When I was in college, many of my peers were, well, normal college students. They studied, sure, but they also went to football games, partied, played beach volleyball, took trips to San Francisco, planted gardens… lots of things beyond just studying.
I, regretfully, spent very little time enjoying the delightful recreation available on a California campus, dedicating myself almost exclusively to my studies. Work ethic — particularly in academics — was priority number one, and I tended to look down on all those “lazy” people who didn’t feel the same way.
Procrastinate on an assignment to “have fun”? Poppycock!
Hang out with friends instead of study? Blasphemy!
Show up to class without reading the book? I just… I can’t even.
Well, turns out I’m just as lazy as everyone else.
To put it bluntly, I think we’re all equally “lazy,” and thus “laziness” doesn’t tell us anything about why people do different things, nor does it explain why a certain individual does some things but not others.
What it really boils down to is values.
By default, we want to conserve energy; we are biologically wired to do so. As Daniel Lieberman, Harvard anthropologist and author of The Story of the Human Body, describes, “‘No hunter-gatherer goes out for a jog, just for the sake of it… They go out to forage, they go out to work, but anything else would be unwise, not to mention maladaptive’ in calorie-restricted environments.“ In order to overcome our innate “laziness” — with respect to exercise or any other activity — there has to be a compelling enough reason to act, a reason valuable enough to warrant the energy expenditure required.
Oftentimes, we act because of the pleasure derived from acting and/or the pain of not acting. (Indeed, our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain is an important part of our survival, both as a species and in our individual lives.) As an example, we might get off the couch to get food when we’re hungry, or we might get off the couch because we accidentally sit on a thumbtack. The pleasure of eating and the pain of sitting on a thumbtack both outweigh the discomfort of getting off the couch, motivating us towards nourishment and away from a bleeding thigh.
But we also act for reasons beyond pleasure and pain. We might help a stranger because we value kindness, or come clean because we value honesty. In these examples, our actions are deemed worthwhile because they are manifestations of principles that we think hold intrinsic value, in and of themselves, and we are willing to endure pain and/or relinquish pleasure for their sake. Sure, we might feel good by doing good deeds, but that pleasure comes from upholding a principle, not from the act itself.
Whatever the case, the bottom line is the same: we are driven to act when the value of acting outweighs the value of not acting.
When I was in college, it was relatively easy for me to choose studying over “having fun” because I believed the former was significantly more valuable. In fact, doing fun things was, to me, a reflection of laziness, lack of discipline, and immaturity — things that I believed were fundamentally bad things — and thus the guilt and shame of engaging in those activities actually felt more painful than working my way through a challenging problem set.
As much as I wanted to believe my fun-loving peers were lazier than I (and criticize them for it), they really weren’t; if they were “lazy” about homework, then I was equally “lazy” about socializing. Whether my peers were acting in pursuit of pleasure or some other value(s), I can’t say. I also won’t claim that they were deliberately choosing which values they wanted to honor (I surely wasn’t). But what’s clear is that we were operating, even if only subconsciously, under different value systems.
Why does this matter?
Because when we throw around the word “laziness,” we often do so to judge, and in such a way that is almost always unproductive.
When we criticize ourselves for being lazy, not only do we make ourselves feel shitty, but we’re also masking the true issue: a value system misaligned with what we want our value system to be. Both of these things — the self-induced feeling of shitty-ness and the hiding of the true problem — impede our ability to actually make changes to support the lives we want to lead.
When we criticize others for being lazy, we’re also not doing ourselves any favors. For one, we typically criticize others as a means of propping up our own egos, but resting our sense of self-worth on external validation is dangerous territory.
Secondly, this outward criticism is ultimately self-sabotaging. If we value work ethic above all else and shame the “lazy” people who go out and have fun, then what happens when we get tired of working all the time and want to bring more fun into our lives? Either we (a) continue running like mad, burning ourselves out solely to avoid turning into the very people we despise most, or (b) realize we have to uproot our entire value system — and sense of self-worth — to find a better balance. In the long run, it’s much easier, and healthier, to just let go of that judgement from the get-go.
Now, one might agree that the “laziness” judgement isn’t productive, but still argue that there is an objective hierarchy to values — that some values are objectively better or worse than others.
But I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
Yes, most would agree kindness is better than cruelty. And yes, I think there are dangers to valuing certain things — like pleasure — to the exclusion of everything else.
But creativity is not necessarily more or less important than, say, responsibility. There are a million possible things we could value, and we can only realistically prioritize (read: live out) a subset of them.
Furthermore, values are complex and dynamic — they shift with time and circumstance, they overlap with and build on top of each other, they push and pull on each other. I might value work ethic in my job but fun elsewhere; I might value fitness because I value health, and health because I value happiness; and my value in health might help me tame my work ethic, protecting me against burnout. A static hierarchy, even a subjective one, is hard to pin down.
While I’d encourage you to choose your values wisely, we all get to draw the line where we want to, based on the kinds of lives we want to lead.*
(*Admittedly, there’s a little bit of circular reasoning here: we can choose our values based on the kinds of lives we want to lead, but the kinds of lives we want to lead are, arguably, determined by existing values. For example, I might choose to value kindness, generosity, and learning in order to live a fulfilling life, but this “fulfilling” life is desired because I value fulfillment. I think this idea is worth exploring more, but I’ll spare you the rabbit hole… for now.)
It’s surely tempting to hold onto our judgements of ourselves and of other people, but it really does’t get us anywhere. Judging laziness, in particular, just tends to perpetuate shame and powerlessness, both of which do little to better ourselves.
If, instead, we acknowledge the power of values to direct our behavior, the subjectiveness of their rankings, and our freedom to choose the values we want to live out, we can build awareness around our own behaviors and open the door to consciously and thoughtfully change our values and improve our lives, if we want to 🙂
Images: Alexey Kondakov