This may not seem to be a very good modus operandi if one wants to stay in business, particularly to judge from recent advice of business gurus like Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In), John Bernard (Business at the Speed of Now), Michael Port (Book Yourself Solid), Gary Vaynerchuk (Crush It), or Keith Ferrazzi (Never Eat Alone). The very titles of these books bespeak a push-the-limits, go-go, uber aggression that ain’t me.
I like to think. I long to do less and less and still be effective. I hate our plethora of pinging, demanding, interruptive new technologies distracting me, demanding my time and eyeballs, offering more so-called efficiencies, and making me feel stupid and inadequate.
Well, I won’t drift into a Luddite screed today, but there is a wonderful column in The Economist (Schumpeter, August 17, 2013, p. 58) that argues eloquently that our biggest business problem is simply trying to do and absorb too damn much. It points to an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the US, reporting that Americans now labor over 81/2 hours per week more than in 1979 and the CDC reports a third of waking adults get less than six hours sleep at night. A survey by Good Technology last year reported 80% of respondents worked after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking e-mail, and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.
This epidemic of overwork has a clear impact on the creativity of workers. (And what business work is more dependent than entrepreneurship on creativity and innovative problem solving, the alpha and the omega of disruptive originality.) Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, in a study of work and creativity, has reported that workers are more creative on low-pressure days than on high-pressure days when their hair is on fire.
The Economist points to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University, who, in researching a book in the early 1990s, asked 275 creative thinkers if he could interview them. The Economist relates,
“A third did not bother to reply at all and another third refused to take part. [Csikszentmihalyi's own colleague at CGU] Peter Drucker summed up the mood of the refuseniks: ’One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste-paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours.’ Creative people’s most important resource is their time—particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time—and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.”
So let us celebrate, just for today, the contrarian strategy of purposeful laziness in business leadership. Note that when he was head of GE, Jack Welch reported consciously spending an hour a day just “looking out of the window.” When he was still running Microsoft, Bill Gates used to take two “think weeks” a year when he would lock himself in an isolated cottage. And Socrates said, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
Ronald Reagan certainly believed in not overdoing things. He said, “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?” Thanks, Ronald