When I was in high school I ran cross-country. I wasn’t very fast or slow, so I mostly went unnoticed by the coaches, which was fine with me; I really just ran to hang out with friends and because at my school you didn’t have to take P.E. if you did a sport (and no one cool took P.E.). Years later, I look back on my cross country experience with great fondness. I did exactly what I set out to do, and a lot of the time that included slacking off.
Most of the cross country team’s practices involved long-ish runs through the streets of Glendora. Because my fellow medium-speed runners and I had friends spread out all over the city, that meant that we could often cut miles off the run by hanging out at friends houses. Sometimes we’d go swimming. Sometimes we got free Baskin Robbin’s samples from a friend who worked there. Sometimes we just sat on the curb and waited for the team to come back our way. Oh yeah, and sometimes we actually practiced. The bottom line is that my friends and I didn’t put in even close to as much effort as we could have, though I was in pretty good shape at the time. (I think it’s important to mention that we never cheated on races and that nobody wanted us to become top runners, including ourselves.)
In retrospect, I actually wish I would have treated more activities the way I treated cross country. I put in enough effort to benefit from the sport, but not enough to interfere with other activities that mattered more to me. In other areas of my life, however, that hasn’t been the case. Take, for example, high school academics and getting into college. I went to BYU, but I had an application that was much stronger than it needed to be. I don’t regret going to BYU, but I do regret having put forth so much effort when I could have spent my time doing other, non-academic interests. (I know someone will read this and tell me about the valedictorian-class president-service nut at their school who got rejected from BYU. First, I should say that I’m skeptical that any such stories are true. I think it’s more likely they are myths told by parents to get their teenagers to work hard. Second, if those stories are true, why would such a person even waste their time applying to BYU. They could have gone to a much better school and been in the company of other altruistic geniuses instead of being with people who had GPAs in the low to mid 3.0 range.)
I can think of similar experiences that I’ve had throughout my life that make the same point. As a graduate instructor for example, I started out putting in vast amounts of time and effort into teaching. After a couple of semesters of that, I realized all that effort was preventing me from enjoying other parts of life, so I put teaching way down on my list of priorities. In other words, I decided to slack off. To my surprise my student ratings stayed high, my students continued to learn, and I even got an award for being a good teacher.
My point here isn’t to show what a slacker I am, but to illustrate how sometimes it’s actually better to not work as hard as possible because when we’re not “working” we can be doing other things that matter more. Of course, I’m not an advocate of sitting around doing nothing all day. Instead, I’m suggesting that people shouldn’t feel guilty about making time for the things they enjoy, even if those things are done at the expense of the what they’re “supposed” to be doing. In the end, then, maybe we all just need to slack off a little harder.