Be Proactively Lazy

In James Clear’s excellent, bestselling book Atomic Habits, he writes about a man who set up a number of systems and habits that impressed others, who commented on his energy and hard work in getting so much done. He shrugged off the compliments, however, saying something like, “I’m actually not that hard-working; I’m just proactively lazy.”

I love it. I think “proactive laziness” is a good modus operandi for working writers.

As the man in the book used it—and as I’ve practiced it for years without having that label to use for it—proactive laziness is the application of a habit or system that over time saves effort—mental, emotional, physical, etc. With such habits relating to your writing in place, it may look as though you’re energetic, hard-working, frantic, even, in accomplishing tasks. In reality, however, your habits allow you to be methodical, even lazy. But purposefully so. 

As Ricky Ricardo would say, “I can essplain.”

Say you’re a blogger who must produce several inspired and insightful posts every single week. That takes a lot of work, no? Yes. But let’s say also that you’ve cultivated a habit in your weekly schedule—right after lunch, perhaps—of brainstorming at least three topics for upcoming posts, which you add to a posting schedule. Thus, on writing days, instead of stressing or straining to come up with a topic, you just write. Easy peasy, right? Of course, right.

Or say you’re working on a novel. You sit down at the same time and in the same place on certain days and write 2,000 words. When you reach that goal, you stop—even in mid-sentence—and give yourself permission to be lazy the rest of the day.

Or (to steal again from James Clear, who calls this “habit stacking”) you’ve attached a writing task to an already-existing habit, so that after you get the mail from the mailbox, you immediately write a short poem. The poem doesn’t even have to be about mail, or particularly good. But because it’s attached (or “stacked”) with another habit, it will eventually become as automatic; and who knows what inspiration will arise out of your routine?

These are only a few examples of the power of proactive laziness. I can testify that, in my case, being both obsessive-compulsive and lazy, habits and systems like these have worked wonders for me. I keep a bullet journal that helps to focus me. I plan my workweek every Sunday right before retiring. I have “habit-stacked” recurring tasks so that existing habits lead automatically into those tasks. (For example, I eat breakfast every day, and I’ve long followed that up by unloading and loading the dishwasher. So, when I had to start taking my blood pressure, I started doing that on leaving the kitchen and added my morning stretch routine immediately after taking my blood pressure. One leads to the other now, automatically.) My phone automatically activates “Do Not Disturb” at regular intervals, so I can focus on writing. And so on.

People occasionally say to me, “I don’t know how you do all you do.” I like hearing that, because I still like to think I’m energetic and hard-working. But I’m really just proactively lazy. 

17 Responses to Be Proactively Lazy

  1. Len Bailey April 7, 2022 at 5:16 am #

    Why stand when you can sit? Why sit when you can lay down?

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 7, 2022 at 5:16 am #

    Some will call me lazy,
    some will say I’m indolent.
    Some claim my manner’s hazy,
    but really, I just represent
    a subset of the populace
    of whom too little’s spoke,
    who aligned high school with grass,
    and their minds went up in smoke.
    They need someone to plead their cause,
    or, perhaps to mumble
    that though they may, yes, have their flaws
    as through their lives the stumble,
    they really thought it was not wrong
    to set as models Cheech and Chong.

  3. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. April 7, 2022 at 5:21 am #

    Bob, I LOVE your idea! What a great way to effectively do a lot more. (Oh, no, my A++++ personality just clicked in here….)

  4. Barb Syvertson April 7, 2022 at 6:03 am #

    I remember you saying in a class that we should query or one sheet all our potential writing projects and then for interest before we buckle down to really write it. Is that another proactive laziness example?

  5. Barb Syvertson April 7, 2022 at 6:05 am #

    * wait for interest

  6. Sherry Hoppen April 7, 2022 at 6:06 am #

    You just described me to a tee!

  7. Barbara Harper April 7, 2022 at 6:18 am #

    I’m going to have to get that book. I keep hearing great things about it.

    • KT Sweet April 7, 2022 at 8:01 am #

      Bob, thanks for this helpful post. Habit-stacking to the rescue! And a book for my TBR pile.

  8. Sy Garte April 7, 2022 at 6:27 am #

    My trick is to fool myself into believing that the act of crossing an item off my to-do list is the greatest thing possible, and doing so gives me a true sense of satisfaction and even joy. Of course that means I have to actually do the thing, (paint the shed, write a blog, etc). So I end up doing stuff for the reward of seeing those words on the list obliterated by my magic sharpie. I am still lazy most of the time, but some stuff does get done.

  9. Sally Valentine April 7, 2022 at 8:04 am #

    Love the term. I think I’ll use it.

  10. Janet McHenry April 7, 2022 at 10:39 am #

    Routines do help production. Daily I create a meme from my through-the-Bible-in-a-year reading. It only takes a handful of minutes to post that meme daily on three different FB places, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram.

  11. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 7, 2022 at 10:54 am #

    I figure not many people will be dropping by now, so I shall be self-indulgent.

    I’m proactively exhausted,
    cancer’s got me on the ropes,
    I can’t tell you what it’s costed,
    the dark end of all the hopes
    that I thought my words could bring
    to a world that needed light,
    but in the air is now dun wing,
    and it’s the falling of the night,
    but I guess I am still here,
    with phone-screen limned red in blood,
    and don’t want to split the scene,
    but tell rather of the flood
    of God’s love, His precious grace,
    to which you need just turn your face.

  12. Susan April 7, 2022 at 3:12 pm #

    Excellent book! It’s an easy read with great ideas.
    Now I know your secret, Bob!

  13. Barb syvertson April 7, 2022 at 7:36 pm #

    I’m so sorry for what you are going through and your desire to leave more of yourself and your encouraging words behind. I’m guessing most Christian writers want to leave a lasting mark on the world and to help bring one more person closer to Jesus.

    I’ve never met you but from your creative and quickly crafted poems I’m confident that over the years you have blessed many people with your written words. Your sensitive heart will be remembered by your family and friends. Keep on writing and using words as you are able. Praying right now that God will bless you and give you a peace that only he can give.

  14. Jessica Brodie April 8, 2022 at 7:57 am #

    This is exactly how I live, 100%! Systems keep me productive. Habit stacking is SO so effective. Thank you! I never realized until I read this how true it is, but you are so right. For me, this is absolutely the ticket in getting stuff done.

  15. Megan Schaulis April 11, 2022 at 9:17 am #

    I love your posts, Bob.

    This reminds me of a fellow teacher everyone saw as super organized. One day she confessed to me that she’s not at all organized. That’s why she had color-coordinated binders and calendars and sticky notes.
    What looked to us like a naturally organized person was actually a bundle of chaos shoved into a system.
    What looks like an energized hard-worker, may simply be a person who loves the gift of unwinding at the end of the day!

  16. Jide A April 12, 2022 at 9:44 am #

    Thank you Bob. So Simple, So true, So Powerfully Practical!

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