The Psychology of Laziness
The psychology of laziness, procrastination, and idleness.
Posted Oct 25, 2014
A person is being lazy if he is able to carry out some activity that he ought to carry out, but is disinclined to do so because of the effort involved. Instead, he carries out the activity perfunctorily; or engages in some other, less strenuous or less boring activity; or remains idle. In short, he is being lazy if his motivation to spare himself effort trumps his motivation to do the right or expected thing.
Synonyms for laziness are indolence and sloth. Indolence derives from the Latin indolentia, ‘without pain’ or ‘without taking trouble’. Sloth has more moral and spiritual overtones than laziness or indolence. In the Christian tradition, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins because it undermines society and God’s plan, and because it invites sin. The Bible inveighs against slothfulness, for example, in the Book of Ecclesiastes: 'By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.'
Laziness should not be confounded with procrastination or idleness.
To procrastinate is to postpone a task in favour of other tasks, which, though perceived as easier or more pleasurable, are typically less important or urgent.
To postpone a task for constructive or strategic purposes does not amount to procrastination. For it to amount to procrastination, the postponement has to represent poor and ineffective planning, and result in a higher overall cost to the procrastinator, for example, in the form of stress, guilt, or loss of productivity. It is one thing to delay a tax return until all the figures are in, but quite another to delay it so that it upsets plans and people and triggers a fine.
Laziness and procrastination are similar in that they both involve a lack of motivation. But, unlike a lazy person, a procrastinator aspires and intends to complete the task and, moreover, does eventually complete it, albeit at a higher cost to himself.
To be idle is: not to be doing anything. This could be because you are lazy, but it could also be because you do not have anything to do or are temporarily unable to do it. Or perhaps you have already done it and are resting or recuperating.
Idleness is often romanticized, as epitomized by the Italian expression dolce far niente (‘it is sweet to do nothing’). Many people tell themselves that they work hard from a desire to be idle, rather than because they value their work or its product. Although our natural instinct is for idleness, most people find prolonged idleness difficult to tolerate. Queuing for half an hour in a traffic jam can leave us feeling restless and irritable, and many drivers prefer to take an alternative route even if it is likely to take them longer than sitting through the traffic.
Recent research suggests that, though our instinct is for idleness, people will pick upon the flimsiest excuse to keep busy. Moreover, people feel happier for being busy, even if their busyness is imposed upon them. In their paper, Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness (2010), Hsee and colleagues surmise that many purported goals that people pursue may be little more than justifications for keeping busy.
This, I believe, is a manifestation of the manic defence: the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings. 'To do nothing at all,' said Oscar Wilde, 'is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.' I discuss the manic defence at some length in my book Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.
Albert Camus introduces his philosophy of the absurd in his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus. In the final chapter, he compares the absurdity of man’s life with the plight of Sisyphus, a mythological king of Ephyra who was punished for his chronic deceitfulness by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. Camus optimistically concludes, ‘The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.' [‘La lute elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un coeur d’homme. Il faut s’imaginer Sisyphe heureux.’]
It should be noted that many people who can seem bone idle are, in fact, nothing of the sort. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of ‘masterful inactivity’. As chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch spent an hour a day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time’. Adepts of strategic idleness use their ‘idle’ moments, among others, to observe and enjoy life, find inspiration, maintain perspective, circumvent pettiness, reduce inefficiency and half-living, and conserve their health and energies for truly important tasks and problems.
Evolutionary theories of laziness
Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources and to fight or flee enemies and predators. Expending effort on anything other than short-term advantage could jeopardize their very survival. In any case, in the absence of conveniences such as antibiotics, banks, roads, or refrigeration, it made little sense to think long term. Desire led to action, and action led to immediate gratification, without much need for proposing, planning, preparing, and so forth.
Today, mere survival has fallen off the agenda, and it is long-term strategic activity that leads to the best outcomes. Yet, our instinct is still to conserve energy, making us reluctant to expend effort on abstract projects with delayed and uncertain payoffs.
Intelligence and perspective can override instinct, and some people are more future-oriented than others, whom, from the heights of their success, they deride as 'lazy'. Indeed, laziness has become so closely connected with poverty and failure that a poor person is often presumed lazy, no matter how hard he might actually work.
Psychological theories of laziness
In most cases, it is deemed painful to expend effort on long-term goals that do not provide immediate gratification. For a person to embark on a project, he has to value the return on his labour more than his loss of comfort. The problem is that he is disinclined to trust in a return that is both distant and uncertain. Because self-confident people are more apt to trust in the success and pay-off of their undertakings (and may even overestimate their likely returns), they are much more likely to overcome their natural laziness.
People are also poor calculators. Tonight they may eat and drink indiscriminately, without factoring in the longer-term consequences for their health and appearance, or even tomorrow morning's hangover. The ancient philosopher Epicurus famously argued that pleasure is the highest good. But he cautioned that not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people are unable to handle.
Many lazy people are not intrinsically lazy, but are lazy because they have not found what they want to do, or because, for one reason or another, they are not doing it. To make matters worse, the job that pays their bills may have become so abstract and specialized that they can no longer fully grasp its purpose or product, and, by extension, their part in bettering other peoples' lives. A builder can look upon the houses that he has built, and a doctor can take pride and satisfaction in the restored health and gratitude of his patients, but an assistant deputy financial controller in a large corporation cannot be at all certain of the effect of his labour—and so why bother?
Other factors that can lead to laziness are fear and hopelessness. Some people fear success, or do not have sufficient self-esteem to feel comfortable with success, and laziness is one way in which they can sabotage themself. Shakespeare conveys this idea much more eloquently and succinctly in Antony and Cleopatra: 'Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows.' Conversely, some people fear failure, and laziness is preferable to failure because it is at one remove. "It's not that I failed," they tell themselves, "it's that I never tried."
Other people are lazy because they see their situation as being so hopeless that they cannot even begin to think through it, let alone address it. Because these people do not have the ability to think through and address their situation, it could be argued that they are not truly lazy, and, to some extent, the same could be said of all lazy people. In other words, the very concept of laziness presupposes the ability to choose not to be lazy, that is, presupposes the existence of free will.
I could have ended this article with a self-help pep talk or the top-10 tips to overcome laziness, but, in the longer term, the only way to overcome laziness is to profoundly understand its nature and particular causes: to think, think, and think, and, over the years, slowly find a better way of living.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.