“Lazy Work = Productive Work”

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3rd June 2024

John D. Rockefeller was the most successful businessman of all time.

He was also a recluse, spending most of his time by himself.

He rarely spoke, deliberately making himself inaccessible & staying quiet when you caught his attention.

A refinery worker who occasionally had Rockefeller’s ear once remarked: “He lets everybody else talk, while he sits back and says nothing. But he seems to remember everything, and when he does begin he puts everything in its proper place.”

When asked about his silence during meetings, Rockefeller often recited a poem:

“A wise old owl lived in an oak,

The more he saw the less he spoke,

The less he spoke, the more he heard,

Why aren’t we all like that old bird?”

Rockefeller was a strange guy. But the more I read about him the more I realize he figured out something that now applies to tens of millions of workers.

Rockefeller’s job wasn’t to drill wells, load trains, or move barrels. It was to make good decisions.

And making decisions requires, more than anything, quiet time alone in your own head to think a problem through.

So that’s where he spent most of his time and energy.

Here’s a problem we don’t think about enough: Even as more professions look like Rockefeller’s – ‘Thought jobs’ that require quiet time to think a problem through, we’re still stuck in the old world where a good employee is expected to labor, visibly and without interruption.

The point is that productive work today does not look like productive work did for most of history.

If your job was to pull a lever, you were only productive if you were pulling the lever.

But if your job is to create a marketing campaign, you might be productive sitting quietly with your eyes closed, thinking about design.

The problem is that too many workplaces expect their knowledge workers to pull the proverbial lever.

The result is that most people have ‘Thought jobs’ without being given much time to think, which is the equivalent of making a ditch digger work without a shovel.

Maybe this is why productivity growth is half of what it used to be.

If you anchor to the old world where good work meant physical action, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that the most productive use of a knowledge worker’s time could be sitting on a couch thinking.

Good ideas rarely come in meetings, or even at your desk. They come to you in the shower, or on a walk, on your commute, or hanging out on the weekend.

I’m always amazed at the number of famous ideas that came to people in the bathtub.

But tell your boss you require a mid-day soak, and the response is entirely predictable.

Look at famous thinkers who didn’t have to impress anyone by looking busy, and you see a theme: They spent a lot of time doing stuff that didn’t look like work, but in fact was stupendously productive.

Albert Einstein put it this way: “I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”

Mozart felt the same way:

“When I am traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

Everyone eventually has to sit down and produce their work & have to achieve their goals and targets.

But as the economy shifts to knowledge work, we should respect that what actually produces good work can at first look lazy.

Be lazy if you must, but be productive & stay blessed forever.