Some of the Best Things Lazy People Do

Lazy lounging

“I don't think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention . . . arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.”

[Agatha Christie]

Grace Murray Hopper# was an American computer scientist, mathematician, and a pioneer in her field. She was one of Harvard Mark I computer’s first programmers and is responsible for developing the first ever compiler used for computer programming language. As she herself admitted, she did it because she was lazy.

The compiler was “the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer.” She did this, she said, “because she was lazy and hoped that the programmer may return to being a mathematician.”

This compiler was a precursor for the Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, a widely adapted language that would be used around the world. Though she did not invent COBOL, Hopper encouraged its adaptation.

Her work foreshadowed enormous numbers of developments that are now the bones of digital computing —subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the linking loader, code optimization, and even symbolic manipulation of the kind embodied in Mathematica and Maple.

Grace Hopper is also a United States Navy Rear Admiral. Because of her achievements and contributions in the field of computer science as well as the navy, she is sometimes fondly called “Amazing Grace.”

She is the most remarkable entry in a Quora thread about smart things lazy people do. Because she worked on a broader solution rather than a short term fix. Her idea was to create a system that would free her to do what she wanted to focus on.


Some of the other ideas that have a longer shelf life are system-based:

  • simplifying —creating a system to reduce the number of decisions we need to make in a day. For example, having a typical outfit, like Giorgio Armani's navy blue t-shirt and jeans, or Steve Jobs black turtleneck and jeans.
  • reducing possessions —the things we own end up taking time, energy, and space. In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo says we should surround ourselves only with thins that “spark joy.”  The KonMari Method is a category-by-category system that provides detailed guidance for determining which items in our house “spark joy” and want to keep. After the initial work to reduce, we use the same system to maintain by acquiring only what we intend to keep.
  • doing more by working smarter —taking advantage of the times when we feel the most creative (for many this is early in the morning), and scheduling effort in 90-minute intervals. From his study of elite performers, professor K. Anders Ericsson says, “To maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.” 
  • subtracting —not doing what we don't want to do helps us find more time for what we want to focus on. For example, my mentor and CEO had a simple rule, “don't touch the same piece of paper twice.” That meant he would handle things once. He also avoided multitasking and interruptions. In Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking says, “… top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.”
  • getting the right tools —this means taking the time to understand the job we need done, and figuring out the one thing that can help us the most. We tend to want more options or choices, yet may end up with too many functions we don't need (for example in software), or too many items at a lower cost that do poorly compared to the best model.

All these examples and ideas point to system rather than just goals. This applies to learning what we need for what we're trying to accomplish.

American cartoonist Scott Adams says, “A smarter approach is to think of learning as a system in which you continually expose yourself to new topics, primarily the ones you find interesting.” In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big Adams says we should view skill acquisition using the math of success.

Adams says that:

The best way to increase your odds of success in a way that might look like luck to others is to systematically become good, but not amazing, at the types of skills that work well together and are highly useful for just about any job.

This is another example in which viewing the world as math (adding skills together) and not magic allows you to move from a strategy with low odds of success to something better.

We can also learn to use other techniques for discovering and taking advantage of life's good breaks.



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