In praise of laziness at work

There is a never-ending supply of business gurus telling us how we can, and must, do more. Sheryl Sandberg urges women to "Lean In" if they want to get ahead. John Bernard offers breathless advice on conducting "Business at the Speed of Now."

Michael Port tells salesmen how to "Book Yourself Solid." And in case you thought you might be able to grab a few moments to yourself, Keith Ferrazzi warns that you must "Never Eat Alone."

? Yet the biggest problem in the business world is not too little but too much — too many distractions and interruptions, too many things done for the sake of form, and altogether too much busy-ness. The Dutch seem to believe that an excess of meetings is the biggest devourer of time: They talk of vergaderziekte, "meeting sickness." However, a study last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is email: It found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to email messages.

? Which of these banes of modern business life is worse remains open to debate. But what is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mail because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

? All this "leaning in" is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night.

Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80percent of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69 percent cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38 percent routinely check their work email at the dinner table.

? This activity is making it harder to focus on real work as opposed to make work. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, who has been conducting a huge study of work and creativity, reports that workers are generally more creative on low-pressure days than on high-pressure days when they are confronted with a flurry of unpredictable demands. In 2012 Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, and two colleagues deprived 13 people in the information technology business of email for five days and studied them intensively.

They found that people without it concentrated on tasks for longer and experienced less stress.

? It is high time that we tried a different strategy — not "leaning in" but "leaning back." There is a distinguished history of leadership thinking in the lean-back tradition. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria's favorite prime minister, extolled the virtues of "masterful inactivity." Herbert Asquith embraced a policy of "wait and see" when he had the job. Ronald Reagan also believed in not overdoing things: "It's true hard work never killed anybody," he said, "but I figure, why take the chance?" This tradition has been buried in a morass of meetings and messages. We need to revive it before we schedule ourselves to death.

? The most obvious beneficiaries of leaning back would be creative workers — the very people who are supposed to be at the heart of the modern economy.

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