… Discover the Value of Idleness
Being born in the middle of the Great Depression means that the words “lazy” and “idle” take on special meaning. In the southeast Texas town of Shepherd where I first lived, regular jobs were few. My maternal grandfather had one of those jobs, railroad section foreman responsible for maintaining a stretch of railroad track. My paternal grandfather was a subsistence farmer. He farmed, raised a few animals, hunted, bartered what he had for other goods he needed, or went without. My father had a number of jobs including running a gas station and repairing cars. If you had a job, you worked hard to keep it; if you didn’t you were seen as idle and often thought to be too lazy to hold a job.
So, it should not be a surprise that my mother abhorred the idea of lazy or idle. In particular, she did everything she could to see that my younger brother and I were not mentally lazy. She read to us, we read, we did our homework. Being lazy – either mentally or physically – wasn’t on the agenda. When I got to be of high school age, my father, now working in a petroleum refinery, got to know some engineers and decided that his boys should be engineers. My brother Bob (also an engineer with degrees from MIT and now Principal Engineer at CTSI Acoustics in Houston) and I were expected to study hard, do our homework, and excel in school. And even today, both of us, well into what is considered retirement, are fully engaged. So, the concept of being lazy or idle is foreign to me.
Raffaello Manacorda, writing in “The Deep Value of Being Lazy (Sometimes),”1 says that many of us carry a heavy negative judgment towards laziness. “We have been conditioned, in varied ways, to be responsible and productive members of society. We are evaluated for our productiveness which we measure in different ways.” He goes on to note that this strong bias in “favor of productivity and activity, is one of the factors that makes our lives stressful and disharmonious.”
What did surprise me in my search to better understand “lazy” and “idle” was my finding this comment in Samson Mbugua’s LinkedIn essay, “Why I’m Learning to Be Lazy:”2 “Bill Gates famously said that if asked to choose between a lazy guy and a hard worker to do a hard job, he would always choose the lazy person.” Say, what! What’s Gates getting at here? Our belief is that lazy people don't exert themselves, don’t go the extra mile, don’t do more than the minimum amount of work necessary to have their work accepted. Right?
Reading Gates’ comment has led me to rethink the concept of lazy. Yes, laziness means, according to Merriam-Webster, “disinclined to activity or exertion: not energetic or vigorous ‘The lazy child tried to avoid household chores.’, encouraging inactivity or indolence on a lazy summer day, move slowly, lax, not rigorous or strict, ‘lazy scholarship’.” And, it doesn’t help that the Bible lists “sloth” as one of the seven deadly sins.
Alongside the outward manifestations of lazy (and idle) is the state of solitude. I wrote about solitude in the January 23, 2018 Tuesday Reading. There I quoted from the book, Neuroscience for Leadership,3 by Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, and Paul Brown: “Sometimes simply working on a problem, even with great skill and expertise, is not enough. A familiar way of generating new concepts, ideas, or breakthroughs is the strategy of stopping work and doing something different, such as a walk in the woods, which serves to take attention away from the conscious efforts and allows more energy for activity under conscious awareness, with much greater capacity and access to a greater number of stored patterns or memories in different parts of the brain.” This is our brain’s default network at work. It “allows creative thought to flourish by transcending the present moment and environment, to ‘think outside the box’.”
Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, in his book Deep Work,4 describes his pattern of working in solitude (and without interruption) for 90 minutes and then taking a break for 30 minutes to restore the brain’s energy. Similarly, Tony Schwartz,4 author and founder of The Energy Project, argues that after a sustained period of work, we need to unplug to let our brain regain its equilibrium.
So, what Bill Gates was getting at is not the states of laziness and idleness that I know from my youth, but the times of solitude where we actively disengage from conscious efforts to let our brain’s default network engage and to permit our brain to regain its equilibrium. It is during these times when we are our most creative selves and are able to break through blockages in the pathway to our solving whatever problem we are laboring on.
So, practically what can you do to introduce solitude into your work and life? Here are some important steps that come to mind:
- Have a daily plan and execute against it. I’ve written about the necessity of planning for the coming week before it begins. In the Tuesday Reading (February 6, 2018) “Your Daily Calendar,” I suggested that you include in your plan time for your focused work. This time will necessarily have both “head-down” time for you to work in solitude without interruption, and time for you to take a break for your brain to regain its energy and equilibrium. When you take a break, get away from your desk, walk around (outside if possible) even for 10 or 15 minutes, talk to others but not about what you are working on, etc., it will refresh your physical and mental energy. (Note, this is not time to check your handheld and read and respond to your mail. You need to schedule specific times for these tasks as well.)
- Schedule planning days. Find a way to have a day or more alone, away from your workplace, each month or quarter, to let the voices clamoring in your head subside, so that you can do some longer-range planning for you personally as well as for your organization. I’ve personally found that some physical activity such as strenuous work in my yard or taking a longer walk by myself can be excellent stage-setters for engaging in reflection about what I should be focusing on and what my organization should be doing. It is hard to justify doing this for yourself. However, after actually doing it several times you will understand how useful it can be and, I suspect, will make it a regular part of your routine.
- Have a serious “outside” interest. In the paper, “Why CEOs Devote So Much Time to Their Hobbies,”6 the authors report that having a true passion that you actively engage in will help you switch off and stop the constant background noise that comes from thinking and rethinking ideas which continues even when you are out of the office. They speak of total absorption in doing things with your family as well as personal activities such as collecting stickers, hand-making elaborate cards, playing in a band, engaging in a charitable or religious organization, etc. The idea is to have an interest in which you can really be absorbed and switched off from the office.
So, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is “lazy,” as in disinclined to activity or exertion, and that there is “lazy,” as in taking the time in the course of your work to allow your mind to disengage, build new pathways between what you know, and to engage its default network. I’m continuing to learn to do the latter and finding that I am becoming more effective. Perhaps you will want to experiment with being lazy in this way this week.
Make it a great week for you and your team. . . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
- Raffaello Manacorda, “The Deep Value of Being Lazy (Sometimes),” Elephant Journal, July 2016.
- Samson Mbugua, “Why I’m Learning to Be Lazy,” LinkedIn, August 2016.
- Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, Paul Brown, Neuroscience for Leadership: Harvesting the Brain Gain Advantage, Palgrave McMillan, 2015.
- Cal Newport, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Hachette Book Group, January 2016. (See animated book summary here and text summary here.)
- Tony Schwartz, Relax! You’ll be More Productive, New York Times, February 2013.
- Emilia Bunea, Svetlana Khapova, and Evgenia Lysova, “Why CEOs Devote So Much Time to Their Hobbies, HBR, October 2018.