The lie of laziness: a call to rethink and reframe.

What if laziness isn’t actually a thing?

I happen to think it’s mainly not, and that a reframe is needed.

Every time someone uses the word, it strikes me as shaming, punishing and largely inaccurate. I feel the heaviness of industrialisation behind it, the history of human value being derived from how much we produce, how hard we produce. Time is money.

Most often, I hear people using it to put themselves down if they can’t get motivated, or if their energy levels have changed. They say “I just want to get back to how I was, I’ve got so lazy, I need to pull my socks up”.

I hear it being said about others from time to time too. “He’s just so lazy, he does half the amount of work I do.”

In both cases, there is a discomfort with the level of action and motivation accessible.

We’ve decided that there’s an appropriate level of external activity and that we – or someone else – is falling short. The vibe – whether we’re turning it in on ourselves or projecting it onto someone else – tends to be sharp, punishing, fearful or irritable.

The amount of output and action we’ve decided on tends to come from:

  • A past version of ourself that we are trying to ‘get back to’.
  • Comparison with others, whether our appraisal of their productivity is accurate or not.
  • An internalised voice with roots in our personal or collective history.

Mostly, it would be more accurate to use: frozen, sad, overwhelmed, depressed or resting. Do you hear how these words incorporate a human experience with so much more compassion? Do you feel the pain and judgement threaded through the word ‘lazy’?

When we are stuck and slow, it can be healthy. It can be a rebalancing from running on adrenaline in a way that was never sustainable, but that we want to get back. The body is wise, and it gets the final say on productivity, whether we like it or not.

Can your ‘laziness’ be reframed as recovery?

I’ve worked with people who are telling themselves they’re lazy when they’re in the middle of a huge and painful life transition. They may have been made redundant, are going through divorce or have moved to a new city. They come into coaching wanting to up their productivity, because in all these transitions there’s a lot to be done.

The need to do things is real. Whether it’s driven by financial need or other responsibilities, the pressure to be active has some grounding in reality.

You’ll notice I said some grounding in reality. There is a big chunk of our aversion to laziness that’s based on thought patterns and fears rather than external requirements. It can feel really scary to stop. It can feel even scarier to be out of control of our choices (I want to be productive, but I can’t) and our emotions (when I slow down I feel all the fear and grief I’ve been avoiding).

To put my attention towards berating myself and trying to push myself into action may be less painful than feeling what’s happening underneath. And that can be the freeze – stuck between a rock and a hard place. I can’t force myself to jump into action, but I can’t consciously access the feelings that are keeping me here.

This is often the pathway in that coaching session where the client comes in wanting to be less lazy, and these are steps you can follow for yourself too:

1. Grasp the data

What are the facts? How much activity is truly needed right now? We’re talking paying the rent, eating meals, taking care of kids. Keep the bar as low as possible for the facts. You wanting a sparkling home, to fulfil your creative dreams or raise your earnings (beyond necessity) are wonderful goals, but this is not their moment. Ask yourself: what is the minimum amount of productivity and action I can get away with for now? For how long would this be adequate? This step doesn’t define the rest of your life, it just adds in enough safety for the next steps.

2. Observe the thought patterns

What are your thought patterns right now? Notice the inner dialogue that’s going on: the tone, the language, the timing. It can take a while to slow down enough to capture this, and it can be a bit of a shock. In the realm of perceived laziness, the thoughts can be harsh. Rigid ideas and rules about what you should be doing and what it means about you if you don’t perform. Whose voice is this? Where does it come from? Is it working for you or against you? There’s a level of depth we go to here in coaching that I won’t go into in a blog post, but you get the drift.

3. Assume positive intent

What’s the wisdom in this wave of ‘unproductive laziness’? This step can feel counterintuitive and challenging until plenty of work has been done on the previous one. It’s hard to be fighting against something so hard, and then to turn towards it with curiosity. At first it’s common for a dismissive reaction to come up – “there’s nothing good about it! It’s a nightmare!”. That’s ok, but stay open to an alternative possibility. Usually the lack of energy and action are communicating an unfelt grief, an unresolved conflict or a need that is not being met.

4. Try out a new approach

What’s the new, more effective way to approach this? If we created a list of action steps at the start of the process, they would all involve will power, trying harder and somehow managing to do more. When we come to considering a way forward now, it’s about meeting a fundamental need that has the power to fully unravel the stuckness over time. The steps from here will usually be to build compassion, to make space, to work towards acceptance.

When we are judging someone else as lazy, the process is similar. Our focus is on taking ownership for our discomfort with inactivity. There may be changes that need to be made, but we find ways to pull back our judgements and projections first. We can then approach the situation with more compassion and clarity.

There really are times in life where we would genuinely benefit from getting moving. When we’re kind of suffocating in our own inactivity, and it’s not helping. Even in these cases though, pressuring ourselves and negatively judging ourselves does not actually help in the long-run. Whilst rest is not always the solution, compassion and manageable action work better than will-power and force.

As our relationship with ‘lazy’ changes, we might even get a feel for the other kind of lazy. The good one.

The definition we’re working with most of the time is along the lines of “not willing to work or use any effort”. The second definition is “slow and relaxed” (as in “we spent a lazy day on the beach”).

Sounds pretty good to me. Most of us could do with a few more lazy days, I know I could.

Let’s dismantle the disdain for the natural periods of adjustment where we are not firing on all cylinders. They’re not wrong, they’re normal and appropriate.

Even if you can only give yourself 15 minutes of pure, positive laziness (ie. embracing “I can’t be bothered” without shame or guilt), it’s progress towards a more forgiving relationship with yourself and your life.

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