As a small business owner, being lazy is the last thing you think about. There’s too much to do and too little time

But then again…

Meet Richard, a manufacturing supervisor. During meetings, every other supervisor competed to see who could volunteer first for new projects. Richard always sat quietly. 

Every other supervisor strived to end each day at inbox-zero. Richard usually took days to respond, if he responded at all.

Every other supervisor kept to-do lists on whiteboards in their offices. Richard’s walls were empty, his desk clear. 

To all outward appearances, Richard was the laziest supervisor in the department. But a closer look told the real story.

His crews consistently outperformed all the others in output, mitigated waste, and cost. His employees were promoted more than twice as often as any other supervisor’s. He quietly spearheaded two interdepartmental initiatives that significantly reduced the time it took to transfer materials and work-in-progress from operation to operation, turning the typical four-day turnaround into three.

The other supervisors did a lot: scurrying from place to place, constantly providing input, multi-volunteering and multi-participating and multi-tasking.

But while they were doing lots of stuff, Richard got important stuff done.

He determined what truly mattered to the long-term success of the business. To Richard, the rest was irrelevant.

Let’s look at another “lazy” example.

Dwight was widely considered the laziest employee in the department. He could usually be found lounging in a chair by his machine on the production line, watching it run.

That was even true during job changeovers, when equipment needed to be set up to run different product. While other operators hustled to make changes to their machines, Dwight walked slowly from place to place, occasionally leaning over to make an adjustment, before settling back into his chair.

He seemed slow. He seemed apathetic. Dwight seemed lazy.

Yet he always finished his makeready before every other operator. Why?

He hated walking to the far side of one large piece of equipment, so he figured out a way to make the adjustment from his side. He hated making five small adjustments to five different guides, so he figured out a way to connect all the guides into one.

He hated waiting for other people to get their work done so he could complete his, so he used a little algebra to determine machine settings ahead of time.

In time, Dwight had turned 40-odd separate adjustments into less than 10. He also ensured—through process improvement and extreme accuracy—that he never had to fine-tune any adjustments later.

To all outward appearances, Dwight was lazy.

Which means Bill Gates would probably have loved him. And he would have loved Richard, too.

“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job,” Gates is often quoted to have said. “Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” 

When ‘lazy’ is good for business

When you own a small business, you wear a number of hats. Sometimes you wear all the hats. “Lazy” isn’t in your vocabulary; you’re in constant motion. 

You probably even embrace the approach of America’s Cup-winning skipper Jimmy Spithill. “Rarely have I seen a situation,” Spithill says, “where doing less than the other guy is a good strategy.”

But just like it doesn’t always make sense to throw money at a problem, reflexively throwing effort at a problem can blind you to possibilities “lazy” people might uncover.

Take Richard, who unknowingly followed Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher’s “one question” approach. Kelleher filtered every decision through one lens: “Will this make Southwest Airlines the lowest-cost provider?” If the answer was yes, Kelleher pursued it. If not, he ignored it.

Richard did the same thing. If a meeting, a project, or a task would help his crews be more productive, he worked on it. If not, he ignored it. 

Help rewrite the employee handbook? Pass. Help find a new pallet supplier? Pass. Help create a better training plan for team members who covered operator vacations so that productivity wouldn’t suffer while key players weren’t available? Not only did he help, he took over the project.

Richard couldn’t be bothered to work on some things because he spent his time working on what mattered.

So did Dwight. Makereadies are what you might call a “hard job,” one that directly impacts the bottom line. Dwight was too “lazy” to do a hard job, so he figured out how to make it easy. 

Here’s what it comes down to: Not all jobs are created equally. And hard jobs don’t have to be hard.

How to make the lazy way out the best way out

As Simon Sinek says, everything starts with “Why?” Just like work without purpose is just work, effort without purpose is just effort.

1. Adopt your own “one question.” 

Determine your long-term goal. Identify short-term goals that support your long-term goal. Then let your goals and your purpose determine what you spend time on

If your top priority is sales, spend all your time selling and be lazy about all the other “stuff.” (Organizing your warehouse is a waste of time if you don’t generate sufficient revenue to stay in business.)

If your top priority is operations, be “lazy” about anything that doesn’t improve efficiency, quality, schedule attainment, etc. 

Later, when you have time, you can get to some of the other stuff. 

Or, more likely, you’ll find that what you thought was important actually wasn’t.

2. Be lazy with every repetitive task.

Some tasks require thought. Others just require effort. 

As Alexa von Tobel, the founder of LearnVest, says, “I automate everything from my Amazon Prime subscription to my food subscriptions to even what I wear… I then have the energy and the brain power for things that are real decisions I need to make.”

Automate as many tasks as possible. But don’t stop there. “Lazy” people naturally try to reduce the amount of effort involved in a repetitive task. If you can’t reduce the effort to zero, find ways to strip out steps.

Weed out the unnecessary. Streamline the necessary.

And if a task involves a decision, make the most important decision of all: Decide who will decide. Almost every decision you currently make can be taken over by people you trust. Train, guide, mentor—and then turn them loose.

That’s the “lazy” way to run a business. 

And often the most effective.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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