When we label ourselves or others as lazy, are we really doing ourselves justice, or is there more to that simple and overused term? What can we learn about simple laziness to defeat it and perhaps set ourselves up for success? Laziness is not so much of a cause as it is a symptom of emotional or organizational issues that are present within our mindsets. It’s helpful to view these shortcomings as a series of cause-and-effect actions, because the reasons that we are not acting and not exercising self-discipline are more complex than you might realize. We’re not lazy; we have many psychological barriers that keep us firmly rooted in place. Take it easy on yourself, because nothing is as simple as “I don’t want to do it, so I won’t!”
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Lazy. There is so much concealed in such a small word, isn’t there?
Have you ever had a day where no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t force yourself to do the tasks you wanted to or were meant to? Maybe you had a day spent wasting time online or watching TV, knowing that assignments, important phone calls, or chores were waiting for you, and yet you just couldn’t get any of it done. It may have felt like you were moving in slow motion or just that you had no will to activate your brain from a mode of sloth and sleep. It’s a normal feeling, but as with everything, moderation is key.
“I’m just feeling lazy” has become a standard way of explaining this inability to find any willpower, passion, or perseverance for a task. But what does it really mean, and does it actually help us understand what’s going on in these apathetic moments and help us overcome them?
The trouble with “lazy” is that it doesn’t accurately describe the phenomenon we’re talking about—and it certainly doesn’t offer a clue on how to be better. “Lazy” is a harsh value judgment, and worse than that, it fundamentally misunderstands a particular pattern of behavior. Using “lazy” is lazy, funnily enough.
In the chapters that follow, we’ll be looking at this “laziness,” not with condemnation but curiosity. What’s really happening when we put off tasks? How can we realistically get better—other than self-berating and writing off sluggishness as an unchangeable personality trait? What is the root cause of this inability to do, and how can we train our brains to move past it or at least not make it our default course of action? Why does it feel so damned difficult to lift a single finger sometimes?
But in this first chapter we’re going to be taking a different approach entirely. Firstly, we’ll dismantle the idea of laziness altogether. It doesn’t exist. It’s an excuse, and as with 99% of excuses, it is a false construction designed to make ourselves feel better (a strong assertion that makes itself obvious only in hindsight, usually).
What does exist, however, are barriers to our action. If you look at a person lounging around in front of the TV in the middle of a weekday in their pajamas, while work piles up around them, you might call them lazy. After all, doesn’t this schlub have things to do? People are, at the most basic level, actually quite rational creatures, and they behave as they do for a reason. So when a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense at first glance (i.e., you can’t see the reason), it pays to look deeper. To the environmental context. To the barriers. To the invisible obstacles that, once understood, perfectly explain their behavior.
If this is starting to sound more like a psychology book, then the goal is achieved, because any problems we have with self-discipline, self-esteem, self-anything begin with our mindsets and the way we see and observe the world around us. We almost never have external problems; we only have problems of mindset, judgment, and expectation.
Consider procrastination. We all love to heap moral blame, onto ourselves or others, for not doing what we should be doing. The way we talk about procrastination is to condemn it as almost a sin, as a personal weakness. But people are rational and logical actors. So what are we missing? Most of us can see that sinning isn’t really the motivation—after all, people procrastinate on tasks they set for themselves, on activities they care deeply about.
So what’s going on? If it’s not a moral problem, it’s an emotional and organizational one. Why do people procrastinate? As far back as 1978, researchers Bem and Funder were showing that situational constraints are a far better predictor of behavior than static personality traits. This means that we are more likely to be products of our environments and emotional states, rather than simply having unproductive or lazy personalities. It also points toward the lack of vocabulary in our language to describe such conclusions. We don’t really have a clear, easy way to say that anything other than pure laziness affects our behaviors. Even if we do, it’s much simpler to think of things in this way. However, once you understand the nitty gritty of what underlies a lack of productivity, it will change the way you perceive the umbrella of behaviors we commonly refer to as laziness.
Barriers, Not Laziness
Let’s consider some reasons that people actually procrastinate, act lazy, and turn away from self-discipline. It’s time to shine a light into your brain instead of giving you techniques that may or may not work (though we will certainly get to those at the appropriate time).
People procrastinate because they’re afraid.
If you associate ending a task with being appraised negatively, or having the result found to be not good enough, it makes perfect sense that you’d avoid ever reaching the end of that task. Some people work extremely hard on a project only to slow right down and hit a block when only 5% of it remains to be done. It’s the safe option, really. Others will work themselves into a paralysis—their perfectionism and intolerance for potential failure leaving them unable to even take the first step, lest it’s the wrong one. Again, it’s safer to remain incomplete than to face a potentially negative judgment, which can have massive detriments to self-esteem.
So right off the bat, we have an explanation for procrastination that’s the opposite of common knowledge: in fact, a person may procrastinate more if the task is special to them, since more is at stake. You can be motivated, you can have the desire, you can even have financial incentive and a serious time limit—but if your mind has perceived a threat in the task being completed, you can bet it’ll do its best to squirm away from that task no matter what.
To support this notion, a 2017 study by Leary et al. showed that self-compassionate people were more likely to take responsibility for their goals than those who self-criticized. This means that the harsher people are on themselves, the more they are going to avoid action and appear to be lazy. Importantly, judgments in the form of calling yourself “lazy” or piling on guilt will only make things worse.
What will make things better and people more likely to act? Anything that relieves anxiety. The paradox is then that “self-discipline” can stem from actively stepping away from a task that’s causing you anxiety. Can you reframe things? Can you become aware of exactly what thoughts are causing you to pull back? It might be as simple as giving yourself permission to do things “badly” or to ease off some of the pressure you’ve put on yourself. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel afraid but that you can do it and that you will be okay, no matter the outcome of this particular task.
Look closely at your fears. Face them, and speak them out loud or write them in a journal. You may procrastinate writing your book because deep down you’re petrified people will think it’s bad and won’t read it. Sink even deeper into the fear and you may uncover deep feelings of shame or beliefs that you’re a “bad” person. This causes anxiety, and anxiety always causes a “fight-or-flight” response—i.e., procrastination and bailing on the plan for your day of productive work.
Instead, understand your fears and know them well. Actually, it’s not that difficult to find, and you may not need a therapist to help you get to the root of maladaptive thoughts. You really just need honesty in speaking out loud the feelings and emotions that you want to avoid.
One of the most troublesome ways in which fear hinders our ability to complete tasks is called worst-case scenario thinking. As the name suggests, it means that we simply can’t stop thinking of the absolute worst that can happen if we fail to complete a task or don’t perform it well. So, if you don’t get an A on that test, everybody’s going to think you’re a loser who doesn’t study at all and just wastes his time all day, and you might even fail the entire class and have to repeat it. Even though some of these conclusions can be absurd and extremely unlikely, they have a way of etching themselves into our thoughts and can be incredibly tough to do away with. If you have this tendency, here is a way to cope. Think of the very worst thing that could happen if you don’t do something or don’t do it well. Then ask yourself, “Is it really as bad as it seems? Is this something that’s really going to be important a few months or a year from now?”
For example, is it really the end of the world if you earn a little criticism for this task? Is it really true that failing once or twice means you’re not a good human being worthy of love? Should it really act as a confirmation about some of the worst fears you have about yourself? Perhaps an alternative: isn’t it possible to try again, or even worse, can you imagine that your fears are unfounded and that you may even succeed? For some people, facing their fears leads them to an unexpected culprit behind their procrastination—the fear of success!
Fear is often at the root of so much procrastination and avoidance behavior. For some of us, we don’t exactly have the thought, “If I complete this task, I’ll do poorly and feel bad,” but it’s more something like, “I can’t be 100% certain about how this will turn out, and I’d rather not risk it.” Fearing the unknown is present in all of us, to some extent, but it may be more debilitating in those with extreme procrastination problems. It can be the sheer newness and uncertainty of a task at hand that proves frightening and hence becomes something to avoid and put off.
This can happen if we’ve unconsciously told ourselves that unknown = threatening. Uncertainty can cause anxiety, and rather than court potential catastrophe, a person may choose to put off a potential conclusion instead of facing an unknown outcome. So even if the status quo is quite painful in itself, it’s still known and familiar, and clinging to it is preferable to risking something new. This fear can understandably mix with feelings of low confidence and efficacy (“something unpleasant might happen, and I won’t be able to handle it”), exhaustion (“I’m too tired to think about something new or different right now”), or fear of success (“If I succeed, everything might change and I don’t know if I want that.”)
This kind of thinking can take on an obsessive quality, where people make “rules” to mediate some of the anxiety of an overwhelming task. For example, someone might procrastinate going to the doctor because what they discover there might be too much to handle, so they try to reduce uncertainty by “researching” their symptoms extensively so they can feel reassured. If you recognize this in yourself, the first step is to bring these fears out into the light and start facing them, alone or with a therapist. Where you can, try to “rest” these fears and beliefs to gradually start dismantling them.
To illustrate this testing, a woman might find that her procrastination and laziness in speaking up at her workplace comes down to a handful of fears like the above—“I can’t be sure people won’t judge me harshly”; “If my boss sees me mess up, I’ll be fired”; “If I do too well they may ask even more of me or criticize me for being too arrogant…”
Realizing that these thoughts are the root of her “laziness,” the woman then starts to unpick them by doing a series of “tests” to prove to herself that she’s wrong. She might speak up in a meeting, submit smaller tasks when she’s feeling unsure and gauging the reaction, or giving herself the chance to notice others in the office who are not fired or chastised simply for being wrong occasionally. Gradually, she reprograms her beliefs and removes the main obstacle to working productively and efficiently.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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