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Laziness: Fact or Fiction?

How to best understand the different "motives" of laziness.

Key points

  • "Laziness" can be a glib and overly simplistic way of accounting for a person's apparent disinterest or inertia.
  • Often, people evade work not out of laziness but the fact that the work isn't sufficiently compelling.
  • Issues with self-esteem can interfere with motivation to complete a task, making a person appear "lazy."
markoaliasksandr/123RF free photo
Source: markoaliasksandr/123RF free photo

Addressing this topic generally, the immortal Dagwood Bumstead once claimed: “You can’t teach people to be lazy—either they have it, or they don’t.” So what is laziness anyway? Is it about being slow to do something (what we typically call procrastination)? Or about doing something slowly? Or about not doing it at all? Or, finally, is it about not sufficiently wanting to do something? And if this last alternative is true, when we label someone lazy are we really talking about that person’s being indolent, sluggish, or slothful? Or is there something else going on that hasn’t yet been appreciated?

What I'm going to be discussing here is my own, somewhat unorthodox view on laziness. For I believe (apologies to Dagwood, who would otherwise seem to be one of the world's foremost authorities on the subject) that the whole idea of anyone's being inherently lazy—or having a "lazy personality"—is basically a myth.

My experience, both as an individual and therapist, has led me to conclude that laziness as an explanation of human behavior is practically useless. Referring to—or rather, disparaging, or even dismissing—a person as lazy seems to me to be a glib and overly simplistic way of accounting for a person's apparent disinterest or inertia. And resorting to this term to categorize a person's inactivity suggests to me a laziness more on the part of the describer than the person described. In short, I view this pejorative designation as employed mostly as a "default" when the person talked about is not particularly well understood.

What I'd like to consider here is a more useful—and psychologically accurate—way of understanding people who don't do what we believe they ought to do. And my thesis is simply that what we commonly think of as laziness is not really about a lack of mobility as such but a lack of motivation.

What Interferes With Motivation

In reflecting on laziness and its various ramifications, I'll explore some of the factors I believe diminish or undermine the motivation required to embark upon—and follow through on—life's various challenges and difficulties. So far at least, here's what I've come up with to help clarify the various reasons all of us, at some time or another, fail to start or complete a task.

Lacking a sense of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the conviction that if we put our mind to something, we'll be effective with it. Without adequate self-confidence, however, we may not believe we're capable of doing something successfully, so we end up not attempting it. Without a "can do" attitude, we unfortunately restrict ourselves to doing only what's already within our comfort zone. And, going forward, we are limited precisely because we have such a limiting view of ourselves. Another possibility here is that even after we've successfully undertaken something because we still harbor doubts about our self-efficacy, we continue to delay, procrastinate, vacillate, etc.

Lacking sufficient emotional support. It may be that we require some sort of "cheering section" to handle what otherwise might overwhelm us. Without enough encouragement from without, we simply may not be able to motivate ourselves enough from within. As adults, we should be beyond needing "attaboys!" or "attagirls!" to stay resolved to complete a task. But many of us still depend on others for the motivation—or inspiration—to do what, technically, we should be able to do independently (without being "cheered on" by others).

Needing—but not expecting—that others will give us recognition. When we apply ourselves to something, it's usually done with some expectation of reward—whether material or emotional, internal or external. If, developmentally, we're still at a place where we must anticipate "strokes" from others to feel sufficiently motivated to begin a task, then lacking any hope that we will get such acknowledgment may leave us without the motivation to undertake it. If in the past, our application and diligence hadn't gotten us the positive feedback we craved, then how realistic is it to think we could yet maintain such diligence going forward?

Lacking self-discipline. It may be true that we can do almost anything we set our mind to. But if our mind is our worst enemy, we simply may not be able to believe this otherwise inspiring (and motivating!) maxim. That is, whatever anxieties we may have about failing, as well as our poor sense of self-efficacy, may either keep us from starting a task or prevent us from completing it. And even if we do end up finishing it—because, say, it's a job requirement and we absolutely must—our pattern of delay will still persist. Unresolved self-doubts (deeply programmed within us) aren't automatically erased by an expedient action and will reaffirm themselves (through some sort of procrastination) the very next time we're obliged to do something.

In my experience, people who lack self-discipline also lack fundamental self-esteem. And here the latter deficiency seems to feed directly into the former. That is, significant defects in our self-image undermine our confidence in our abilities, and this lack of self-confidence negatively affects the development of self-discipline—which of course is necessary to accomplish just those things that would enhance our self-esteem. Psychologically speaking, this has got to be one of the most vicious of vicious cycles.

Lacking interest in the endeavor itself. If the task or project feels tedious to us (i.e., not appropriately challenging), we're likely to want to avoid it altogether. If it's essential we do it, we probably will—but in one way or another we'll "act out" our displeasure by hesitating, or by doing a halfhearted, mediocre job. When we denigrate someone as lazy, frequently what we're really referring to is a task that the person finds so dull or boring that they just can't get themselves to tackle it. After all, it's only human nature to avoid those things seen as a nuisance or burden.

What induces us generally to evade work is not really laziness but the fact that the work isn't sufficiently compelling to us. Think of it in terms of "working" on a jigsaw puzzle. If absorbing ourselves in the puzzle is experienced as fun, we'll readily engage in it. But if, frankly, we're not much attracted to jigsaw puzzles—that is, such pursuits don't represent an interesting challenge for us—we'll consider such "play" to be work and (unless we feel we have to participate) try to get out of it. All of which is to say that what motivates some people won't motivate others; and in neither case does doing, or not doing, something say anything about a person's "laziness." After all, what might be a task for one person might be an absolute delight for another.

Ambivalence—or lacking faith that the action will be worth the effort. If certain of our priorities or values are in doubt, we may lack the clarity to move forward. Our contradictory motives—to approach or to avoid—may be weighted equally and so cancel each other out, leading to a kind of behavioral torpor. We may not be convinced that the action we're considering—or that's been suggested to us—will be all that useful, or valuable, or satisfying to us. And so we're unable to commit to performing it. Without the belief that a particular act or enterprise will somehow improve the quality of our life, it's hard (if not impossible) to cultivate the initiative necessary for undertaking it.

Fear of failure. This explanation for not doing something overlaps with the lack of self-efficacy already discussed. But whereas an inadequate sense of self-efficacy reduces our motivation because we don't believe we can complete something successfully, the fear of failure focuses much more on our lacking the emotional resources to cope with the possible negative outcome of our efforts. There's an old expression, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," that cogently makes the point that if we're ever to succeed we must at least be willing to try. But if our self-esteem is so tenuous, so weak, so vulnerable that the very risk of failing easily trumps any other consideration, we'll be stymied.

Even if the odds of success are actually quite good, we may still not be able to go forward, since we'll nervously anticipate how bad we'd feel should our efforts not be successful. Without the internal resources to "catch" ourselves should we fail, and absent the ability to unconditionally validate ourselves independent of failure, we're unable to start the project in the first place. In short, our negative programming—not our actual ability—renders us unequal to the task.

And, it should be added, absolutely none of this has anything to do with laziness. Moreover, even though what we label procrastination may relate simply to poor time management, the act of procrastinating may also be motivated principally by the fear of failure. And such a delaying tactic (commonly seen as depicting some sort of "laziness") generally goes back to our having learned in childhood that we weren't good enough if our performance was somehow flawed. So naturally, we learned that it was better not to take on anything unless we were sure in advance we could do it well. In fact, much of what we describe as perfectionism derives from having grown up in a home where our parents held us to unrealistically high standards that, unless we could meet them, led to our being constantly criticized.

Fear of refusal or rejection. If we require help to get something accomplished and we're afraid that the person needed to assist us might refuse our request, we might decide—for that reason alone—not to start the project at all. As regards, secondly, our fear of rejection, if we're dependent on others to feel good about ourselves, then we won't be able to undertake anything that could lead another to be frustrated with us, stand in judgment over us, or maybe even reject us altogether.

Sense of discouragement, hopelessness, futility, etc. All of these feelings, moods, or states of mind can drop us into that listless place of apathy where we no longer care about getting anything done. This is a painful, dispirited state in which our very will is paralyzed. And in such a state virtually no task seems worth doing. For it's impossible to imagine that undertaking it would help us feel better about ourselves, or about life generally.

And so our lethargic avoidance—which to an outsider might seem indistinguishable from laziness—has in fact nothing to do with laziness and virtually everything to do with depression. DSM-IV (the mental health practitioner's diagnostic bible) actually defines depression as characterized by a "markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities." And so, whether the activity be work- or pleasure-related, the overwhelming impulse is to avoid it. In such a state, merely getting out of bed in the morning can feel like an almost insurmountable task. What we might appreciate here as the enervation of our spirit seems almost synonymous with what the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron (in her article "Looking Into Laziness") refers to as the agonizing "loss of heart" experienced in this state.

An attitude of pessimism, cynicism, hostility, or bitterness. One final reason for explaining our lack of motivation to apply ourselves to some task or project has to do with our becoming so jaded that we view our efforts as benefiting only others rather than ourselves. Or we've become so skeptical about our future prospects that we no longer believe it makes sense to push ourselves to do anything.

This I'd refer to as rebellion masquerading as "laziness"—a kind of "Hell, no! I don't want to do it, and I'm not going to do it!" Underlying this self-restraining orientation is un-discharged anger (or rage) from past disappointments, which propels us into resistant negativity. Because of the depth of past psychological wounds, we're left disheartened, disillusioned, and disenchanted. And perversely, we experience our strength only in reactive, oppositional willfulness. So we refuse to do what otherwise we might achieve without much difficulty. And here—yet again—our resistance to take action, even if it's really in our own behalf, has nothing to do with laziness.

Originally, I'd considered calling this post, "The Many ‘Motives' of Laziness." But in the end, putting the word "motives" in quotes seemed less descriptive than putting those quotes around the word "laziness." Hopefully, as a result of reading this piece, readers will begin to question in their own lives whether they might not want to re-think some of their former assumptions about this so oversimplified concept.

Having given Dagwood Bumstead this post's first words, I thought it fitting to give the last to an even zanier humorist—namely, W. C. Fields—who once declared, "The laziest man I ever met put popcorn in his pancakes so they would turn over by themselves" (!). I must admit that this quote sounds more descriptive of true laziness than anything I've described earlier. But we must still ask ourselves whether Fields' portrayal actually reminds us of anybody we ever knew.

What, ultimately, makes Fields' quip so funny is its very exaggeration. It's doubtful that we can actually recognize ourselves, or anybody else, in this ingenious, intriguing (but not finally revealing) one-liner. To the extent that anyone might have tried to get popcorn to execute the job of turning over pancakes, such a novel approach would suggest more about the person's creativity in the service of making a task less routine and more fun than an expression of some biological propensity toward sloth.

Comments? Questions? Criticisms? If you're sufficiently motivated, I welcome responses to this post.


Regrettably, this piece has had to ignore entirely the topic of overcoming laziness, for such a focus would have taken me in a completely different direction. Reviewing what on the web relates to this equally important topic, I can direct readers to at least two articles, even though I don't necessarily agree with all the suggestions included in them. They are: "11 Tips for Nuking Laziness Without Becoming a Workaholic," by Scott H. Young, and "10 Ways to Make Laziness Work for You," by Leo Babauta.

There's actually a book entitled The Myth of Laziness, which I thought I should probably mention, even though it has almost nothing to do with the thesis of my post. Written by pediatrician Mel Levine, it's about so-called "lazy" children who in fact can't perform up to their innate potential because of what he calls "output failures." These failures are caused by a variety of biological, neurological, and psychological deficits. Obviously, my post is not intended to address such performance-degrading deficits—which Levine conceptualizes as involving such internal factors as motor skills, long-term memory, oral language ability, mental energy dysfunction, idea generation, and organization; as well as external factors, relating to family patterns, socioeconomic background, and negative modeling.

Note 1: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider sending them its link.

Note 2: To check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today—on a broad range of psychological topicsplease click here.

© 2008 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.

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