Bill Gates Says Lazy People Make the Best Employees. But Is Your Laziness Actually Masking a Deeper Issue?
You're not lazy. But there's something else wrong.
Bill Gates thinks you should hire lazy people. No, seriously. He famously said, “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
I don’t disagree with the premise. Choosing a person who will do a job the “easy way” and solve the difficult problem in front of them can be better than putting your most ambitious team on it. The hardest way is often not the best way. In fact, in the startup world, over delivering can be just as dangerous as under delivering when time and money are finite resources and a lesser solution would have solved the problem effectively. Picking the lowest hanging fruit does not make a person lazy, nor does taking the more obvious path, nor does actually taking vacation. It makes them good at prioritization, efficient workers and more resilient people.
Categorizing all of these behaviors as lazy is non-specific, reductive and, well, lazy. But it’s an easy word to assign, both to ourselves and to others. A colleague missed a deadline despite having ample time? Lazy. We’d rather sleep in than go to the gym? Lazy. But, it’s not that simple. Laziness is not the problem; it’s a symptom. We often resist seeing it that way, because the deeper reasons for our hesitation to take action can be uncomfortable truths.
We need to examine them anyway. They’re actually what’s holding us back, not laziness.
First things first
Feeling lazy is often a sign we need rest. I want to make one thing clear: Rest does not equal laziness.
It’s a common misconception. They often look similar. Relaxing instead of working, prioritizing personal tasks over professional or not waking up at 6 a.m. can all read as canonically lazy. Tech culture at large has this problem: The perception of productivity is more important than actual productivity.
Sometimes, the most productive thing you can do is rest. As I’ve written before, rest is critical for productivity. Rest is a partner of work. One cannot get done without the other. Resting during the workday, like on a long walk, can be powerful in generating creative ideas. Longer breaks are critical in preventing burnout. What may look laziness deceptively makes you better.
The secret is, when you rest, really rest. Don’t check Slack from your phone. Don’t respond to email on your vacation. Truly take the space for restorative rest — and give your colleagues that space as well. You’ll likely come back motivated and better equipped to work.
What else can feeling lazy tell us?
You’re well-rested, well-hydrated, in your peak hours and still having trouble getting motivated. Does that make you lazy?
It’s not that simple.
Lack of motivation is something a lot of us berate ourselves for as a personal failing. Instead of hurling insults at the mirror, what if we started from a place of curiosity? Try asking yourself why you’re avoiding certain tasks. Don’t settle for the easy answers. Maybe you’re not that inspired by your job right now because you aren’t learning anything new. Maybe you’re afraid of the discomfort that comes with progress, like at the gym, or of failure itself, like with a passion project that might not lead to anything.
Those are more complex problems to solve than laziness. To address them in others, you must come from a place of deep empathy. It’s not easy to talk about fears of inadequacy or losing meaning in your work. It’s a human problem, not an outcomes problem, but it does impact output. Connecting with others at work makes people more productive. Plus, by working from a place of curiosity rather than assumptions of laziness, you’re staying on the same side of the problem.
To address these problems in yourself, you have to evaluate the information gathered from interrogating your so-called laziness. Identifying what’s holding you back, whether it’s perfectionist tendencies or low self-efficacy, is the first step towards taking action.
The risk of laziness is that it will turn into stagnation. You have to make choices that address the root cause. You won’t just be more productive. You might even be happier. That matters, not only because you’re a person who deserves happiness, but because people who are happy at work are more successful. Emotional influences thinking, so if you’re more fulfilled at work, your thoughts and actions will follow.
So, what do we do about it?
Capitalize on the progress principle. The progress principle states that “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” Feeling a sense of progress and taking joy in the small wins can help battle that voice in your head that says that the work is too difficult or the project is too big to tackle.
Hit the reset button with a nap. Studies show that a 30-minute nap can stop performance deterioration in its tracks. A 60-minute nap can reverse it. If you’re feeling lazy, it could be your cue to rest. Remember: The perception of busyness is not the same as productivity. Your time truly might be better spent on a quick snooze.
Shift your focus. Lack of meaning in your work is a primary contributing factor to diminished motivation. If you don’t want — or are not in a position — to make a big change, take note of the people your work has an impact on, not just what you produce. This shifts the focus from the tasks you need to accomplish to how you can help people, both internally and externally.
Actually do less. Especially as a founder, doing less can feel terrifying. It was for me, until I realized that the work I was putting off was work I really shouldn’t be doing in the first place. It felt lazy to move things off my plate, but now, those tasks are being done with enthusiasm by someone who knows a lot more about it than I do, and I have the time to do the work that excites me.