How to slack off successfully at work

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At some times of the year work feels more of a chore than at others. Summer is one of those times, when if you are stuck in the office, the mind strays to work avoidance strategies, writes Lucy Kellaway.

For inspiration I've been studying two colleagues, both the same age, both equally talented.

One is a magnet for extra work, which gets dumped on him all the time. The other man never does any surplus tasks. He isn't exactly lazy, but only works on things that interest him. In his spare time he sits in his office watching the tennis on his iPhone.

Which of the two is more handsomely rewarded for their unequal effort? Mr Obliging or Mr Not-so-Obliging?

The sad truth is that the first has received no benefit from his drudgery, while the second has suffered no punishment for his shirking.

I have been trying to understand how Mr Not-so-Obliging gets away with it. At first I thought it was a matter of saying no.

Yet it turns out skilled work avoiders hardly ever say no. They do something far more ingenious - they avoid being asked in the first place.

Be scary

There are some well-known strategies for this, including bustling around with a clipboard looking busy or wearing headphones and staring intently at the screen forbidding anyone from approaching.

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Lucy Kellaway
  • Lucy Kellaway is an author and Financial Times columnist
  • Listen to her on Business Daily and World Business Report on BBC World Service every Monday

Yet Mr Not-so-Obliging tells me his secret is far simpler - he simply reduces to the barest minimum the amount of time he spends in the office.

If you aren't there physically it is extraordinary how little grunt work you get asked to do.

The trouble with this trick is that if you are never in the office, people forget you exist.

Fortunately there is another work-avoidance strategy that I have seen used to such great effect by some colleagues it amazes me that there is no body of literature supporting it, and no courses teaching you how to pull it off.

It is to act frightening. Frightening people never get asked to do grunt work. The difficulty here is that scariness is partly an innate characteristic, and partly comes with seniority.

However, at the margin it may be possible to make yourself a little more frightening by playing on your workmates' fear of the unknown.

We are scared of people whose behaviour we can't predict, and so it might be an idea to alternate taciturn behaviour with bouts of garrulousness.

People might think you scary - but then again they might just think you were going mad.

Businessman paddling on a beach One way of avoiding work is to not go into the office in the first place
Being hopeless can help

The best work-avoidance technique of all is to be perfectly willing, but perfectly incompetent.

This trick is much practised at home by my sons, who when asked to do the washing up take care always to do it so badly that it becomes a serious disincentive to asking them to do it again - especially if there is anyone more competent around to do it instead.

The equivalent of the washing-up technique at work is to be hopeless at small tasks. To be late writing boring reports or to write scrappy minutes for meetings.

Alas, this is a trick for the advanced class only - you should never attempt it unless you are considered to be very good indeed at the big stuff.

Lucy Kellaway is an author and Financial Times columnist. Listen to her on Business Daily and World Business Report on BBC World Service every Monday.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    What are these slackers' managers doing? I would suggest that it is these people who are not doing their jobs properly. All this acting scary or frightening nonsense might work with colleagues at the same grade but surely any manager worth his or her salt will simply cut through the crap and tell the individual to buck their ideas up. If not, they shouldn't be managing in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    And there was me thinking the best workshy strategy was to become a government minister where the only effort called for is to avoid blame. Or come to think of it, incompetent, never there, frightening --- maybe they have read this article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 366.

    When I worked in the Private Sector promotion went to those who went out for smoke breaks with the boss - I know, I was one of them!

    Now i work in the Public Sector promotions go to those that fit the requirement to umm...something about "positively discriminating to better reflect the community we serve"...

    Whether or not you benefit from it, it rarely has anything to do with working hard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    343. pjaj
    @ 25. Skywatchman
    I suspect we worked for the same company, better not name it!
    I endorse everything you say
    Thanks pjaj, The company I worked for was the one that invented most of the 'business speak' and 'management styles' that are used today in the UK.

    The 'skiving' and 'career coasters' used to play a weekly game of what's the latest buzzword

    That's about all they did

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.

    There is only one surefire way of getting away with doing nothing at work, and that is don't work in the private sector, they wouldn't allow it. Get a nice heavily unionised publically funded job. You will become immune to work in around 5 minutes. How many people spent years hiding away at the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    I remember being told "If you walk round an office building holding a piece of paper - everyone assumes you're going to a meeting, unless it's a newspaper, in which case everyone assumes you're going to the bathroom"

    In my experience, never was a truer word said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    I think I can take this for what it is; a bit of fun. However you overlook one very obvious drawback here. Not that your sons are in any danger at home, but in the real world you would be fired! Or at least short listed for when there needs to be any downsizing. I don't think there would even be an article like this in Japan, Germany or the Philippines were the work ethic is built in from youth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    If you want to not live in the real world and obtain vast pay cheques for a tiny amount of work get a job at the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    Homer Simpson's three sentences that will get you through life:
    1. Cover for me.
    2. Oh good idea, boss.
    3. It was like that when I got here.

    It's terrifyingly accurate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    The whole system is wrong IMO

    I think we should be creatures of leisure and fun....we are only really happy when we are doing things we love to do!!!! FACT

    It is a strange person IMO who likes packed trains, stress watching the clock, stress at work, long hours, tiredness, bullying bosses etc

    Personally I would like nothing more than to insult my boss and retire now! lol :)

  • Comment number 358.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    I am amused by people typing and lifting their fingers 15cm off the keyboard, looks like they are typing fast because of the effort they put in, in reality of course they are considerably slower. Proved the point to a colleague who disagreed and achieved 30 words a min more copying from the same document.

  • Comment number 356.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    "The best work-avoidance technique of all is to be perfectly willing, but perfectly incompetent."

    Ah yes, the Norman Wisdom approach. Super enthusiastic but totally rubbish at anything except what I'm contracted to do. After a couple of times, no-one ever asks you to do extra work again. It's worked many times for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    'Slacking' always boils down to poor autocratic management. In corporate office environments, performance is measured via 'stat's which management treat as if they are the bible of performance indicators, but often just allow the slackers to hide away through manipulation. I have lost count of the number of decent employees I have witnessed to be worked out or leave due to useless autocratic mgt

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Nothing more to add. Experienced myself. Been efficient and therefore given more work, now replaced with 3 people who still say that they cannot cope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.


    "I work smarter" "They loose hours chasing missing collugues, I have their mobile number and get through immediatly..."

    Yeah, not that smart...

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    Ms Kellaway is keeping three people out of jobs they could be slacking in.
    Greedy whatsit..

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    Comment 288 by Rich - When you worked in the private sector you had "bonuses, open bar parties, cheep insurance and better pension"?? You either worked in banking or you haven't worked in the sector for the past decade... No pensions, no bonuses, no pay increase, no insurance and lower than public sector salaries is what the private sector looks like for most people today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    Actually being able to find gainful employment would be a good place to start.......


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