The laziness paradox – Sam Gendreau

Bob and Jack were two lumberjacks, each given an area of about 10 acres of thick, old growth forest to cut for the year. They were each paid a fixed amount of money for each tree cut, and both had the same equipment and experience in this field of work. Incentives to finish the work faster included a bonus pay for the person that could finish cutting down all 10 acres of forest first.

At the beginning of the year, in early January, Bob was motivated and full of energy, ready to cut down these trees faster than anybody else. His axe was slightly old and rusty, just as Jack’s, but it had served him well for many years. Although Bob was a lazy man, just as the average Joe, he knew his motivation could get him far. And so he began working in earnest, cutting down his first little tree in a matter of minutes. Bob liked to start with easy tasks first, build up his momentum, and keep going strong for long periods of time. It had worked fairly well for him in the past. On the first day, Bob managed to cut 10 trees, and proceeded to earn a fairly decent sum of money. Bob was, for the most part, willing to work hard when he could see immediate results.


Jack, on the other hand, didn’t cut any tree on the first day. In fact, he didn’t cut a single tree for the first entire week. “What on earth could he possibly be doing?”, Bob wondered. Well, Jack was busy reading, at first. Although he had plenty of experience cutting trees, he felt he needed to delve deeper into specific techniques that he had neglected to refine. While he had a decent amount of experience cutting trees, he had never actually learned how to cut trees.


And so he proceeded to learn the science behind lumberjacking. He got to know how trees grew, which kinds of wood were softer or harder, easier to bend or crack, and at which angle cutting each type of wood worked best for faster results. Most importantly, though, Jack spent a great deal of time sharpening his good old axe. He meticulously sharpened the blade; it became sort of an obsession; he left nothing to chance. He wanted to ensure that the blade would have an optimal cutting ability, and that it would retain its sharpness for as long as possible. After one intensive week of hard study and axe sharpening, he was ready to get down to his business.


By the end of August, Jack had already finished chopping down all of the trees that had grown on his 10 acres of allotted land. Bob was shocked in disbelief. “You’re a genius,” he told Jack. “You’re obviously gifted in lumberjacking. You were born with the lumberjacking gene for sure,” he added. Jack nodded and smiled, and proceeded to relax and drink beer until the end of the year, while Bob was busy chopping down the rest of the trees.

To chop a tree quickly, spend twice the time sharpening your ax

What does this parable teach us? Well, the story of the two lumberjacks exemplifies what I term the “laziness paradox”. We, mere mortals, are often too lazy investing present time and effort for the benefit of our future. Even if these benefits might outweigh the actual costs 100:1, laziness precludes us from doing so. The laziness paradox, then, is that by not spending enough time sharpening your axe, it will, in the long run, take you much, much more time and effort chopping down the forest. And it will cost you a lot of money. It seems counterintuitive, but working hard and being lazy are not mutually exclusive, although this is what most of us have been led to believe. Working or learning smart, on the other hand, is the path of the productive and efficient.


As best-selling author and language enthusiast Tim Ferriss says in his New York Times bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss. Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective—doing less—is the path of the productive.”


Let me give you a few examples. I recently wrote on my blog, 12 tips on how to drastically improve your memory. Spending the necessary amount of time learning serious memory techniques, even if to really internalize these techniques and have them ready-to-use on demand could take a few months, is probably the best decision you could ever make— not only if you are serious about studying languages, but also if you are serious about being successful and about learning and acquiring pretty much any knowledge effectively. It took Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer author Joshua Foer a year of practice in order to win the U.S. Memory Championship. Imagine the things you could achieve by having a memory 100 times more powerful than the one you have now.

The art of Memory

When Dominic O’Brien, eight time world memory champion, was still in school, he just about managed to scrape through with passes in French and Spanish. “I can't help feeling slightly resentful today about the way I was taught. The ability and good intention of my teachers is not in doubt, but I bitterly regret the methods they used,” he says in “How to Develop a Perfect Memory”. After having internalized memory techniques (mostly mnemonics, association, and the The Method of Loci), he managed to learn and actually remember 320 new German words in an hour (after one sighting of each word), his personal best. At the 1991 World Memory Championship (yes, there is such a thing), he won the language event by memorizing the most number of Chinese words in fifteen minutes. Not bad for a dyslexic slow learner.


O’Brien asserts that, when using proper memory techniques (techniques that, by the way, anybody can learn and apply), foreign words can be learned and memorized after just one reading at an accelerated rate of approximately 50 to 150 words per hour. This means that a basic vocabulary of 2,000 words could be learned after just twenty hours' study. In English, the 2000 most common words account for 80% of the individual words in any English text (Cobb, 2008). Just like any language, English has the habit of recycling a relatively small number of words over and over again, and if you know these words, then your reading power can be enhanced dramatically for a relatively modest learning investment.


I am not saying, of course, that you can learn a language in the space of 20 hours of study. But I think it is clear that it doesn’t have to take five or ten years of hard work either. Daniel Tammet learned to speak Icelandic within the space of a week, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the techniques he used to achieve such a feat were exactly the ones Dominic has used to win his Chinese word memorizing competition.

The Art of Speed Reading

Another example where spending time sharpening your axe would bring in some serious benefits would be in regards to speed reading. Indeed, by learning a few simple speed reading techniques, and spending a few serious days of work applying and practicing those, you could read two, three, or even five times faster than you are now. Tony Buzan, in “The speed reading book” notes that people read, on average, 200 to 240 words per minute. The current speed reading world champion is Anne Jones, with 4,700 words per minute with 67% comprehension. That is, of course, nothing short of amazing, but Buzan mentions that with proper training in speed reading techniques, an average person can easily double their reading speed within a short period of time, and eventually reach speeds of around 1000 wpm.

Tim Ferriss, in “The 4-hour workweek” gives four simple tips on how to read 200% faster in 10 minutes:

1) Two Minutes: Use a pen or finger to trace under each line as you read as fast as possible. Reading is a series of jumping snapshots (called saccades), and using a visual guide prevents regression.

2) Three Minutes: Begin each line focusing on the third word in from the first word, and end each line focusing on the third word in from the last word. This makes use of peripheral vision that is otherwise wasted on margins.

3) Two Minutes: Once comfortable indenting three or four words from both sides, attempt to take only two snapshots—also known as fixations—per line on the first and last indented words.

4) Three Minutes: Practice reading too fast for comprehension but with good technique (the above three techniques) for five pages prior to reading at a comfortable speed. This will heighten perception and reset your speed limit, much like how 50 mph normally feels fast but seems like slow motion if you drop down from 70 mph on the freeway.


How would your life be different if you could read twice the amount of books in less time, and remember information more effectively than you could’ve ever imagined? All it takes is a bit of axe sharpening.

What Are You Waiting For?

The laziness paradox, then, is that we end up working so much harder, so less efficiently, and so much more in the long-term, and I mean so much more, because we are lazy. We are too lazy to review what we study, we are too lazy to learn proper memory techniques, we are too lazy to learn how to learn. In other words, we are all too lazy to sharpen our axes, to invest the time and effort now that will benefit our future. And the sad thing is, I am no exception (although I have made some significant improvements by repeating to myself that being lazy means working much harder in the long-run).

So, what do you think you could do by learning and applying over two thousand year-old memory techniques that have been repeatedly proven to work? How would this change the speed at which you would acquire foreign languages? How would this change the amount of study and review you would need in order to ace your exams at school? How would this change your social life if you’d never forget a name again after being introduced to a person once? Get a couple of post-its, write on them “Remember the laziness paradox” or something similar. And every time your brain feels the need to slack off, take a glance at your post-it and put in the extra effort that will make all the difference for your future endeavors.


Stop working hard and being lazy. Learn how to learn, learn how to memorize, learn how to read, and ride the wave of success in foreign language acquisition, study, and work.

By Sam Gendreau Sam is the guy behind Lingholic, a blog with a wealth of resources for making the life of language learners easier,

including interviews with polyglots from the world and articles on just about any topic language-related.

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    • Hi Dominick! Thanks for the question.The laziness paradox applies to learning in general, not just when it comes to foreign language acquisition.

      The speed reading techniques given here simply served as an example to hammer down the point that spending time sharpening your axe can bring in some serious benefits. I have never really given much thought to the benefits (or lack thereof) of speed reading in a foreign language, but unless you’ve really reached an advanced level (C1 or C2) in a given language, it doesn’t really seem possible (nor practical) to speed read if you’re already struggling to understand the individual meanings of words.

      However one thing I have noticed among students of foreign languages is a tendency to read way too slow when reading books or the news(even among advanced learners). Reading too slowly makes it much harder to understand what’s going on. You quickly forget what you just read and you lose your chain of thought. I would basically recommend practicing reading at a “normal” speed once you reach an intermediate level in a given language.

  • Interesting article. Often a problem with languages, though, is exactly which axe to sharpen. Memory techniques are great for learning vocab and other “hard work” type things, but how can you take this approach to some of the other skills, such as speaking/listening comprehension?

    Good stuff though, and thanks for the contribution!

    • Hi Rob! Thanks for the comment!

      Well, this method is indeed more geared towards learning and remembering vocabulary quickly and effectively. which I’ve found is what most language learners spend the most time on. Once you have a vocabulary of about 2000 or 3000 words, then it becomes possible to read simple books, read the news, or listen to podcasts, from which inductive learning becomes easy and learning from context becomes possible and natural.

      However, a skill such as speaking does not require as much “axe sharpening” as memorizing words. The thing I would definitely recommend to a learner regarding this aspect of language learning would be to work on your shyness and inhibitions (if that’s a problem you encounter when trying to speak a foreign language). Also, working on your motivation to make the efforts necessary to speak the language as much as possible (such as by taking daily/weekly classes on or any other similar website). Both of these things can be learned/practiced.

      But I think words are really the foundation of languages, and learning them are undoubtedly the most time-consuming endeavor you’ll come across when starting to learn a new foreign language. For listening and speaking, really all I can recommend is to listen and speak as much as possible. Sounds simple, but most people don’t do it.

  • This was an incredible post & a wake-up call for me, for sure. I am obsessed with learning languages, and I want to focus on being focused on one language. However, I’m also impatient (like most people in the world), and I want to learn quickly, but I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to do that. Now I have at least 3 actionable steps to take and inspiration for learning Italian quickly & efficiently while still thoroughly enjoying the process. Thanks so much!

  • Good article Sam!

    I have a quick question,what book/s have you readed and do you think are the best/s to improve your memory? Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything? any more?

    Thanks and continue writting!

    • Hi Alfredo! Thanks for the kind words.

      One of the best book I have read on memory is by Dominic O’Brien, entitled “You Can Have an Amazing Memory: Learn Life-Changing Techniques and Tips from the Memory Maestro.” You can follow this link to the book’s Amazon page:

      I also enjoyed “How to Develop A Super Power Memory” by Harry Lorayne, although it’s an older book. But he makes some good points, especially on paying attention. The link is:

      All in all, I think Moonwalking with Einstein, coupled with one or two of O’Brien’s books, should really be plenty to get started. From there it’s all about putting the time necessary to build your own memory palace and to develop your creativity and imagination. And with O’Brien’s book, he gives a lot of tips to memorize not just words but also numbers, cards, etc. If you have no interest in remembering the order of a deck of cards, I would encourage skipping these parts in the book. See it as a reference more than a book that you would read from cover to cover.

      Good luck!

  • Thanks for your post! It’s led me to your website and your memory tips is what I have been looking for. From some time now I’ve been struggling with my english. Of course I’m also impatient and want to see me speaking fluently english right now 😛 What helped me a lot was to realized that learning language is never-ending process. I mean I don’t make limits of time (f.ex.:I will speak english perfect up to 2014), because it has no sense. If I speak english very well some day(I hope so), then I will have to maintain this ability putting the same (or almost the same)effort. So I try treat my learning as some enjoyable and constant part of my life.

    Actually, I spend much time every day doing this,I have energy and motivation but I’m disappointed with my results. I was convinced my memory seemed to be less efficient than it supposed to be. It suprised me because I considered myself as an intelligent person (ok, I know, it sounds strange :P). Now, I’m going to try these new approaches in my language learning,I hope it will work 🙂

    • Your English is Amazing, with a capital A! Don’t be too hard on yourself! And as the motto of my blog goes, “language learning is a journey, not a destination.” Enjoying the process is the most important thing when learning a language. And you seem to have the right frame of mind!


  • This reminds me of the saying by Lao Tzu, supposed author of the Tao Te Ching, which is “Better to be doing nothing, than to be busy doing nothing.” Great article.

  • Alternatively you learn by doing, and after 10 years Bob reached CPE level in his language, while Jack rested on his laurels and didn’t go as fast.

  • My dad told me once that the best way to achieve your goal is to walk in the straight line. So, spending time finding a shortcut is the best way of saving time.

  • wow! this is a great article and think it relates extremely well to learning foreign languages. When learning Korean, I spent the first 1-2 years trying to learn through grammar and memorization until finally I found that it just wasn’t working for me. I never felt like I was getting any sort of results. Later I found out that I too had the “Laziness Paradox.” I hadn’t spent any of my time researching how to actually learn a foreign language properly and I was expecting to gain results fast. Fortunately I was able to point this out, and I decided to stop “working” so hard, and instead invest my time learning HOW to actually learn a foreign language. I watched videos constantly, every single day, with polyglots talking about their language experiences and methods. I felt as though I spent more time learning about “how to learn foreign languages” than I did actually studying them.

    Oh but it paid off greatly in the end. I watched so many videos and took in so many different tips that I was able to start applying them to my learning. I did exactly what the polyglots said, even though I wasn’t able to see any sort of immediate results, and soon enough in about a month or two I noticed that my language skills e.g. my ability to remember, my ability to guess unknown words, my understanding of old words and root words, and even my interest in learning new topics. I finally got a taste of the results I was looking for and this became a life lesson for me, not just in the scope of foreign languages.

    Be patient. Spend your time learning from the masters (polyglots), and even if you don’t see results immediately, just trust that the results will come eventually and all your efforts will pay off.

    • Thanks for the kind comment Skyler!

      I’m really glad you spent the time necessary to learn how to learn. I pretty much did the same thing back about 3-4 years ago, when I started watching videos of polyglots online and reading blogs about language learning.

      I’m curious about your Korean. Korean is a language I’ve been learning for about 5 years now and I’m really passionate about the language and the country. Are you living (or have you lived) in Korea? How long have you been learning the language?

      If you ever have any questions regarding the language, feel free to ask me!


  • ciao sam! io devo imparare il francese e l’inglese! cosa mi consigli di fare? sto studiando la grammatica ma sento che faccio fatica e non ricordo le cose

  • Sam, this is a fantastic post, and I will recommend it for sure 🙂 I really like how you present your point through a parable. I quite agree about your post. The only thing is that sometimes, we tend to “over shape the axe” as an excuse for not taking action. It’s like the one who wants to create a blog, and he/she starts analyzing which blog platforms to use, techniques to writing effectively, podcasts about blogging, other similar blogs, language to use, niche, style, frequency of posting, etc. but not writing a single post!

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