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What's the Difference Between Procrastination and Laziness?

Are you a procrastinator or just a lazybones?

Key points

  • A person is lazy if their motivation to avoid effort trumps their motivation to do the right, best, or expected thing.
  • To postpone a task for constructive or strategic purposes does not amount to procrastination.
  • Procrastination is defined as poor or ineffective planning of a task that results in a higher overall cost to the procrastinator.

We are being lazy if we are able to carry out some activity that we ought to carry out, but are disinclined to do so on account of the effort involved. Instead, we remain idle, carry out the activity perfunctorily, or engage in some other less strenuous or boring activity. In short, we are lazy if our motivation to spare ourselves effort trumps our motivation to do the right or best or expected thing.

Synonyms for laziness include indolence and sloth. Indolence derives from the Latin indolentia, meaning "without pain" or "without taking trouble."

Sloth has more moral and spiritual overtones than either laziness or indolence. In the Christian tradition, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins because it undermines society and God’s plan and invites all manner of sin. The Bible inveighs against slothfulness, notably 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, indolence, or sloth should not be confused with procrastination. To procrastinate—from the Latin cras, meaning "tomorrow"—is to postpone one task in favour of another or others that are perceived as being easier or more pleasurable but which are typically less important or urgent.

To postpone a task for constructive or strategic purposes does not amount to procrastination. For a postponement to amount to procrastination, it has to represent poor or ineffective planning and result in a higher overall cost to the procrastinator; for example, in the form of stress, guilt, lost productivity, or lost opportunities. It is one thing to delay a tax return until all the numbers are in, but quite another to delay it so that it upsets our holiday plans and lands us with a fine.

Both the lazybones and the procrastinator lack motivation, but unlike the lazybones, the procrastinator aspires and intends to complete the task under consideration, and, moreover, eventually does complete it, albeit at a higher cost to himself.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

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