Go Ahead, Do Nothing
Reader's Digest US|March 2021
We push ourselves to work harder, but taking a break can often fuel a burst in productivity and creativity
By Jeffrey Davis

In 1910, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a boy who was charged with opening a valve every so often on a water pump powered by a steam engine to release the built-up pressure. His whole job consisted of staring at these whirring pieces of metal all day. Needless to say, the kid got incredibly bored. One day, the supervisor walked in and the boy was nowhere to be found. Yet the pump ran just as it should. The “lazy” boy had contrived a mechanized release for the pump and won his freedom from monotony. The first iteration of the automatic steam engine was born.

Now, this story may be apocryphal, but the boy’s behavior reflects a deeper truth. When we are feeling lazy and disinclined to do something, we often search for an easier way to do the undesirable task at hand. We try to streamline the process and save time and effort. In other words, laziness can drive innovation.

In recent years, some psychologists and business leaders have wised up to this insight, shifting our perspective of what laziness really means. Strategic idleness may actually be a powerful tool. Both Bill Gates and Walter Chrysler have been credited (probably erroneously) with an apt quote: “I always choose a lazy person to do a hard job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

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