Have Learned in Life

I can’t remember who pointed me to Milton Glaser’s essay about the ten things he has learned in his life, but it’s easily one of the best things I’ve read this year. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

My favourite lessons are below:

You can only work for people that you like. This is a curious rule and it took me a long time to learn because in fact at the beginning of my practice I felt the opposite. Professionalism required that you didn’t particularly like the people that you worked for or at least maintained an arms length relationship to them, which meant that I never had lunch with a client or saw them socially. Then some years ago I realised that the opposite was true. I discovered that all the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of an affectionate relationship with a client. And I am not talking about professionalism; I am talking about affection. I am talking about a client and you sharing some common ground. That in fact your view of life is someway congruent with the client, otherwise it is a bitter and hopeless struggle…

On avoiding toxic people in life:

And the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energised or less energised. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life. 

I want to surround myself with people that exhilarate me, that help me blossom.

Is less more? Milton Glaser doesn’t think so:

Being a child of modernism I have heard this mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I realised that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding. But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of the history of the world.

I applaud Glaser for understanding the importance of how environment shapes our development, particularly our brain:

How you live changes your brain. We tend to believe that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, although we do not generally believe that everything we do affects the brain. I am convinced that if someone was to yell at me from across the street my brain could be affected and my life might changed. That is why your mother always said, ‘Don’t hang out with those bad kids.’ Mama was right. Thought changes our life and our behaviour.

May I suggest you go back to the David Eagleman piece and learn more about how our brain is affected by environmental stimuli?

Do you approach things in life with, would you say, mostly unquestioning acceptance or doubt? I love this one:

Doubt is better than certainty. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being sceptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between scepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right.

Yes, there is nuance to the life lesson above. If you approach something with too much doubt, too often, you will become cynical. And that’s exactly what Glaser warns about in the essay. As for me, I have always been one to doubt first, accept second. Many times it appears as though I am trying to clash with someone’s belief on purpose, and I am perceived as obstinate and annoying. But those that can see through that personality quirk become my friends.

If you read through the end, the last lesson is: tell the truth. Milton Glaser is a designer, and his basic premise is that telling the truth is important no matter what field or practice you choose to go into. These are ten lessons to cherish.