Hard Work is Overrated (Why You Might Be Working Too Hard)

Lazy can be good
Strive for max efficiency
Not so easy, eh?

(Why the haiku? TMQ)

 

There seems to be this widespread notion that hard work is commendable and worthy of praise, while laziness is at the root of society’s problems.

Kids underachieving in school? Well, kids nowadays don’t have any work ethic. Childhood obesity? Get those lazy farts on a treadmill. Bad customer service? Fire those good for nothing slackers. Not fulfilling our potential? Tired of being a big fat failure and seeing others succeed? Well, stop being so lazy!

Sheesh. Why does laziness get such a bad rap?

As someone who has long considered himself to be fundamentally “lazy”, I think hard work and pure willpower are overrated. Frankly, I don’t think the benefits of laziness get enough credit.

So let’s take a look at some of the benefits of being a slacker.

#1 Being lazy saves time and energy

The lazy person is fundamentally opposed to doing more work than is necessary. So, the lazy person is more likely to find the absolute most efficient way to get something done.

And not only is the slacker more likely to find the most efficient way to get something done, but it’s probably going to get done in such a way that it stays done. Because for the slacker, there is nothing worse than having to waste time and energy maintaining or fixing something that should have been done right the first time.

The slacker will probably spend an inordinate amount of time trying to look for some sort of technical trick, shortcut, or qualitatively different approach rather than practicing the same passage over and over with only tiny incremental progress over time. Far better to experiment with and find an unusual, but more effective fingering, than to keep hammering away at a more conventional one that remains hit or miss. Or a more natural bowing. A better way of spacing out breaths. A more effective way of practicing. A more streamlined warm up. Heck, better strings, rosin, mouthpiece, and the list goes on…

The slacker figures that if there is an easier way to do upbow and downbow staccato, it’s worth finding – even if it takes more time up front. If there’s a way to memorize music more effectively in less time, it’s worth spending more time finding it, or figuring it out, than doing it the old way.

And yes, the slacker realizes that one could search forever for the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so at some point the slacker will get tired of making excuses, buck up, and get the job done instead of continuing to look for more things to try.

The mindset: “There must be a better/easier way” (because there almost always is)

#2 Being lazy is more productive

The slacker tends to be more focused on the task at hand. Since working for no good reason is annoying and feels like a waste of time, the slacker avoids doing work mindlessly on autopilot. The slacker is either going to get something of value out of the time and energy expended, or not bother expending any time or energy in the first place.

Thus, the slacker will generally want to know the reason or purpose behind the expenditure of effort up front. The slacker will want an answer to the question of “why”. Why should I play scales? Why should I play this piece? Why should I practice today? Why should I play this section through 10 times a day? In this regard, the slacker can be annoying, because the slacker doesn’t do something just because someone else said to do it. Does this mean all 4-year-olds are slackers? Hmm…

The mindset: “What’s the point?” (because if we don’t know, we’re not likely to be all that invested or focused in the task at hand)

#3 Being lazy results in a higher level of musicianship

In a similar vein, the slacker tends to start with the end in mind, so as to make sure they are not wasting time meandering in the wrong direction.

For instance, the slacker would rather take a piece and figure out what they want it to sound like first, and then figure out the technical requirements necessary for making this a reality, as opposed to getting the notes learned, slapping some “musicality” on top, and discovering that there’s additional work to be done, now that the slacker is playing it differently. A conductor once told me that Horowitz approached a piece by figuring out the music first, and letting that guide his technical agenda second. Perhaps Horowitz was a slacker?

The mindset: “What do I want the end result to be like?” (because if we don’t know where we want to go, we’re liable to end up where we’re headed instead)

#4 Being lazy results in a higher level of performance

The slacker doesn’t see the point of doing sub-par work. Why do anything halfway? Why go through the motions, or engage in a project if it’s not going to be of much value? Why do something that can’t be great, or at the very least be a stepping stone or provide a learning experience that eventually leads to something great?

The slacker prefers to pick a project that is worth doing if for no other reason than it resonates with them on some deep level. The slacker does things that are personally meaningful, even if the outcome isn’t necessarily going to be stellar – but avoids like the plague those things that everyone else says the slacker “should” do, but which don’t resonate with the slacker.

Though there’s something to be said for constant exposure to new repertoire and different styles, at some point one realizes that there are some things that resonate and some that don’t. This particular slacker doesn’t “get” contemporary repertoire like Schoenberg, but does “get” stuff like Arvo Part. This slacker “gets” Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Paganini, and Wieniawski, but not so much Brahms or Tchaikovsky. The slacker sees more value in following their strengths, and those things that naturally resonate (aka the path of least resistance), as this is where the slacker is most likely to have the motivation and wherewithal to be successful and advance their field in some way (and find personal fulfillment to boot).

The mindset: “I might as well do it right if I’m going to do it at all” or “Never mind what I should do, what do I truly want to do?” (because if we don’t feel like something is worthwhile, it’s probably not going to get done all that well)

#5 Being lazy helps one fulfill their potential

The slacker is too lazy to stress about all the little things. And rather than running around trying to do everything, the lazy person focuses on the most important things, and lets the less important things go. The slacker knows that somebody else who has more time (or is less lazy) will probably pick up the slack anyway, and often, whatever it was didn’t really need doing in the first place.

The slacker realizes that saying “yes” to something, means they are also saying “no” to other things, so the slacker makes sure to say “no” on a regular basis and thereby picks up more time to focus on high-value targets.

The mindset: “What’s the one thing, if I get it done efficiently and effectively, will move me closer to where I want to be in 5 years than anything else?” or “Will this matter to me in 5 years?” (because what’s urgent is not necessarily the same as what is important)

#6 Being lazy makes the world a better place for everyone

In the words of author Agatha Christie, “I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness – to save oneself trouble.”

And according to Walter Chrysler (of the automotive company which bears his name), “Whenever there is a hard job to be done I assign it to a lazy man; he is sure to find an easy way of doing it.”

So considered together, one might say that the slacker makes things easier for everyone else by finding more effective, efficient ways of doing things and identifying shortcuts for the rest of us to use, so we can spend less time spinning our wheels and more time getting things done.

The mindset: “How can I do more with less?” (not to do substandard work, but to do the same or better quality of work because you are maximizing efficiency and ease)

#7 What else?

I’m sure there are more benefits to laziness. I know this of course, because I’m probably too lazy to think of them all. What did I miss?

Take action

(1) Always look for an easier, more efficient way.

Is there a slightly easier way to wash dishes? Make up the bed? Arrange your sock drawer? Fold shirts? Remember to take your vitamins? Almost invariably, there’s an easier, faster, more effective way – so long as you are stubborn or persistent (or lazy) enough to find it.

(2) Work with your laziness, don’t fight it.

Look for natural points of resistance, and use these for your benefit. For instance, if you have a weakness for tortilla chips, resistance is lowest at home when there’s an open bag sitting right in front of you. Resistance is slightly greater when the bag sits on the highest shelf in your pantry which requires you to take the step-stool out of the closet. Hide the step-stool somewhere inconvenient, so that your laziness wins out and you decide not to eat the chips. Resistance is even greater if you have to go out into the cold to grab a bag at the store. You probably hate going out into the cold more than you like eating chips, so the easiest way to avoid eating chips is to ensure they never end up in your grocery bag in the first place.

(3) Manage your environment and reduce barriers to action.

Make it easier to practice by taking away excuses. Keep your instrument out, somewhere where it’s instantly accessible, with the music and everything else ready to go. That’s one less barrier we have to hop over when it comes time to practice.

Plus, your goal needn’t be to practice for 2 hours, 1 hour, or even 20 minutes. This can just lead to procrastination. Try making it your goal to merely pick up the instrument and play a scale. Immediately, your resistance to playing will drop a notch, and before you know it, you’ve gotten sucked into the practice session and may find it easier to keep practicing than to stop.

Bonus reading

Apparently, laziness is one of the three chief virtues of a computer programmer. The other two are impatience and hubris. Intrigued? Read The Virtues of a Programmer. I think the three virtues can be applied to musicians as well, though it may not be immediately apparent how…

Would you like to work smarter, faster, and better at work, school, and in other areas of your life? Lifehacker is a popular destination for slackers who enjoy “hacking” life. Want to know the fastest way to dissolve cocoa in milk? How to fold a shirt in 2 seconds? Quickly get the hot air out of your car in the summertime? Swat flies more effectively? Prevent poop splash? Keep your email inbox empty? Check out the Lifehacker blog and Lifehacker online book.

UPDATE: It appears most of the videos have been taken down. Here are some alternatives.

  • Dissolve cocoa. (Can’t find this video, but the idea is to stir not in the circular motion we’re accustomed to, but in straight lines, i.e. side to side or front to back.)
  • Fold t-shirt.
  • Cool your car quickly (yes, it’s in Japanese with Chinese subtitles, but it’s more or less apparent what they’re saying).

Resources

Have trouble maintaining a to-do list? Here’s the simplest (and visually attractive) to-do web app ever (perfect for lazy folks and procrastinators). So simple and easy that you’ll actually use it and get things done. And it’s free.

Do it Tomorrow

The one-sentence summary

“I’m lazy. But it’s the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn’t like walking or carrying things.”  ~Lech Walesa (former president of Poland and recipient of the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize)

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
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It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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Comments

19 Responses

  1. Great post!
    It’s all about getting the “most bang for buck” which is the essence of Deliberate Practicing.

  2. Couldn’t agree more! It has long been my modus operandi in playing music, and it was not for nothing that on another music forum I used the screen-name “Lazyhound”.

  3. I should add, not only in music but in other areas of life, including my career (I’m now retired) where it did no harm whatsoever.

    1. Ah, glad to hear I’m not setting myself up for some sort of rude awakening! Needless to say, I’m pretty convinced that this is the way to go. When we were in college, I once encouraged my wife (who at the time was just my girlfriend of course) not to do all the assigned reading, but to be more selective in what she chose to read with the time she had available. She thought I was talking nonsense…and probably for good reason as this was partly what got me a “C” in Music History 101…but I still think I was right.

  4. That’s what I’m talking about!!! This is how I practice as a classical musician and it is the only way to practice as a jazz musician. As you say, it is necessary to be persistant in laziness. It doesn’t mean sitting around doing nothing, it means improving your prep time, so that you can spend more time sitting around doing nothing. I see people making work harder for themselves on the job. One teacher calls herself helping me by setting out music stands in the way. Drives me crazy. She doesn’t realize that she is putting the music stands in my way which does not facilitate setting up the rooms. When I practice, I don’t do it without reading the music first. Hear it in my head and if possible listen to a recording or a video. If I don’t understand a rhythm, I will write it on my noteflight web site and play it back. Voila, 1 hour’s worth of practice averted to spend time on other things.

  5. There seems to be a fundamental distrust of pleasure, and a perverse faith that doing things that are ‘hard’ are better. As musicians we know just how badly something that is ‘hard’ for the player sounds. Eew! The great players always look like they could play that passage while riding a bicycle. The reason something looks easy, is because for them, it is. And they arrived at it in easy little steps, which were fun, and physically pleasurable. Too rarely do we hear about the physical joy of playing an instrument, but the act should be like candy for your hands and brain, as much pleasure as a great skier finds in fresh powder and a cold sunny day. And nobody is lazy about having fun!

    I think that the great efforts of will people make in practicing are detrimental and self abusive. The direction they need is in making their instrument a great source of pleasure to them. By doing so they will become able to share that pleasure, whether the piece is complex or simple. There is a fundamental reason it is called ‘playing’ an instrument.

  6. A classic Buddhist tome on this issue, posted to USENET back in 1992 by Tyagi Tzu http://www.luckymojo.com/avidyana/dozen/lazypath.tn.txt

    “I picture the Path as leading into a deep canyon, a monumental ravine.
    All paths lead to the bottom. Some are treacherous, difficult climbs down
    the side of the ravine. Some are peaceful, gliding directly to the floor.
    The Laze dispenses with the accoutrements of climbing down, decides that
    all paths lead to the bottom (the truth from above) and then lets go,
    sliding all the way to the bottom. The busibodies must find a HARD way
    down and talk about their descent as if it were an ASCENT, requiring arduous
    labor and risking failure (::: shudder :::).

    “At the bottom of the canyon is a cool pool of fresh liquid which the
    Laze has been drinking and bathing in for half a century. Why did it take
    the busibodies so long? What have they gained by struggling so?”

  7. In terms of music, I absolutely love the message within the book _Effortless Mastery_. If you see and hear musicians who really play soulfully and captivate listeners, they’re not working hard nor struggling.

    I have found that I can only practice or work on a project for at most 39 minutes, then need a break. Practicing 6 to 7 hours a day is like overtraining at the gym; you can tax a muscle so much that you bust it to the point of diminishing returns.

    Of course, that’s a problem for employers because then they have to evaluate you on the quality of your work. It’s far easier to just count how many hours of face time you put in. That kind of laziness on their behalf is one I can live without.

    1. Hi, QE – Yes, I resonate strongly with what you say. I think it was Sarah Chang that said after her Carnegie Hall at age 10 that she really didn’t find the Paganini Caprices that difficult. While some people say “great talent”, I think “great teaching”. In fact the only way to play a virtuoso piece is to play it easily, and that is accomplished by focussing on ease, joy, and efficiency in everything you learn.

  8. I came across this article looking for advice on how to deal with lazy coworkers and it seems some people don’t understand the definition of lazy. What this writing and some comments are referring to is proactivity and innovation. If a person strives to find better and faster ways of doing things then it’s innovation. If they go through with it then it’s being proactive. Being lazy is just lazy. A person who is hardworking is often efficient and have good work ethics.

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