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A Case For Laziness

For most of my life, I’ve had a very adverse reaction to laziness. I still remember being horrified at my daughter’s kindergarten open house years and years ago. We had just been transferred to upstate New York in the middle of winter. I’ve moved many times so knew the routine well, enrolling kids in new schools, finding new doctors, dentists, mechanics and stores, all while looking for employment. But I had never had to do it with 18” of snow on the ground and it was a little overwhelming. On top of that, my husband’s new position required travel about 26 weeks out of the year, so figuring out how to hold down a new job while taking care of two young children half the time alone and not knowing a soul in the state was daunting.

So, I admit I was pretty proud of myself for getting a part-time property management job in the condo complex we lived in and augmenting my income by selling both Tupperware and Avon. It was hectic, but it allowed me the flexibility to pick up kids with two different school schedules and work from home or just down the street from home which greatly helped with childcare when my husband was gone.

A couple of months into this new adventure, open house arrived and I thought this would be my entrance into getting involved at the kids’ school, which I hadn’t had time to get to yet. I walked into my kindergartener’s classroom to see an entire wall covered in drawings done by the children depicting their parents’ careers. There were drawings of firemen, nurses, store clerks, policemen and bakers, and then I found me. My daughter had drawn a picture of me laying on a sofa eating candy. To say I was mortified is a gross understatement. I don’t lay around on the couch and I am not even a candy-eater. I stood there cringing as parents walked by, viewing the Crayola artwork. I wanted to say, honestly, I work really hard! But of course, I didn’t say anything. Just tried to grin and bear it. I asked her when we got home why she had drawn me laying on the couch eating bon-bons and in typical almost 5-year-old fashion, she shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t know. It bothered me for months.

Years later, when I started practicing mindfulness, I recognized I had a lot of judgments around laziness, both toward myself and others. I have no idea what my parents or perhaps a minister at church or someone else said to me as a child, but I clearly had a deeply ingrained belief that laziness was a terrible trait. I worked on it and thought I had it pretty well under control, until I read The Extremely Busy Woman’s Guide to Self-Care to prepare for my interview last week with Suzanne Falter. Right at the beginning of the book, she says our problem is that we do far more than we need to. That little voice in my head immediately spouted, well that’s just lazy. Proof that we’re never done learning, to be certain.

Psychology Today describes a person as being lazy if he or she is able to carry out some activity that ought to be carried out but is disinclined to do so because of the effort involved. Instead, the activity is hastily or carelessly carried out or the person engages in some other, less strenuous or less boring activity. Or the person simply remains idle. In short, we are being lazy if our motivation to spare ourselves effort trumps our motivation to do the right or expected thing. But who decides what the “right” thing is to do and whose expectations are we trying to meet?

Indolence and sloth are both synonyms for laziness. Indolence derives from a Latin word, meaning ‘without pain’ or ‘without taking trouble’. In the Christian tradition, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, so definitely not good.

Then there’s idleness or not doing anything at all. 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. Humans actually have a natural instinct for idleness, but as most of us experienced during the pandemic shutdowns, we find prolonged idleness difficult to tolerate.

Recent research suggests that, though our instinct is for idleness, people will use the flimsiest excuses to keep busy. Most of us feel happier being busy and some studies show that many purported goals that people pursue may be little more than justifications for keeping busy. While this busyness could simply be our desire to feel good, it could also be a constant distraction from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Oscar Wilde said, “To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.” In other words, we have to stop being busy and be still to observe our thoughts and feelings and that’s not always easy.

When we compare busyness with laziness, I would say that they are the two ends of a spectrum, and either could be a positive or a negative. As with many emotions and personal experiences, laziness itself is neutral, but it can be beneficial related to wellness benefits and efficiency, leading to a healthier, more relaxed life. Maybe a change in attitude towards laziness is overdue.

Being lazy is a way to recharge our energy stores. Rest and idleness have a less derogatory connotation compared to laziness, but the positive effects are similar. There is extensive research showing the benefits of taking daytime naps and regular breaks, for example, from lowering your blood pressure to clearing your mind.

Laziness has been the motivator for many innovations. Consider that the light switch, remote control, escalators and smart speakers were all invented because someone was too lazy to get up and walk somewhere to take care of a need or desire. Engineer and pioneer of time and motion studies, Frank Gilbreth Sr. famously said: “I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

Because lazy people carefully manage their energy expenditure, they tend to avoid unnecessary tasks. Instead, they perform high-leverage tasks with minimum input and oversized output, including automating monotonous and time-consuming activities. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Wałęsa said, “I’m lazy. But it’s the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn’t like walking or carrying things.”

It should be noted that many people who can seem lazy are, in fact, producing contributions to society. Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, spent an hour a day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time’. Both Charles Darwin and Winston Churchill were labeled incredibly lazy, preferring sitting in pubs or sitting on a rocking chair respectively to more ambitious activities. Newton and Picasso were considered lazy. One of Albert Einstein’s professors labeled him as the laziest dog they had ever had in the university.

I think much of our bias against laziness is cultural and some places, like the United States, are more exhausting than others to live in because non-busyness is simply not acceptable. The health impact of constant busyness however can be significant and ironically, may result in laziness. The most common causes of low energy are lack of sleep, rest, and exercise, along with poor diet which all contribute to low energy, which in turn is the most common cause of laziness.

Laziness can be a helpful symptom. When we feel lazy, our bodies and our minds are communicating important information. When we mindfully observe what’s occurring, we can identify if it’s because we’re tired or hungry or perhaps we’re lacking motivation. There may be medical causes for laziness, including depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anemia, diabetes or heart disease. That fact alone may help us not only be mindful about our own well-being but encourage us to curb the judgment of others we perceive as lazy.

A student essay in the New York Times noted that “laziness is more than the absence or avoidance of work, it’s also the enjoyment of lazing in the sun, or in another’s arms. It is moments spent enjoying the company of an old friend, savoring the smell of coffee or catching a warm breeze.” Rest should not be a luxury so as we find ourselves spinning in busyness, we can pause and consider whose expectations we’re trying to meet and remember that we can decide what the “right” thing is to do for ourselves.

Experts of strategic idleness use their idle time to observe and enjoy life, find inspiration, maintain perspective, circumvent pettiness, reduce inefficiency and conserve their health and energies for truly important tasks and problems. Perhaps laziness is not an unwillingness to work hard, but an unwillingness to work harder than necessary. Which is exactly what Suzanne Falter alluded to in her book. So, it may be time to stretch out on the couch for a while. If I only had I had some bon-bons…

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