Are Procrastinators Just Lazy?

Are procrastinators just lazy?

Posted Jan 24, 2010

Lazy

What does it mean to be lazy? Are procrastinators lazy?

I hear this all the time, "Procrastinators are just lazy." I believe there's some truth in it, at least in terms of the meaning of the words. However, I have some important objections to this statement as well.

Dictionary definitions of lazy include "disinclined to work, doing little work" and "inducing idleness."

A key term in the definition of lazy is "disinclined," so we need to look at it more closely too. Disinclined - unwilling, averse, reluctant, lacking strong motivation.

Among the synonyms of lazy is slothful. Sloth has a long history in the Catholic Church beginning with the notion of acedia (sadness), which by the seventeenth century became the sin of sloth that we also commonly equate with procrastination.

I guess it's true then. The act of procrastination does reveal an unwillingness or reluctance to act (i.e., work in its broadest sense), even sloth. Procrastinators often remark that they lack the motivation necessary to act. They have an intention to act, but they fail to act in a timely fashion even though they recognize that they could act now, it's in their best interest to act now, and they're voluntarily choosing not to act. From the perspective based strictly on the meaning of the words, it would appear that the statement, "procrastinators are lazy" is justified.

The reason I object to the statement, "procrastinators are JUST lazy," is that including the word "just" makes it seem like this is some sort of explanation of procrastination. The thing is, from a psychological perspective, both lazy and procrastination require explanation. One is not an explanation for the other. The disinclination to work, the reluctance, the lack of motivation may be common features of both, but each must be explained.

When I hear someone say, "procrastinators are just lazy," what I understand that speech act to be is a not so subtle put down.

Who is really lazy?
Is there an objective standard? No, it's a subjective issue. It's based on social comparison and social expectations. What one person might call lazy is another person's wisdom of not wasting effort or avoiding impulsive behavior. In fact, some early definitions of procrastination included the sagacious delay of avoiding impulsive action. At a time where we're reading books like The Power of Slow,  I think it's important to re-think what sagacious delay and impulsive action really means in our workaholic world.

Do I think I have ever been lazy? Do I ever think other people are lazy? You bet, on both accounts, yes. But, I'm quite sure I don't really have any idea of what I really mean when I say this. Usually, I'm probably just beating up myself or someone else with words.

So, "Are procrastinators just lazy?"
No. Procrastination and laziness share key attributes such as the reluctance to act and a lack of strong motivation in dictionary definitions. I think they probably also share a lot similarities psychologically in terms of personality traits (low conscientiousness), emotional regulation (often "giving in to feel good") and avoidance as a preferred coping strategy.

What I do think we mean when we say "procrastinators are just lazy" is that procrastination carries with it strong moral connotations; connotations that have their roots in the notion of the sin of sloth. And, these connotations were well established in early psychology as reflected in William James' notion of the "obstructed will," as presented in his foundational, two-volume Principles of Psychology.

Here is an excerpt of James' most poetic writing for your reflection (taken from James, 1908; Vol 2, p. 547; emphasis added).

"Here we get the obverse of the truth. Those ideas, objects considerations, which (in these lethargic states) fail to get to the will, fail to draw the blood, seem, in so far forth, distant and unreal. The connection of the reality of things with their effectiveness as motives is a tale that has never yet been fully told. The moral tragedy of human life comes almost wholly from the fact that the link is ruptured which normally should hold between vision of the truth and action, and that this pungent sense of effective reality will not attach to certain ideas.

Men [people] do not differ so much in their mere feelings and conceptions. Their notions of possibility and their ideals are not as far apart as might be argued from their differing fates. No class of them have better sentiments or feel more constantly the difference between the higher and the lower path in life than the hopeless failures, the sentimentalists, the drunkards, the schemers, the ‘dead-beats,' whose life is one long contradiction between knowledge and action, and who, with full command of theory, never get to holding their limp characters erect.

No one eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge as they do . . . and yet their moral knowledge, always there grumbling and rumbling in the background . . . never wholly resolves, never gets its voice out of the minor key into the major key, or its speech out of the subjunctive into the imperative mood, never breaks the spell, never takes the helm into its hands." END OF EXCERPT

I don't think we've ever gotten past these sorts of moral connotations in relation to self-regulation failure. It's time we did. We might actually learn something.