There is a saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy person.
There is also a saying that if you want to get something done well, give it to a lazy person.
Both have their merit. We have become more busy. We keep ourselves more busy. Instead of having managed to free ourselves from wage slaving, we have become more engaged in mundane tasks.
It is indeed true that a busy person is showing dedication — hence you know that whatever task you want to give them will probably get done. But it is with the dedication of a martyr. Tenacity above all.
In a world where nearly half of our jobs will become obsolete thanks to technology in the coming decade, it seems there might be a better way.
If you give a task to a lazy person, they will find a way not to do that task: they will either find a way around it altogether and eliminate the task, find some way to automate it, or pass it on, and if they end up doing it, they turn it into something fun.
These four are the secret to successful task management:
In my work as an efficiency consultant, I have marveled at the Kafkaesque creations of organizations many times. In a world where job security is related to how much you do and how few other people know what it exactly is that you do, we create processes that are akin to insanity. Many of the work steps and tasks people perform on a daily basis are completely unnecessary. Take, e.g. that report that this one executive liked to look at — that executive that left four years ago. Regardless, it is included in the monthly reporting stack, and some lower level staff member has the task of compiling all the relevant data from disparate systems and will format it to look nice for slide 42 of the monthly Reporting deck. Sound familiar? And I have encountered similar insanity again and again in my work with organizations, with for-profit businesses and worse, in academia and not-for profits (where additional dynamics of holier than holy self-importance come into play).
The first question to ask yourself with any task is: Is this task really necessary?
Before heading into execution, take a step back and look at the task. What came before this? What will come after this? Who is providing input, and what outputs are required? Is there something that can be done upstream or downstream of this task that would make it unnecessary? Who really cares if this gets done?
If the task is indeed required, you get to welcome it and now step into solution mode around it.
Since we now have established that the task is necessary, we get to embrace that this is probably not the last time this task will come about. Since we cannot save ourselves from getting the task done now, we can at least see if we can save ourselves from having to do the task in the future. Fortunately, we live in a world where machines are becoming ever more capable in taking on human tasks — especially any repetitive ones.
So the next question to ask is: Can I automate this?
Having looked at inputs and outputs up and downstream from the task already, we now get to see if there is a systemic way of approaching this task. Break down the task into individual worksteps and decisions — create a flow chart. Once you are clear on the process, you get to see if there are enabling technologies that can support this process.
While technology has come far in our lifetime, and we can expect a continuous exponential evolution of trends like general artificial intelligence and machine learning, there are some tasks that a machine can simply not do at this point. This is what gave rise to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and I venture to say that we will see more similar solutions for micro tasks evolving in the coming years. Microtasks are steps in the process. Since we attempted to automate the task and created a clear process in the previous step, we can either delegate the entire process or pieces of it to others whose relative opportunity cost is perceived to be lower than ours, or who are simply better at the task than we are.
Thus the third question to ask is: Can I delegate this task?
We live in a world with a high degree of specialization. No individual person knows all the steps required for making a pencil (from lead mining, wood processing to rubber tapping — not to mention logistics and distribution of getting it into your hand). Each of us have special gifts, and we now have the trading mechanisms in place to find each other. Markets have evolved into google auctions, and we can trade our skills with each other, while focusing on what GE termed “core competencies”. Resources are there, the question is can you enroll them?
If, of course, there is nobody else available to do the task, we get to delegate it to ourselves. And at this point, we want to make sure we appreciate the task, welcome it, use it as an opportunity for personal growth. There was a monk once, who was mentally slower than his peers. He was put to shoe polishing duty at the monastery, and while his peers performed complex ceremonies, he took care of their shoes. In the end, he reached enlightenment first. We get to chose how we look at any task.
The final question to ask is: Can I love this task?
We can look at any task as drudgery, get frustrated about our lack of resources that would have allowed us to automate or delegate the task, or we can rejoice in knowing that this task came to us for a reason, that there is some treasure hidden in it, whether directly or indirectly simply by performing the task with an attitude of gratitude. “Have to” becomes “Blessed to”.
So, next time you look at a task, go through these four simple questions. You will find that your life will become easier, less busy, and overall more blessed.
Blessed be the lazy man…