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Creating Hardworking Idiots

Creating Hardworking Idiots

The German World War II general Erich von Manstein is said to have categorized his officers into four types. The first type, he said, is lazy and stupid. His advice was to leave them alone because they don’t do any harm. The second type is hard-working and clever. He said that they make great officers because they ensure everything runs smoothly. The third group is composed of hardworking idiots. Von Manstein claims that you must immediately get rid of these, as they force everyone around them to perform pointless tasks. The fourth category are officers who are lazy and clever. These, he says, should be your generals. Discovering this information set me to wondering how General von Manstein’s categories might apply to business organizations today.

Lazy and Stupid

Most organizations have some managers within them who are lazy and stupid—at least, that has been my experience. Would you agree with the general that you can leave them alone, because they do no harm? I doubt it. Most organizations claim they try to get rid of any employee who is found to be lazy, let alone stupid as well. Maybe they try, but they don’t seem to be so successful, judging by the number who are left, some even in fairly exalted positions. Maybe one reason for this is that lazy and stupid people rarely do much active harm. The harm they do is more often based on missing opportunities and stifling the creativity of those who report to them. Bad enough, but not always easy to turn into clear grounds for dismissal—especially if the person in question is protected by someone powerful. Still, my guess is that even lazy and stupid people today realize that the best route to self-preservation is at least to appear busy and active.

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Hardworking and Clever

Von Manstein’s next group is made up of hardworking, clever people. Organizations mostly want as many of these as they can get, for obvious reasons. But you’ll notice that the general seems to confine them to the military equivalent of middle management: jobs that are aimed at making everything run smoothly. I suspect one reason is that such people do make excellent administrators. They can take orders from above and turn them into practical ways of achieving the desired results. Some are so useful in these roles that they are never allowed to rise higher. Others maybe want to progress, but lack something that—at least in von Manstein’s view—is essential to become a good general. That something, it seems, is laziness. He wants the choice of generals to be made from people who are clever, naturally, but also lazy. Why should that make them better top executives?

Lazy and Clever

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One reason might be that laziness is the principal spur to creativity. Lazy people are always looking for easier, simpler, and less arduous ways to do things. If they are also clever, the chances are that they will find them, and make them available to everyone else. Lazy people are also natural delegators, and find it very attractive to let their subordinates get on with their work without interference from above. Lazy, but bright, generals would be likely to make sure they focused on the essentials and ignored anything that might make for unnecessary work, whether for themselves or other people. In fact, it’s hard to see why you would not want your top managers to be as lazy as they are clever. It would indeed make them great strategists and leaders of people.

Hardworking Idiots

Now to the last group: the ones von Manstein said that you should get rid of immediately. That group is made up of people who are hardworking idiots, in his words. He says such people force those around them into pointless activities. I don’t know about you, but I suffered from several bosses I would unhesitatingly put into precisely that category. They were extremely hardworking—and demanded the same from their subordinates—but what they set others to work on (and what they spent their own time in doing) was mostly worthless. Maybe they were actually lazy and stupid people trying hard to seem busy, but too stupid to choose the right things to be busy about. It certainly felt like busyness for its own sake, and it was hateful. Or were they naturally hardworking idiots? Some probably were, but it’s my opinion that most such people are clever enough. It is the organization that makes them function like morons.

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Today’s fast-paced, macho style of organizational culture creates, and then fosters, the hardworking idiot. Indeed, I think it takes a great many sound, useful, hardworking, and clever people and turns them into idiots by denying them the time or the opportunity to think or use their brains. If you don’t look busy all the time, you’re virtually asking for a pink slip, never mind what it is that you are doing—or whether it is actually of any use to the organization or its customers. It’s all so rushed and frenetic. If all that matters is “meeting the numbers” and getting things done (whatever those things are), managers will be forced into working hard at projects that they know make no sense.

The dumbing down of organizations isn’t caused by poor educational standards or faulty recruitment. It’s due mostly to the crazy pace that is set, and the obsessive focus on the most obvious, rigidly short-term objectives. The result is a sharp increase in hardworking idiots: people who are coerced into long hours and constant busyness, while being systematically forced to act like idiots by the culture around them. Don’t ask questions. Don’t cause problems by thinking, or waste time on coming up with new ideas. Don’t think about the future, or try to anticipate problems before they arise. Just keep at it, do exactly what is expected of you, and always get the most done in the least amount of time and at the lowest cost. If von Manstein is correct, the result will be that more and more employees will be used to perform essentially pointless tasks. Isn’t that exactly what we see?

I think that even a fairly cursory look around most organizations today would confirm the accuracy of this observation. Consider all the time wasted in unnecessary meetings. The obsessive emphasis on staying in touch, regardless of need. The torrents of e-mails, most of which are simply copies of documents of no direct relevance to the people to whom they are sent. The constant collecting of data for no clear reason. Management by numbers and motivation by numerically-based performance measures. Trust replaced by obsessive control and leadership by forced ranking of subordinates against vague criteria determined by committees with no idea of the specific circumstances.

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You do not need ethical insight or human understanding to operate a machine, and machines are how many of today’s leaders see their organization: machines for making quick profits, not civilized communities of people working together to a common end. We can only hope some organizations at least see the error of their ways before the hardworking idiot becomes the commonest creature in the hierarchy. We are well on the way to that point, which is probably why so many people cherish dreams of getting out of the corporate rat race. It’s no fun to be forced to deny your own intelligence on a daily basis. We can still reverse the trend, but only by dropping the current out-dated dogmas, dangerous half truths, and total nonsense that disfigure management thinking. Let’s do it before it is too late.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership.

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Last Updated on March 30, 2020

20 Time Management Tips to Super Boost Your Productivity

20 Time Management Tips to Super Boost Your Productivity

Are you usually punctual or late? Do you finish things within the time you stipulate? Do you hand in your reports/work on time? Are you able to accomplish what you want to do before deadlines? Are you a good time manager?

If your answer is “no” to any of the questions above, that means you’re not managing your time as well as you want. Here are 20 time management tips to help you manage time better:

1. Create a Daily Plan

Plan your day before it unfolds. Do it in the morning or even better, the night before you sleep. The plan gives you a good overview of how the day will pan out. That way, you don’t get caught off guard. Your job for the day is to stick to the plan as best as possible.

2. Peg a Time Limit to Each Task

Be clear that you need to finish X task by 10am, Y task by 3pm, and Z item by 5:30pm. This prevents your work from dragging on and eating into time reserved for other activities.

3. Use a Calendar

Having a calendar is the most fundamental step to managing your daily activities. If you use outlook or lotus notes, calendar come as part of your mailing software.

I use it. It’s even better if you can sync your calendar to your mobile phone and other hardwares you use – that way, you can access your schedule no matter where you are. Here’re the 10 Best Calendar Apps to Stay on Track .

Find out more tips about how to use calendar for better time management here: How to Use a Calendar to Create Time and Space

4. Use an Organizer

An organizer helps you to be on top of everything in your life. It’s your central tool to organize information, to-do lists, projects, and other miscellaneous items.

These Top 15 Time Management Apps and Tools can help you organize better, pick one that fits your needs.

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5. Know Your Deadlines

When do you need to finish your tasks? Mark the deadlines out clearly in your calendar and organizer so you know when you need to finish them.

But make sure you don’t make these 10 Common Mistakes When Setting Deadlines.

6. Learn to Say “No”

Don’t take on more than you can handle. For the distractions that come in when you’re doing other things, give a firm no. Or defer it to a later period.

Leo Babauta, the founder of Zen Habits has some great insights on how to say no: The Gentle Art of Saying No

7. Target to Be Early

When you target to be on time, you’ll either be on time or late. Most of the times you’ll be late. However, if you target to be early, you’ll most likely be on time.

For appointments, strive to be early. For your deadlines, submit them earlier than required.

Learn from these tips about how to prepare yourself to be early, instead of just in time.

8. Time Box Your Activities

This means restricting your work to X amount of time. Why time boxing is good for you? Here’re 10 reasons why you should start time-boxing.

You can also read more about how to do time boxing here: Get What Matters Done by Scheduling Time Blocks

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9. Have a Clock Visibly Placed Before You

Sometimes we are so engrossed in our work that we lose track of time. Having a huge clock in front of you will keep you aware of the time at the moment.

10. Set Reminders 15 Minutes Before

Most calendars have a reminder function. If you have an important meeting to attend, set that alarm 15 minutes before.

You can learn more about how reminders help you remember everything in this article: The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

11. Focus

Are you multi-tasking so much that you’re just not getting anything done? If so, focus on just one key task at one time. Multitasking is bad for you.

Close off all the applications you aren’t using. Close off the tabs in your browser that are taking away your attention. Focus solely on what you’re doing. You’ll be more efficient that way.

Lifehack’s CEO has written a definitive guide on how to focus, learn the tips: How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

12. Block out Distractions

What’s distracting you in your work? Instant messages? Phone ringing? Text messages popping in?

I hardly ever use chat nowadays. The only times when I log on is when I’m not intending to do any work. Otherwise it gets very distracting.

When I’m doing important work, I also switch off my phone. Calls during this time are recorded and I contact them afterward if it’s something important. This helps me concentrate better.

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Find more tips on how to minimize distractions to achieve more in How to Minimize Distraction to Get Things Done

13. Track Your Time Spent

When you start to track your time, you’re more aware of how you spend your time. For example, you can set a simple countdown timer to make sure that you finish a task within a period of time, say 30 minutes or 1 hour. The time pressure can push you to stay focused and work more efficiently.

You can find more time tracking apps here and pick one that works for you.

14. Don’t Fuss About Unimportant Details

You’re never get everything done in exactly the way you want. Trying to do so is being ineffective.

Trying to be perfect does you more harm than good, learn here about how perfectionism kills your productivity and how to ditch the perfectionism mindset.

15. Prioritize

Since you can’t do everything, learn to prioritize the important and let go of the rest.

Apply the 80/20 principle which is a key principle in prioritization. You can also take up this technique to prioritize everything on your plate: How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

16. Delegate

If there are things that can be better done by others or things that are not so important, consider delegating. This takes a load off and you can focus on the important tasks.

When you delegate some of your work, you free up your time and achieve more. Learn about how to effectively delegate works in this guide: How to Delegate Work (the Definitive Guide for Successful Leaders)

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17. Batch Similar Tasks Together

For related work, batch them together.

For example, my work can be categorized into these core groups:

  1. writing (articles, my upcoming book)
  2. coaching
  3. workshop development
  4. business development
  5. administrative

I batch all the related tasks together so there’s synergy. If I need to make calls, I allocate a time slot to make all my calls. It really streamlines the process.

18. Eliminate Your Time Wasters

What takes your time away your work? Facebook? Twitter? Email checking? Stop checking them so often.

One thing you can do is make it hard to check them – remove them from your browser quick links / bookmarks and stuff them in a hard to access bookmarks folder. Replace your browser bookmarks with important work-related sites.

While you’ll still checking FB/Twitter no doubt, you’ll find it’s a lower frequency than before.

19. Cut off When You Need To

The number one reason why things overrun is because you don’t cut off when you have to.

Don’t be afraid to intercept in meetings or draw a line to cut-off. Otherwise, there’s never going to be an end and you’ll just eat into the time for later.

20. Leave Buffer Time In-Between

Don’t pack everything closely together. Leave a 5-10 minute buffer time in between each tasks. This helps you wrap up the previous task and start off on the next one.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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