I’m Not Lazy – I Optimize


This is the latest in a Lazy series – For previous posts, click here and here


It’s hard for me to do something I don’t care about. But for things I am interested in, I find I can end up with a relentless hyper-focus, even on the most irrational and tedious of topics.

Do any of us really focus?

This is something everyone can relate to: complaining how they can’t focus on the job because they can’t get away from their Instagram feed, or getting delayed for a party because you have to see the end of the reality TV show you didn’t care about 30 minutes ago (The Bachelor can be weirdly engrossing). Stronger examples may go deeper, and contrast productive working vs. staring at a wall procrastinating while unable to think about work. If it’s so common, does that mean it’s something we all have to live with?

They say lazy people end up figuring out how to improve things more than others. This makes sense intuitively – instead of doing work I’m going to figure out a way to not do the work. But that only happens when you don’t want to do the work at all. Instead imagine you want to get the same work done, but just don’t want to put the time in to do it how ‘you’re supposed to.’ When you’re lazy but still want to get something done, that’s where you become an optimizer.

How laziness makes you faster

So what’s the difference in motivation structure between the motivated and the lazy? When it comes down to it; it’s just what motivates us and how we look for satisfaction in our lives. Through experiences in life and work, we may develop different preferences and incentive structures. I may love abandoning work for a gaming session, but you may find it impossible to leave work even though you’re just re-checking the same presentation. What is common, however, is that we all want to arrive at a feeling or goal and minimize the negative impact and personal cost to get there. How does the unmotivated still get the work done? Let’s take a completely hypothetical and non-based-on-my-life-at-all example.

Getting the job done without working

Let’s say I have to have the same conversation once a week every time someone has a question about licensing a product. It’s not necessarily a formal part of my job, but it’s expected to be done so I do it. But it’s boring, and time wasting, and happens so randomly I’m always surprised when it comes in. It takes just a few minutes a day to complete the process, but it’s distracting and easy to ignore. Instead of doing the simple task I let it slide for a few weeks, but ultimately it blew up in my face. I was stuck with a problem of getting myself to do it, even though it was the bane of my work week: what did I do?

I changed what I wanted to get done. Instead of having to get the emails done, I decided to stop the emails in the first place. Instead of providing information ad-hoc all the time, I realized I just needed to get the information out there.

From burden to motivator

Having to repeat the action is a powerful incentive to figure out how to reduce the overall job by finding a more efficient solutions. Because I don’t want to do the work at all, I’d rather spend time building a way to not have to do the work in the first place. And rather than spending the time to get out of the job, I’d prefer spending time to eliminate the job entirely. It’ll be more time and effort, but the net result is less work and stressing about not doing said work.

To do that is in itself a point of achievement. By eliminating the need for the work in the first place, I feel I’ve achieved something and have made things better. This is true not only for your work, but for your own motivation and anxiety levels. Focusing on that achievement and trying to reproduce it and the satisfaction it brings, you get better at optimizing the process entirely. This then becomes a tendency to optimize not just for how to get it done, but then how to do it better, faster, and meeting your own expectations. It’s in this way how people innovate new ways to improve a process and do the same thing better. Instead of trying to get a machine to mimic a human’s hand pushing needles through a cloth, inventors used two needles to add a whole lot more efficiency and power to the world of clothing. And instead of answering annoying emails, I published a set of informational materials that have stopped the requests to me entirely.

Don’t just do it – Improve it

After repeating and working along these lines, the original lack of motivation starts to pale away and the original work itself begins to matter less than your work to optimize for it. In comparison to completing the original task, the subsequent personal reward and achievement will far outweigh the incremental feeling of completing the original task. Why?

Because it feels good to achieve. To figure something out. To realize you have the ability not only to control what’s going on but to improve it!

It’s validation that your work, and your input as an individual matters. That you are not powerless and in fact have control over this aspect of your life, even if nothing else. Additionally there’s the long term satisfaction that you not only are doing what you need to do, but you’re doing it better, and in a way that suits you. Essentially, you turned something you did not want to do, figured out a way to improve it, and created something you did want to do, while still completing the original goal. Not motivated to do something? This can be your way out. It has been for me.

You may hit a brick wall

The caveat is, the achievement itself may not challenge you enough. This is based on individual capacity and interest, but if you’re completing work that’s not challenging you, and pushing you to be better, then it’s easy to call into a rut and be disillusioned. You may get away with sub-par work,  validating your self-imposed mediocrity. When you inevitably judge yourself against peers, you feel like you can skate free and reduce your effort level because it’s ‘good enough.’

Aiming for ‘good enough’ is a huge risk and is the downfall of the lazy. Eventually you’ll fall into boredom and dissatisfaction with the work at hand and both your work and your motivation greatly suffer – not only in work but it may impact every aspect of your life.

Motivated Laziness

Motivated laziness is what you want to get to. To leverage your motivation to get the job done to remove the need to do it, to challenger yourself to do it faster, and optimize the process. This is why judging yourself against external material and societal goals is limiting – because if you hit a goal you think you’re done. Got a raise? Time to coast. Lost weight? I’m entitled to binge.

But if you think you can do more, and better, and want to feel that long term satisfaction and mix of dopamine and serotonin, plus a productive and pleasant memory, then you are driven to continue optimizing your experiences.

So I just keep working and optimizing?

This doesn’t mean you work yourself to death. The root of this is identifying what you enjoy and what satisfies you; but what will continue to make you feel good, and thus easier to motivate yourself to do, is achieving. Tackling challenges and optimizing – it’s how you turn laziness into intense motivation.