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.