5 Tips for Resisting the "Laziness Lie"

No one chooses to fail or disappoint. We need to unlearn our bias of laziness.

Posted Mar 04, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

  • We live by a "laziness lie" that tells us that our worth is linked to our productivity.
  • Extremely busy people feel like failures and are convinced that they are lazy.
  • We need restorative time to help the mind switch gears from one task to the next.
Photo by Elizabeth Lies, courtesy of Unsplash.
Image of a person lying in bed.
Source: Photo by Elizabeth Lies, courtesy of Unsplash.

I'm a social psychologist, clinical assistant professor, and the author of the book Laziness Does Not Exist. The book explores how our culture’s fear of laziness is rooted in unjust historical systems such as enslavement and the belief in the Protestant Work Ethic, and how such beliefs lead to overwork, exploitation, and alienation. In it, I also discuss how each of us can unlearn our hatred of laziness and build more authentic, socially connected lives. For anyone who doesn’t have the energy—or time—to read a full book about how busy and overworked we all are right now, here are five key insights from my book you can read in a single sitting:

1. "Laziness" isn't what you think.

The “laziness lie” is my term for the set of unspoken, deeply held cultural beliefs that each of us absorbs throughout our lifetimes about the value of work and the danger of “laziness.” The laziness lie tells us that our worth as human beings is linked to our productivity, that our needs and limitations cannot be trusted and must instead be ignored, and that, no matter how busy we are, there is more that we should be doing.

This outlook is responsible for massive amounts of pain and suffering. It leads many of us to overwork ourselves to sickness, and it also convinces us that we don’t have to worry about people who are suffering from massive social issues such as homelessness, unemployment, or drug addiction. The laziness lie teaches us to blame society’s biggest victims for being too “lazy” to solve the problem of their own oppression.

The truth, though, is that no one would ever choose to fail or disappoint if they could help it. There is no shameful, slothful force inside us that makes us unmotivated; we're simply tired, or checked out. If a person cares about getting something done, yet they repeatedly fail to do so, it’s clearly because there are barriers in their way—often, a variety of barriers—and they need support in removing those barriers to move forward.

Alternatively, if someone looks “lazy” because they are apathetic or don’t care about meeting a particular goal, we need to consider why they don’t see that goal as essential. Sometimes people who look apathetic are deeply traumatized or have had agency taken from them so often they now have learned helplessness. And other times, a person looks lazy simply because they have other priorities in their lives. For example, a student might skip class because they’re nursing a chronic illness and need to conserve energy or because they’re burned out from an incredibly stressful semester.

Ultimately, the laziness lie encourages us to believe otherwise. Everyone is setting out to do far too much and beating themselves up when they come up short. This brings up the next insight.

2. When you feel “lazy,” you’re doing too much.

For my book, I interviewed some of the busiest, most stressed, most burned-out people: award-winning novelists, world-renowned street artists, trauma survivors who work as victim advocates, and overworked, harried parents who are trying to raise kids while working full-time jobs and taking college classes. What I found across the board was that each extremely busy person felt like a failure and was somehow convinced they were lazy.

One college student who was suffering from a major depressive episode told me he was “lazy” for needing to take naps to keep himself alive. This shows just how impossible it is to win under the laziness lie’s rules. When we set out to do more than is feasible for us, we’re always going to feel like a failure. No matter how much we’re doing, it will never feel like enough.

The answer is to stop buying into the laziness lie and start reframing how we set priorities in our lives. When you feel like you’re not doing enough, the answer is to find something to cut back on or let drop.

3. You aren’t “wasting” time. All your time is accounted for. 

Decades of productivity research shows that, at most, the average worker can only focus on job tasks for about three to four hours per day. The rest of our workdays are spent doing things like socializing, reorganizing pens and pencils on our desks, and “cyberloafing,” which is the term researchers use for goofing off online while at work.

Organizational psychologists have traditionally viewed activities such as cyberloafing as “time theft,” but graduate student Marvin Puente conducted some research of his own and found this wasn’t the case. Puente is a mortician, and he found that during the height of the pandemic, overworked morticians like himself used cyberloafing as a way to recharge their batteries and distract themselves from all the intensity and trauma they are coping with. Puente also found prior research backing this up—studies of everyone from administrative assistants to warehouse workers have found that taking a few minutes to check social media or shop online is actually restorative and necessary for helping your mind switch gears from one task to the next.

4. Embracing consent means rejecting "lazy."

In a culture that hates laziness, it is difficult for a person to assert their boundaries and confidently say “no” to anything. This damages our lives not only by leading us to overwork but by pressuring us to take on all manner of responsibilities we cannot shoulder.

In the book, I tell the story of Bryan, a man who had never in his life told his overly demanding parents “no.” Bryan felt guilty because he dreaded talking to his parents or visiting them, so he’d lie and say he was too busy with work to see them. And this is really what the laziness lie has done to us. It makes us feel shame about being tired or overwhelmed, and it presents work as the only valid reason to say “no” to something.

If you don’t feel like doing something, that feeling is useful information. It’s part of your body’s warning system.

If we want to resist the laziness lie, we need to learn to embrace our feelings, including emotions like apathy and annoyance, which people often don’t like facing in themselves. If you don’t feel like doing something, that feeling is useful information. It’s part of your body’s warning system. Each of us desperately needs to practice listening to our bodies and learning to say “no” when that’s what our emotions are telling us to do—even (and especially) when that means disappointing someone who makes unreasonable demands.

5. Action isn’t morally superior to inaction.

In a world shaped by the laziness lie, work is equated with goodness, and doing “something” is almost always seen as superior to doing nothing. This leads to a lot of problems, like activist fatigue or activist frenzy, where people are constantly posting misinformation and poorly researched calls to action online because they are so desperate to want to do good.

Think of the often-shared Edmund Burke quote: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is for good men to do nothing.” Burke’s quote teaches us to equate taking action of any kind with “doing good,” even in situations where action isn’t warranted or when we’re not the right person to be taking action.

The interesting thing is that Burke never actually said that quote. His actual quote is: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

The real Burke quote illustrates beautifully that it is not the hard work of individuals that will save us—it’s joining together as a community, supporting one another, and resisting the harm being done to us by forces beyond our control.

We don’t have to be heroes, and we don’t constantly need to go go go. We can take a step back and cultivate relationships instead. We can learn to trust other people and stop judging ourselves and others for being “lazy”—and this will make us more resilient because we’re stronger together than we are apart.

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