Quote Investigator

If You Want Something Done, Ask a Busy Person To Do It

Lucille Ball? Benjamin Franklin? Elbert Hubbard? W. J. Kennedy? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular proverb suggests that when you are faced with a large task you should call upon someone with an ongoing track record of accomplishment. Here are three versions:

This notion has been attributed to top comedian Lucille Ball, statesman Benjamin Franklin, and epigrammatist Elbert Hubbard. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a report delivered in 1856 by Reverend W. J. Kennedy who was the Inspector of Schools for Lancashire and the Isle of Man in Britain. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Just as it is almost proverbial that, if you want any business done for you, you should ask a busy man to do it, and not a man of leisure, so it is the laborious scholar, who is working hard at languages, who picks up, nay, actually reads and studies more of other subjects than the rest of his fellows at school or college.

The context revealed that the saying was in circulation before the report was produced, and its authorship was anonymous.

This valuable citation was reported by quotation expert and BBC radio broadcaster Nigel Rees in his periodical “The Quote Unquote Newsletter” in January 2012. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1856 “The Manchester Guardian” reprinted Kennedy’s school report and further disseminated the adage. 3

In 1884 the saying appeared in a newspaper in Medicine Lodge, Kansas: 4

Thus it is often said if you want any thing done, ask a busy man to do it. He is busy, full of work, because he is able and willing to work. Rivers to the ocean run. The workers are the few.

In March 1895 a version with “busy person” instead of “busy man” was printed in “The International Good Templar: The Official Organ of the International Supreme Lodge”: 5

Bro. B.F. Parker, R.W.G.S., has recently been elected High Chief Ranger of the Foresters of Wisconsin. There is an old saying, that if you wanted anything attended to you should ask a busy person to do it. We suppose that is why the Foresters selected Bro. Parker as their Chief.

A few months later in June “The International Good Templar” printed the expression again: 6

Sister Jessie Forsyth, R.W.G.S.J.T., has taken full charge of the Editorial work of The Templar (Massachusetts). If you want work well done ask a busy person to do it.

In 1897 a speech delivered at the annual banquet of the “Homestead Club” in Springfield, Massachusetts included an instance containing the phrase “busy woman”: 7

It is an old saying, “If you want something done ask a busy woman,” and Katy lives in the same town with our energetic president, who believes that everyone has room in the fire for just one more iron and time to tend it.

In 1906 a columnist in a Marion, Kansas newspaper employed a prolix instance: 8

If you want some one to do something for you and it needs to be done promptly and well, ask a busy woman to do it. Don’t ask a woman who has plenty of time. She will never get it done. You may be sure she is going to do it, but in the end for some excellent reason she disappoints you.

In July 1915 a newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ascribed a version to Elbert Hubbard who had died a couple months previous in May 1915: 9

As the late Elbert Hubbard remarked, whenever the world wants something done it asks a busy man to do it.

In 1924 the linkage to Hubbard continued to circulate in a Coudersport, Pennsylvania newspaper: 10

The late Elbert Hubbard used to say: “If you want anything done, ask a busy man to do it.” By a like token the store that is the busiest is always striving for more whilst the dull store marks times.

In 1987 the compilation “Pearls of Wisdom” implausibly attributed the saying to one of the U.S. founding fathers: 11

If you want something done, ask a busy person.
Benjamin Franklin

In 2005 a newspaper in British Columbia, Canada attributed the saying to a famous comedian: 12

When Lucille Ball said, “If you want something done ask a busy person to do it,” she must have had Pink in mind.

In conclusion, the crafter of this proverb remains anonymous. The expression was circulating by 1856. Many years later it was posthumously ascribed to Elbert Hubbard. The linkages to Lucille Ball and Benjamin Franklin are unsupported.

Image Notes: Picture of clock faces from hakankaydu at Pixabay. Portrait of Elbert Hubbard from “Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great”; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Benjamin Dreyer whose tweets lambasted the common mistaken ascriptions for this saying which motivated QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Nigel Rees for identifying the 1856 citation. Thanks also to the pioneering research of Barry Popik, Charles Doyle, and Fred Shapiro.)

Notes:

  1. 1856, Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education, Section: Inspector’s Reports for 1855, General Report for the Year 1855 by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, the Rev. W. J. Kennedy, M.A., &c., on the Church of England Schools inspected in the County of Lancaster and in the Isle of Man, Date: January 1856, Start Page 444, Quote Page 450 and 451, Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2012 January, The Quote Unquote Newsletter, Volume 21, Number 1, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Answers A4319, Quote Page 9, Published and Distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: link
  3. 1856 May 16, The Manchester Guardian (The Guardian), Suggested Improvements in the National System of Education, Report of the Rev. W. J. Kennedy, Inspector of Schools for Lancashire and the Isle of Man, Quote Page 4, Column 2, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1884 May 23, The Barber County Index, A Great Thief, Quote Page 3, Column 7, Medicine Lodge, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1895 March, The International Good Templar: The Official Organ of the International Supreme Lodge, Volume 8, Number 3, Personal Mention, Quote Page 89, Published at Toronto, Canada and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.(Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1895 June, The International Good Templar: The Official Organ of the International Supreme Lodge, Volume 8, Number 6, Personal Mention, Quote Page 185, Published at Toronto, Canada and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.(Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1905, Annals and Antics of the Homestead Club, Compiled by The Historian and Jennie Jameson, Club Annals of 1896: Read at the Annual Banquet at Hotel Russell, Springfield Mass., January 1897, Read by H Annette Poole (Historian), Start Page 38, Quote Page 40 and 41, The Phelps Publishing Company, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1906 June 21, Marion Record, Woman’s Corner by Mrs. Homer Hoch, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Marion, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1915 July 15, Evening Ledger (Evening Public Ledger), Why Busy Men Are Called, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1924 November 13, The Potter Enterprise, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Coudersport, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1987 Copyright, Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations from All Ages Compiled by Jerome Agel and Walter D. Glanze, Quote Page 6, Perennial Library: Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2005 June 2, Nanaimo News Bulletin, Section: Business, Article: Shining the spotlight on Jerry Pink, Quote Page 24, British Columbia, Canada. (NewsBank Access World News)