Why being lazy at work is a good thing

By Greg Bruce

Is being constantly busy the best way of being efficient? Greg Bruce looks into taking time out.
There's growing evidence for the idea that sometimes the best way to get more done is to do less. Photo / iStock
There's growing evidence for the idea that sometimes the best way to get more done is to do less. Photo / iStock

Few people are interested in being quoted in a magazine article about the value of laziness, which is understandable. Admitting to laziness will get you sacked from most jobs and even just publicly admitting to liking the sound of it is probably enough to make you unemployable.

For this story, several people were invited to discuss the value and importance of laziness. They were all people who live good lives, do good work and are respected in their fields. I tried to explain to them that I was trying to rehabilitate the term
"laziness" rather than obliterate their careers, but still only one person agreed to be named, and she is a friend and therefore felt obligated. After I had interviewed her, she emailed in a panic, writing: "I'm worried I am going to look lazy in front of future employers and it will come up on Google to haunt me for the rest of my life!!!"

Why is "laziness" such a negative term? Who decided that doing stuff is so important that to sometimes enjoy not doing stuff is something worthy of insult?

We are alive for an unknowable length of time and then we are gone. Those are the only facts we have to work with. We have only time. Is it really better to fill that time with an unbroken stream of spreadsheets, meetings and peak productivity, or is there good evidence that we can and should replace a good chunk of that nonsense with daydreaming, short, pointless walks and the occasional lie-down on the couch?

About nine out of 10 of us in paid employment think our jobs suck. Esteemed survey company Gallup found, in its 2013 "State of the Global Workplace" study that 63 per cent of the global workforce are not engaged, which means they "lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organisational goals or outcomes". Another 24 per cent are actively disengaged, which means they "are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to co-workers".

What are we doing with our lives? Is this any way to live? In New Zealand, it's not even like all this work we hate doing is even doing us much good economically. On average, New Zealanders work some of the longest hours in the OECD, whereas our companies are among the least productive.

That last fact is quite significant. Economist Paul Conway, of the New Zealand Productivity Commission, says, "If you lift your productivity it gives you more choices, and one of those choices may be to work less and maintain your current income."

Internationally respected University of Auckland economics professor Robert MacCulloch agrees, saying Germany is a good example of exactly this point.

German companies are much more productive than ours and their workers not only earn dramatically more, but take an average of eight weeks' holiday a year, near enough double what we take.

Research shows that working less appears to be good for us. In 2008, researchers from Princeton University conducted a study in which they compared quality of life of the average French citizen with that of their American counterparts. The study found that the French work less, spend more of their time doing enjoyable activities and spend their days in a more positive mood.

Well before this research was published, but possibly anticipating it, in 1930, famous economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 gains in productivity would mean we would spend only 15 hours each week at work.

People 100 years ago earned about $10,000 a year in today's money. Today's average annual income is more like $50,000. You don't need to be Professor MacCulloch to appreciate that a five-fold increase in earning power should have been enough to allow us a correspondingly dramatic decrease in working hours.

There are many potential explanations for why it hasn't happened - we are chasing lifestyles that are ever more expensive, we are trying to keep up with the Joneses, we don't hate work as much as we say we do, the alternatives aren't that appealing, there aren't that many good 15-hour-a-week jobs being advertised on Trade Me.

None of the explanations are totally satisfying.

"I think Keynes would be bemused by it," says MacCulloch.

Early last year, Aimie Cronin left her full-time job at a daily newspaper to become a freelance writer, a decision that she says has changed her life for the better.

If I don't end up with as much money down the track I think it's still worth it if I have quality of life every day.
Aimie Cronin

"It's so much more worth it, just because of quality of life. That's always been something I've been quite paranoid about, like, oh my God, I'm going to die one day and I just can't spend my life doing something that I don't love doing."

She has a hard-working, decent-earning husband and she acknowledges the importance of his income in all of this. The freedom to pursue a lifestyle like hers is a luxury not everybody can afford she says. She is in a privileged position.

After her first year freelancing, she was one of five finalists in this year's Canon Media Awards' feature writer of the year category, the peak of all peaks, the award of awards for somebody in her profession. She is regularly asked to appear at panel discussions and conferences. She is the Wintec journalism department's writer-in-residence. By any measure, she is one of the best in the country at what she does.

What does the day of a high achiever look like? The day before we spoke, she woke up at 8.30am, met a friend at a cafe at 9am, walked the dog for an hour, did an interview at 11am and another at noon. She returned home at 12.40pm, ate lunch, and can't remember what she did between then and 2.50pm. "Checked my emails and fluffed around," she said. When pressed on what "fluffed around" might mean, she couldn't remember.

At 3pm, she had another interview, her final one of the day, and then she returned home to transcribe her notes. She finished work at 4.30pm and went to the opening of a friend's shop.

This is not necessarily a typical day because she doesn't have a typical day, which is partly the point. If she's on deadline, she will knuckle down and work in long, unbroken spells, often sitting in bed and writing late into the night, while her husband sleeps beside her. But when a deadline is done, she may take a day off, wander around town, do odd jobs, go for a long walk in the park.

Freelance writing is not lucrative, but that's not all there is to life. Next month, she and her husband are taking a 10-week trip through the United States.

"If I don't end up with as much money down the track," she says, "I think it's still worth it if I have quality of life every day. You feel like you're making the day count. And that's not necessarily that you're being super-productive, it's just that you're doing lots of nice little things."

Doing nice things and being productive aren't necessarily mutually exclusive though. A high-achieving academic, who works for an Auckland tertiary institution, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, says: "I think that creative ideas or deep thinking don't always occur when you're sitting in front of a computer for eight hours. It's something that requires liberating yourself from the desk and going for a walk and letting yourself think. I think a lot of people in an academic career feel like they need to be constantly working, but being exposed to other things, talking with people, doing other activities and just doing nothing is actually really important for your brain to function."

"I think it's entirely possible we could do less and be equally productive."

An article in The Economist recently showed that people in almost every OECD country are working less on average now than they were 25 years ago. In Sweden, both public and private organisations are trying out a six-hour workday and early indications are that it's good for both workers and employers.

A study into the practice at a Swedish retirement home has shown that nurses working six-hour days took half as much sick leave and were nearly three times less likely to take time off, when compared with a control group. The six-hour nurses were 20 per cent happier and did 64 per cent more activities with residents. They also reported having more energy outside the workplace.

On June 5 this year, Switzerland held the world's first referendum on the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI) which, if passed, would have given all its citizens a fixed monthly income on top of whatever else they earned.

It would probably not have been sufficient to completely free people from work, but it would have given them the freedom to work less, or at jobs they enjoy more - or both. It was comprehensively voted down, but subsequent polls show that most Swiss believe they will see a UBI in their lifetime.

If you're trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn't be so afraid to actually take some time off.
Jonathan Schooler

Several governments around the world are looking into introducing UBIs, and the private sector is in on it too - influential Silicon Valley start-up incubator Y Combinator is funding a pilot study in Oakland, in which they are giving 100 families between US$1000 ($1414) and US$2000 each month and carefully tracking the results.

There's growing evidence for the idea that sometimes the best way to get more done is to do less.

A 2012 article in the New Yorker discussed a study in which people were asked to come up with alternative uses for toothpicks. The people that did best were those who were given a 12-minute break midway through the test, during which they were given a task so boring that they couldn't help but lose focus on it.

When they came back from their break, and were asked to find more uses for the toothpick, this group found 41 per cent more uses for the toothpick than did three other groups, who were working under a variety of alternative conditions, including one group that had no break at all.

"We always assume that you get more done when you're consciously paying attention to a problem," one of the study's authors, Jonathan Schooler, told The New Yorker. "That's what it means, after all, to be 'working on something'. But this is often a mistake. If you're trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn't be so afraid to actually take some time off."

This is a great and fine justification for daydreaming and mucking around, but why should we need a justification? Doing nothing much is such a basic human activity. We spend big chunks of our life thinking about things other than the things we're supposed to be thinking about. Why deny its value? When and how did we end up so in thrall to the idea that the most important things in life are striving and achieving?

That's an interesting question to ask, but maybe the better question is: is that the most important question?

As University of Auckland's emeritus professor of psychology Michael Corballis put it in his excellent 2014 book, The Wandering Mind, "In adapting to a complex world, we need to escape the here and now, and consider possible futures, mull over past mistakes, understand how other people's minds work. Above all, mind-wandering is the source of creativity, the spark of innovation that leads in the longer run to an increase rather than a decrease in well-being."

We know, because we are constantly reminded, about the value of being present. We're only just starting to learn the value of being absent.

- Canvas

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