The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Nineteen: Being Busy (and Lazy)

I like to say I’m a lazy person, because I think I am: I’m a big fan of the principle of least effort for maximum effect. Some call that efficiency, but I think efficiency is frequently born of laziness, as in, oh God I don’t want to do this how can I do it so it’s over with and I can get back to shooting zombies? So, yeah: lazy.

At the same time, however, I like to be busy. Really busy. As in, I like looking over the next few years of my life and saying I know what I’ll being doing all this time. Right now I look at my life through 2014 and I have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be writing, where I’ll be going, and how I’ll be spending my days. In fact I have quite a bit planned.

The question becomes how I square my impulse toward laziness with my desire to be busy all the time. I don’t think it’s actually that hard to do and in fact I think one feeds into the other. I know why I like to be busy: One, I get bored easily. Two, without going into great detail about it, having grown up on an economic yo-yo that alternated me between material comfort and depressing poverty, I’m a big believer in understanding that nothing lasts forever, at least not without a whole stack of planning. I’m doing well right now; I don’t have any faith that state of affairs will last. Being busy is a nice hedge.

Being lazy helps keep me busy because being lazy has taught me to, as much as possible, find the easiest way to deal with any single task, so I have time left to a) do other things, b) do nothing at all. Doing b) is actually important, since if I do too much of a) without it I become cranky and short-tempered and annoying and not a nice person to be around, and I work less efficiently, which is no good. So if I want to be busy, and I do, it’s not going to get done without also being lazy.

I like that almost-contradiction, the idea that the human quality least associated with industry is the one I think allows me to be as industrious as I am. I also like the idea that what many people would slot as a character flaw fuels what is generally seen as a laudable character trait. I think it points out the ying and yang of who I am and why I need both of these things to function. It also means that when my wife once told me “You are a man too lazy to fail,” I was deeply pleased, because it meant that she actually understood me. And would probably let continue shooting zombies whenever I wanted. As long as, you know, everything else got done.

I am thankful to be busy. And to be lazy. And on that note, I’m off to be busy again for three hours straight. I’ll be lazy afterwards, I swear.


22 Comments on “The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Nineteen: Being Busy (and Lazy)”

  1. My motto is slightly different but along the same line, I’ve been using my phrase for decades.

    Laziness is the mother of efficiency.

  2. Thank you for writing this! Most people don’t seem to understand how I can call myself lazy, and yet as far as they’re concerned, I’m also one of the most busy and productive people they know. Both are essential. This morning I’m being lazy — calm before the storm of everything I’ll do for the rest of the day. Without the one, there isn’t the other. I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one who works this way. So again, thank you for explaining this.

  3. Like Leah said, thanks for touching on this.

    Someone told me once that a good manager will give the most difficult job to the laziest guy in the office, because that guy will find a way to make the task easier. Well I’m that guy.

  4. When I worked in a bookstore, the owner and managers were trying to figure out how to expand one of our sections and create more space. Their plan would have required rearranging the entire store. As chief grunt, I would have been one of the people doing all the work, which made me really unhappy. I suggested that instead of rearranging the whole store, we could compress a couple of other sections that had empty shelves, freeing up an entire wall, and expanding that way without actually moving anything around.

    I got a $300 bonus for saving the store money with my brilliant suggestion, which was in fact implemented. Laziness pays!

  5. I’ve had a saying for many years about this very thing.
    “If neccesity is the mother of invention, the lazy man is the father since he wants to make the job easier” Feels rather odd to be quoting myself but I do have this on a placard by my desk at work.
    Didn’t RAH have a whole chapter in “Time Enough for Love” about a guy to lazy to fail?

    Went and grabbed my copy. Yep, that’s even the name of the chapter. David Lamb was the name of the character. The point being what Xopher@2:54 said. I totally agree with you all, it does indeed look like efficiency.

  6. Did anyone mention naps? Of the sort that Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, and I take? Though not all 3 of us in the same bed, “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld says. Zombies, I mean.

  7. I think some of this goes back to Frank Galbreath (father of the authors of “Cheaper by the Dozen”) He and his wife pioneered “motion study” back in the teens and twenties. He said (and I paraphrase) “Show me the laziest man on the job and I’ll use him.” The fewest motions to produce the maximum results….

  8. It is an odd feeling for those of us who work 10-12 hours a day to have time on the weekend or Holidays. It feels like being lazy but I assume our bodies and brains need to time to recuperate.

  9. This seems to be a common trait in full-time freelancers. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, but they want to do as many jobs as possible at once so they can maximize income against the inevitable dry spells, but then they need a break.

    I find if I’m not busy, then the laziness takes over and I don’t do anything, not even the free-time enjoyable stuff. Being continuously scheduled means that I also schedule “fun time” and take advantage of it when I have it.

  10. Truly enlightened laziness is indistinguishable from efficiency.

    It’s related to why programmers will spend an inordinate amount of time writing something to be generalized so it can be reused again and again.

  11. Laziness built civilization, e.g. “There has GOT to be a better way to get water than schlepping all the way down to the river, risking crocodiles and toting buckets back up the hill…”

  12. I mostly agree with –E at 4:53 pm: “This seems to be a common trait in full-time freelancers.”
    If you are self-employed, whether you call yourself a freelancer or a sole proprietor or a consultant or an independent contractor, you have one asset: your own hours. Leveraged by your reputation and good will, you sell your hours for dollars (or euros, yen, whatever).

    Plus whatever intellectual property you accumulate as work product. Copyrighted fiction; patents; trademarks; trade secrets. So far as I know, you cannot legally assign a dollar value to unsold works of fiction. You’ve got to sell them to a magazine, paying online venue, anthology, or subsidiary rights to a gaming company or TV or film option buyer. With or without an agent, but that’s another matter.

    The marketplace determines how many dollar per hour. But you only have 24 hours per day, even if you don’t sleep.

    When you own your own business, and you’re sick, there are no paid sick leave days.

    There is no such thing as a vacation. There are only days when you choose not to create salable inventory, or market your services, or do your taxes, or fill out your insurance paperwork.

    So you become lazy — but in a good way. You learn to make efficient use of your precious hours. You learn how to take tax deductible business-expensed trips to cons, to increase your value by networking, finding mentors, or expanding your reputation and good will.

    Sometimes you try co-authoring, co-consulting, subcontracting, or hiring part-time assistants. In my experience, co-authoring a scientific paper or a novel does NOT ct your work in half. Perhaps each of 2 co-authors does 60% as much work as when they do the same type of professional effort solo. 120% work for 100% results, means leaving 20% on the table as communications overhead. But your reputation and good will and networking skill set is enhanced. You have probably made a good investment.

    Anyone strongly disagree, or have experience that supports this claim?

  13. I’ve always been a bit lazy, but it takes the form of, ‘how do we get this job done, asap?’

    There are times I enjoy rolling up my sleeves and doing hard work for it’s own sake, and a sense of something well done, but too much work gets in the way of play, or just kicking back with a good book, and that’s important too.

  14. I like to tell people that I have worked very hard in order to not have to work very hard.

    For example, I did well in school so that I wouldn’t have to do extra credit assignments or summer school to keep my grades up. By doing well in school, I was able to get scholarships for higher education which meant that I didn’t need to kill myself working to support my education. By getting good writing and critical thinking skills, I have saved myself so much time and effort at work that I would otherwise spend in frustration trying to meet deadlines and goals.

    Laziness is awesome!

  15. I think I need to work on my efficiency so that I can have more time to perfect my ‘laziness’. Being busy can be magnificent, but sometimes it gets in the way of being lazy. At least, I don’t let my lazy get in the way of being busy. More importantly, I don’t let old ladies get in the way of transport trucks, because that would be even worse.

  16. Well, according to Larry Wall, the three traits of good programmers are laziness, impatience, and hubris. Okay, so he wrote Perl, so take that with a grain of salt, but still.

    And, of course, I couldn’t read the line “You are a man too lazy to fail” without thinking of the Tale thereof in Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love. Now, David Lamb, there was a man who knew the virtues of slacking off.

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