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In praise of laziness at work

There is a never-ending supply of business gurus telling us how we can, and must, do more. Sheryl Sandberg urges women to “Lean In” if they want to get ahead. John Bernard offers breathless advice on conducting “Business at the Speed of Now.”

Michael Port tells salesmen how to “Book Yourself Solid.” And in case you thought you might be able to grab a few moments to yourself, Keith Ferrazzi warns that you must “Never Eat Alone.”

Yet the biggest problem in the business world is not too little but too much — too many distractions and interruptions, too many things done for the sake of form, and altogether too much busy-ness. The Dutch seem to believe that an excess of meetings is the biggest devourer of time: They talk of vergaderziekte, “meeting sickness.” However, a study last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is email: It found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to email messages.

Which of these banes of modern business life is worse remains open to debate. But what is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mail because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

All this “leaning in” is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night.

Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80 percent of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69 percent cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38 percent routinely check their work email at the dinner table.

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