Robert Benchley? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: One of the most insightful and humorous quotations about accomplishing tasks is:
Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
All the websites and reference books I could find agree that this should be credited to Robert Benchley. But I have never seen a reference that says when and where he wrote it. Benchley died in 1945, and oddly I cannot find any reference while he was still alive. Did someone else create this clever remark?
Quote Investigator: Benchley did write these words in a column titled “How to Get Things Done: One Week in the Life of a Writing Man” that was published in the Chicago Tribune on February 2, 1930 [RBTD]:
A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is, “Don’t you wish you knew?” …
The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it deliberately on a well known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. …
The psychological principle is this: Any one can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
Benchley explains that he creates an ordered list of tasks where the highest-priority items are supposed to be at the top. However, he deliberately subverts the list by putting important tasks at the bottom and unimportant tasks at the top, i.e., he engages in self-deception. Benchley then uses an internal monologue to rally himself to pursue the top task. Naturally, he decides to ignore the top task and work on tasks at the bottom of the list instead.
The psychological principle given above describes this curious but common behavior. Using this strategy Benchley accomplishes many important jobs. Comically, the task at the top of the list (the unimportant task) was to write an article for his newspaper column.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1949 the column “How to Get Things Done” was reprinted in the collection “Chips Off the Old Benchley” by Robert Benchley [RBCB]. So the quotation continued in circulation.
In 1958 a personal finance magazine called “Changing Times” printed a small set of quotations under the title “They said a mouthful”. The saying under investigation was included, and it was properly attributed to Robert Benchley [RBCT].
In 1968 a book about the Algonquin Round Table called The Algonquin Wits by Robert E. Drennan printed a version of the expression in its section about Robert Benchley. The saying was truncated by the omission of three words [RBAW]:
Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing.
In 1986 The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations included the adage and credited Robert Benchley without citation [RBPH].
In conclusion, QI believes that this shrewd saying was originated by Robert Benchley, and he published it by 1930. Thanks for your question.
[RBTD] 1930 February 2, Chicago Tribune, How to Get Things Done: One Week in the Life of a Writing Man by Robert Benchley, Page F6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) [In the original text the word “anyone” is written as two words “any one”.]
[RBCB] 1949, Chips Off the Old Benchley by Robert Benchley, How to Get Things Done, Start Page 251, Quote Page 252, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
[RBCT] 1958 March, Changing Times: The Kiplinger Magazine, Page 48, Kiplinger Washington Agency, Washington, D.C. (Google Books full view)
[RBAW] 1968, The Algonquin Wits edited by Robert E. Drennan, Page 55, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper) [The work is also cited in the Yale Book of Quotations (2006).]
[RBPH] 1986, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations compiled by Fred Metcalf, Section: Work, Page 271, Column 1, Viking Penguin, New York. (Verified on paper)