The Efficient Slacker

Learn from the best.

The respectability culture office makes a big deal out of “owning” the product and putting it on oneself to improve process and go the extra mile to bring value to the customer. These goals can give the warm fuzzies when delivered by an eloquent leader, but it’s important to recognize this as a call to “work harder”, the benefits of which you will not pocket. It’s time not to “own” the product but to own the benefits of your efficiency.

Sure, companies give some incentives. If they like the work they see out of you, you might get a raise, or other perks. But let’s not kid ourselves – in many fields especially highly technical ones, it’s difficult to correctly measure output. The process of corporate ladder climbing is more about politics than doing a better job. Whichever superstitious metrics human resources concocts is often a post-hoc rationalization for decisions already made on political grounds.

Most workers know very well that any benefits of increased output won’t go to themselves, but to the company. Workers retaliate to unfair conditions (such as slacking off in response to pay cuts and stealing in response to low wages). Slacking off too can be a retaliatory strategy. Employers have destroyed your bargaining power for decades and employees have discovered that slacking is one of the few tools in their toolbox left to fight back. My claim is that most of us are already slacking off and it’s time to get serious about doing it and to stop feeling guilty about it.

The first step to slacking off efficiently is to own the benefits of whatever efficiency improvements you decide to make. The work you do on the product will not really be owned by you as long as your employer owns the intellectual property. Only additional free time is available for your use. If you discover a quicker way to make something, don’t let that be an excuse to increase your workload (but not your pay). Ensure that it buys you more time to do whatever you want. Make it so that when you do time wasting stuff at work, you can do so guilt-free. That means firstly, deciding not to feel guilty about it and secondly, if you are unable to get away with simply not doing your work, getting it done quickly so that it’s out of the way.

Before I begin with some general tips and tricks, do keep in mind that this is one strategy you can use. In some workplaces, the default approach, deliberate inefficiency, is the way to go. But if you have constant demands on your output that you cannot brush off, then these strategies of working efficiently, then guiltlessly slacking are the way to go.

What you specifically can do to slack efficiently is probably very particular to your situation. Your field of work, who’s sitting next to you, if you’re able to telecommute, etc. But here are some general guidelines I have found to work for me over the years doing technical work:

Use Good Tools

Bad tools always have the ability to slow things down and create frustration. And the good news is a lot of employers recognize that it’s in their self-interest to buy you better tools when they become too much of a time sink. Find something that will do as much of your job for you as possible and learn it in and out. You might be tempted to let higher ups know you’ve gotten more efficient but be careful. They may see it as an invitation to give you more work, pocketing all the benefits of the tool they bought and the time you invested learning it.

Even little things like keyboard shortcuts can also make your job so much easier, especially for repetitive tasks. Many tools have built-in features that end-users aren’t aware of such as scripting that can really take the burden off routine tasks. It’s worth it to take the time to learn these and make use of them, but only if you own the benefits of your efficiency.

Manage Expectations

Nothing creates more needless work than unrealistic expectations on the part of an employer. The problem is exacerbated when employees feel guilty about failing to meet unrealistic demands and become afraid of pushing back. It can also create a temporary sense of relief to give a promise to an employer that makes them smile but this is backwards – disappointment should come at the beginning of a task or project, not the end.

There are multiple forces working against you that you must manage. Firstly, the company may have artificial deadlines that they decided they must meet. Secondly, there is a general human tendency to underestimate the complexity of tasks (part of the optimism bias). You might also be fighting against competitive co-workers who will derail your inflated or even realistic estimates with their own self-serving underestimates.

All these forces must be fought. Once you get in the cycle of guilt and redemption, your hope of the stress-free life you deserve is over. If estimates are unrealistic, then your employer will be disappointed when the tasks aren’t done. Give them realistic deadlines. If you can, try to give them inflated deadlines to cover the likelihood that you underestimated and some time to yourself. Starting out, you might not buy much free time yet, but as you get more efficient and condition management to expect the level of output you’re willing and able to give, you’ll slowly have more and more time for time-wasting fun.

Police the Police

The biggest enemy to the efficient slacker, sadly, isn’t always management but other employees who side with management, often without meaning to. It might say that the hours of work are 9-5 on the employment contract but the real work hours are defined by custom. If everyone starts leaving at 4:50, then that’s quitting time. If almost everyone stays until 6:00 because they got in the habit of staying late, then 6 is the real quitting time. Employees know that it looks bad to leave “on time” when everyone else is staying.

Someone staying late to get more work done might genuinely believe that they are helping the team out but in reality, they are your enemy. They are setting the precedents that bind you. Try to set the precedents yourself and win other employees to your side. This might take awhile. Other people might be more worried about job security than you. Other people might procrastinate to a fault (procrastination can be a good slacking strategy but it is self-defeating if it expands your work hours). Help them help you fight bossism.

If other employees wish to shame you for not putting the company’s interests before your own, explain to them the lopsided nature of the employer-employee relationship. In extreme circumstances, you might have to get your hands dirty with politics. Build a coalition against worker policing if you have to. Help create a culture of leisure, not a culture of blame-the-employee first.

Don’t Take The Respect Bait

If a picture is worth a thousand words. A word or two is worth crumbs. In Japan, where the phenomenon of dying from overworking has even been given a name, 過労死 the practice is to switch wage workers to salaried and give them more work. Usually a more impressive title that sounds good when meeting the parents accompanies this horizontal shift.

Don’t kid yourself. Your employer doesn’t respect you. You are a replaceable cog in their machine. Even if they genuinely like you as a person, their bottom line comes first. The investors demand it. Assign a dollar value to the title or respect they’ve given you and ask yourself if it was a worthwhile raise. If not, then all your work was for naught. Seek more money, not titles.

Be Wary of Independence

The path to independence from the diseased employee-employer relationship may well be self-employment but don’t be mistaken about the true nature of your situation. Being an independent contractor with only one customer is scarcely discernible from good old-fashioned employment, save for fewer worker protections. If and when you break free, you needn’t shy away from your current employer as a potential customer but ensure that they’re not your only customer. A successful business has multiple customers, not just one. A successful business can lose some customers and stay afloat.

Also be wary of telecommuting. I’m an advocate of telecommuting, but a lot of the literature on telecommuting shows that it makes employees work longer hours. No wonder a lot of employers like it. You must be wary of your own tendency to overcompensate for the fact that you’re no longer seen “being busy”. One is to communicate what you have done at the end of the day, even if you have to pad it out some. Also refer to the previous point about managing expectations.

Do The Minimum Work

If you’re asked to do something, do the minimum work required to get it done. You might put some more work in in anticipation of revisions you know will come so that they don’t pester you, but don’t go “above and beyond” to improve the product that you don’t actually own. Don’t add nice-to-have features. This is in line with agile methodology anyway. Give them the minimum viable version of what they asked for, no more.

Unless you enjoy adding things to the product more than other time-wasting stuff you had planned, don’t do it. Also, don’t try to impress with how quickly you got it done. Finish the minimum version of the task early and hand it in at some later, respectable time. Maybe after you’ve had your fill of time-wasting for the day.

Abolish Job Security

One of the most suicidal things a worker can do is to actively seek out job security. It isn’t simply that job security isn’t worth having; it’s that it’s an illusion. It doesn’t exist and you shouldn’t want it even if it does.

Tricks workers use to achieve job security often consist of taking on more tasks so that they become irreplaceable. This is a mistake because managers don’t know who is irreplaceable. You overestimate them if you think they do. Once again, output is tricky to measure. Your employer doesn’t actually know that you’re irreplaceable and even if they do, they may fire people for this behavior, making it self-defeating. It’s also a mistake for the obvious reason that it requires more work.

Do It For Yourself, Do It For Other Workers

Slacking efficiently is great because it’s a raise you give yourself and it sets a good precedent for other workers. When the culture is pro-worker and less pro-boss, the benefits are felt even after you leave.

If you effectively work fewer hours for the same pay, it’s an increase in your hourly pay. The only catch is you’re stuck inside an office for part of your free time if you do work in an office. But there is a lot of room for creativity. Security screens are a great way to hide what you’re doing on your computer. If you spend a lot of time reading technical manuals at work already, you can also read novels undetected.

When you fight the expectations and push back, you set a precedent that helps other workers. Lazy workers have the power, we just have to get over some guilt imposed by the work culture we’re steeped in and learn some tricks and techniques.

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