Laziness Is More Complex Than You Think: How a More Nuanced Approach Can Help Us Overcome Laziness When Needed

We also need to recognize that sometimes, being lazy is far from a sin. After all, isn't getting to take a deserved break why we expend effort in the first place?
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When I was in high school, I was what you would call a lazy student. Studying, doing my homework, preparing for exams -- none of these were activities I was particularly good at. My father would often say that I lacked "Sitzfleisch," a German word that translates to "sitting meat" and refers to the capability of sitting on your behind and getting your work done. When I reached 11th grade, however, everything changed. I met a teacher who visibly cared about his subject, Biology, and what he taught actually interested me. Gone were the days of struggling to study. Instead, I started to devour books upon books about biology and even arranged for a biology tutor. Interestingly, this attitude generalized to other subjects as well, such that by the end of 12th grade, my father stopped calling me lazy and proudly announced that I had finally developed "Sitzfleisch."

But was it really that simple? Is laziness a trait that one can get rid of over time? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding "No." To this day, I am still lazy in some situations, but not in others. Laziness, I believe, is not a trait that one has or does not have but is instead a set of states and habits. I think that what we call laziness is actually a blanket term for a wide range of behaviors that have different roots and origins. Overcoming laziness, then, does not merely require a single approach, such as developing "Sitzfleisch," but instead depends on the type of laziness we encounter. Here, I outline different kinds of laziness, what their root causes may be, and how we can best overcome laziness when desired or necessary.

We have many words for laziness. Whether we call it lethargy, sloth, or idleness, the terms all similarly imply an unwillingness to work or use energy, despite having the ability to do so. Often, this happens against our better judgment. In many instances, we know that we should be engaging in different behaviors but instead either actively or passively choose not to and thus act lazy. The Greeks even went so far as to call this type of behavior "akrasia," or weakness of the will, which is reminiscent of current popular depictions of laziness.

Likewise, when we are being lazy or see other people being lazy, it usually carries a negative connotation, as if the person who is being lazy is actively withholding an ability to engage in behaviors that he or she would benefit from. In Christian moral tradition, sloth is even one of the seven deadly sins. Our advice for overcoming laziness mirrors the advice of my father: "Just get over it and get to work!" However, as I'm sure most of us have experienced, it is not that easy. Why is that the case? Is laziness a one-size-fits-all term? Can we gain anything from distinguishing between different kinds of laziness?

One can think of the decision of whether or not to pursue a goal as an effort-motivation balance. That is, individuals will only engage in goal pursuit if the effort necessary to achieve a goal stands in adequate proportion to how motivated they are. Laziness, or a lack of goal pursuit, can therefore be thought of as a situation where individuals are not motivated to expend the effort necessary to achieve their goals. As a result, what influences the effort-motivation balance, and thus the decision of whether to engage in goal pursuit or remain lazy, is how effortful the goal pursuit is and how motivated individuals are to achieve their goal.

Let's look at the latter aspect of the balance first: motivation. At times, we don't want to do something simply because we are not motivated to do so. There are plenty of things that we could do; we only choose to do the things that we feel are important to do and that we are motivated to achieve. When our motivation to do something isn't high enough, we are not willing to expend a lot of energy in order to achieve that goal. This sounds trivial, but it gets more interesting when we dig deeper into the causes of what might motivate someone to expend effort.

For example, in my own case, I think that it was mostly a problem of the class material not having triggered my interest enough for me to want to study. It wasn't until I had a teacher who piqued my interest and who made me want to learn more about the intricacies of the human mind that I started to become motivated to study. Interest levels can also be determined by whether or not the task at hand represents an adequate level of challenge. There is nothing more boring than a task that is too easy and nothing more frustrating than a task that is a behemoth, or too difficult for us to even dream of managing it. At the right level of challenge, which is when we feel like we can, by expending effort, reach the goals that are inherent in the task, we are more motivated to do it.

Our perceptions of our motivations to engage in goal pursuit are equally important as our actual levels of motivation. Beyond whether we feel like we have the capabilities to achieve and beyond why we are motivated, our goal pursuit depends on a wide variety of other factors. For example, receiving feedback along the way and in turn feeling that we have made progress toward our goal can help us feel more motivated. Having the expectation that we will be able to achieve that task and feeling that it is within our control to reach that goal will make it more likely for us to feel motivated. Experiencing social support from our friends and family, who care about whether or not we achieve our goals, can also be a viable source of additional motivation.

An additional determinant of motivation is how individuals construe, or mentally represent, their goals. In fact, representing a goal in terms of the concrete steps necessary to reach it, instead of the more abstract representation of why we want to engage in it and what its purpose is, will make it less likely that we will be motivated to expend effort to achieve that goal. Imagine, for instance, having made dinner plans with a date. We can frame the situation in terms of the details, such as shaving, getting dressed, walking to the subway in the freezing cold, getting squished in the subway, waiting for a long time at the restaurant. When the menial details and means of goal pursuit are not motivating in themselves, then framing our goal pursuit in that way will make it less likely that we will successfully achieve our goal, and we thus end up lazy, on the couch. On the other hand, thinking about why we are going on the date, what its purpose is, and how we might feel in the presence of our date will make it more likely that we will pursue our goal. In order to overcome laziness, then, one should assess the sources, perceptions, and representations of one's motivation.

Sources of motivation need not exist permanently in order to be felt. Expectations can also be learned: An individual who has absorbed supportive beliefs about his or her motivations to engage in goal pursuit will be more likely to expend effort. The opposite is true of someone who, for example, has learned not to expect to be able to have control over whether he or she is able to reach a goal. This can in turn produce a vicious cycle: Not feeling motivated or able enough to expend effort, the individual will be more likely to fail at goal pursuit, be lazy, and thus reinforce his or her beliefs of inefficacy. What follows is a further lack of effort expenditure and further reinforcements of laziness -- a seeming lack of "Sitzfleisch." Instead of being told to "Just get on with it!" what may be most valuable in these circumstances is opportunities to break this vicious cycle by changing expectations and building self-efficacy.

Now, let's turn back to the other aspect of the balance: effort. Another possible reason for being lazy is a lack of energy. When we are exhausted, or when our resources are reduced, it feels harder to expend energy. As an example, imagine the following situation that university students experienced in numerous studies conducted by Florida State University researcher Roy Baumeister and colleagues: You come into a psychology laboratory and, after being briefed and consenting to participate, have to engage in a difficult task, such as writing an essay about a topic of your choosing without the letters "a" and "e." This is not an easy task, as you quickly realize. After you finally finish writing your essay, the experimenters ask you to take part in a second, seemingly unrelated task. Overall, study after study has found that participants are less likely to perform well on this second task in comparison to a group of participants who are given an easier version of the essay task, in which they aren't allowed to use the letters "x" and "z."

What this shows is that engaging in a task crucially depends on currently available levels of resources. Being lazy -- that is, choosing not to engage in a task as fully as one would if resources were not reduced -- may therefore reflect a need to retreat in order to regain energy supplies to expend more energy in the future. In some cases, being lazy should thus be equal to taking a break, to taking a step back in order to take two steps forward. We don't expect runners to cook us a lavish meal to celebrate their having just finished a marathon. Likewise, I think that it would do us well to identify some situations of laziness as cases where we knowingly reward ourselves for our previous efforts and take the opportunity to regain more energy for the future.

However, beyond the mere levels of actual resources available, an individual's perceived levels of resources seem equally important. For instance, different emotional states are known to impact how we feel about our current energy levels. When feeling happy and elated, we are more likely to feel energetic and are therefore more willing to expend resources, in turn seeming less lazy. Along these lines, unlike participants shown a neutral video, participants shown a funny video after the difficult version of the task mentioned above were just as likely to expend energy in the second task as participants who had engaged in the easy version of the task. In contrast, when we feel sad or frustrated, we feel that we have lower levels of energy, which in turn can make it less likely that we will engage in effortful behaviors.

This can reinforce our perceptions of low resource levels, as after having perceived ourselves as being unable to engage in behaviors, we infer that we must have lower energy levels. What is even more worrying is that in this type of situation, the same task looks more difficult in comparison to when we feel that we have higher resource levels, making it even less likely for us to choose to engage in this task. What follows is a vicious cycle of lethargy. What we can do, in these instances, is focus on our emotional state. Mere awareness and mindfulness of the impact of one's feelings on how one perceives one's energy levels can help. Developing habits or specific plans can also help, as these behavioral patterns require lower levels of energy due to their automaticity and can help break the reinforcing nature of perceiving oneself as lethargic. In fact, observing oneself engaging in effortful behaviors can rather ironically give one the impression of higher available levels of energy. However, when all else fails, it is equally important to acknowledge that sometimes, it is perfectly fine to be lazy when one isn't feeling up to performing a task. As I argued above, laziness gives us the opportunity to retreat, reevaluate the situation, and tackle given problems with more vigor in the future.

Laziness is therefore more complex than we think. It is unfortunate that this word implies a trait-like description of some people who are just not willing to expend effort, even though they are perfectly capable of doing so. I believe that this understanding is far removed from the reality of laziness. People are not inherently lazy. People do not inherently lack "Sitzfleisch." Instead, a more careful unpacking of the term "laziness" shows that it has a wide variety of roots and causes. In order to address these appropriately and to help ourselves and others expend effort where it is necessary or desired, we need to appropriately identify the type of laziness at hand. We also need to recognize that sometimes, being lazy is far from a sin. After all, isn't getting to take a deserved break why we expend effort in the first place?

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