All About Laziness: What Causes It and What to Do About It

Medically Reviewed
woman relaxing drinking beverage through a straw lying on the floor illustration
Some experts argue there’s no such thing as laziness; we live in a society that encourages us to try to do too much in the first place.Malte Mueller/Getty Images

American society, by and large, prizes hard work and diligence. Calling someone “lazy” is a big insult. And yet a lot of us are willing to slap this label on ourselves and, even more so, on other people.

According to Pew Research Center survey data, about half of Americans in 2015 — and 63 percent of Millennials — believe that the typical U.S. citizen is lazy.?Another 2019 Pew survey found that a majority of Americans think people are lazier now than they used to be.

Some experts see these criticisms as signs of unhelpful cultural pressures and narratives, rather than pointing the finger at people’s behavior.

“Our culture’s belief that people are secretly ‘lazy’ deep down and need to be browbeaten into productivity is very old and has far-reaching roots,” says Devon Price, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at Loyola University in Chicago. “It dates back to the Puritans and the beliefs they had about hard work being a signal that a person was morally upstanding.”

Along with our current emphasis on “productivity,” Dr. Price says that changes in workplace practices and always-connected mobile technologies have broadened our ideas of what laziness looks like. “We aren’t even free during our downtime; we are expected to be perfect professional paragons constantly,” he says. “This takes a massive psychological toll on us and leaves us at a massive risk of burnout.”

It is Price’s view — one he lays out in his recent book,?Laziness Does Not Exist?—?that laziness as people understand it is a misconception. “When people appear to lack motivation, it is because they are exhausted, traumatized, in need of support, or do not see any logical incentive to taking part in a task,” he says.

Other experts are less dismissive of laziness. Some say it is related to procrastination — a phenomenon that psychology has clearly defined and studied. That research reveals how, when, and why people may engage in apparent acts of laziness, and what you can do about it if you think it’s a problem.

What Is Laziness?

First of all, “laziness” is not a formal clinical term in the field of psychology (or medicine). You can’t get a diagnosis of laziness. However, some psychologists have attempted to define laziness as it is used in popular culture.

According to a study published in 2018 in the journal Human Arenas, laziness can be regarded as a failure to act or perform as expected due to conscious, controllable factors — namely a lack of individual effort.

According to this definition, a student who can’t get their work done because of an attention disorder would not meet this definition of lazy, while a student who is capable of doing the work but chooses not to would fit this definition.

Because of all this, the concept of laziness doesn’t show up frequently in psychology research. But it tracks closely with a related and well-studied phenomenon: procrastination. “Both words are used for a disinclination to make effort, and we use both of these words in everyday speech to impugn others,” says Tim Pychyl, PhD, a procrastination researcher who was formerly an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, before retiring from that position earlier this year.

But “procrastination” and “laziness” are not quite interchangeable — at least not to a psychologist, Dr. Pychyl says.

“Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an intended act despite expecting to be worse off,” he says. A person must intend to do something, and then decide not to do it for the act to qualify as procrastination.

If a person never wanted or intended to do something, they may be labeled “lazy” by a parent or boss, but they wouldn’t meet a psychologist’s definition of procrastination.

“We all delay things, but procrastination is a unique form of delay that is self-defeating and has no inherent upside,” Pychyl says.

Research has found that up to 20 percent of adults, and fully half of college students, feel that they struggle with procrastination.

While identifying times when someone procrastinates is often straightforward, nailing down examples of laziness is much trickier.

It’s important to make these distinctions because even the most tireless and diligent people sometimes procrastinate. “We all do it,” Pychyl says. The fact that you procrastinate doesn’t make you lazy.

None of us works nonstop all the time. We all take breaks to sleep or rest. We all engage in pastimes that are pleasurable or restorative, rather than productive. When exactly does the absence of work qualify as laziness? We all think we’ll know it when we see it.

Laziness, in other words, is always subjective. That’s according to the work of Michael Jacobsen, PhD, a professor of sociology at Aalborg University in Denmark.

What Causes Laziness?

First, it’s important to point out that pretty much all the research on what people call “laziness” focuses on procrastination.

Again, this is because laziness is a lay expression, not a formal term, and it’s also a matter of subjective opinion. One person’s idea of “lazy” may be another’s idea of a hard day’s work. If you meant to do something and didn’t, you may call that laziness, but a psychologist would label it procrastination.

And psychologists have studied procrastination and what causes it.

A Coping Mechanism

“People think procrastination is a time-management issue, but it’s really an emotion-management issue,” Pychyl says. “The thought of completing a task brings up anxiety or just general aversiveness, and a person can get rid of those negative emotions by putting off the task.”

Procrastination is a logical and effective “coping mechanism” for dealing with unpleasant feelings, he explains. Research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences supports the notion that putting things off can reflect an attempt to cope with negative emotions that arise when people have to do something unpleasant or difficult.

As an example, Pychyl says, is schoolwork. For most kids, this work is an “unnatural ask” that requires young people to take part in a culturally constructed series of learning exercises that don’t fit with their impulses or interests. This is why so many young students put their work off until the last minute. “Procrastination is a quite rational reaction to an unpleasant situation,” he says.

But however rational it may be, some people procrastinate more than others.

Age

Pychyl says this may be due in part to brain development. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps in planning, decision-making, concentration, and other “executive functions,” does not fully mature until a person’s twenties, he explains. Since this is the brain region that helps control emotional impulses and guides behaviors that require a longer-term outlook, it’s no wonder young people tend to procrastinate more than adults.

“Kids are operating much more out of a pleasure principle,” he says. For an adolescent brain, it’s hard to prioritize school work — a form of toil that may not provide any immediate benefits or incentives — over playing video games.

The Habitual Behavior Factor

A problem that may arise is that procrastination, like any other behavior, can become habitual. If your brain learns to cope with unpleasant tasks by avoiding them, it can be hard to shake this response.

“Habits come from repeating actions consistently that give you some immediate enjoyment,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, a habit researcher and provost professor of psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Procrastination can check all those boxes: Putting off unpleasant chores can offer a sense of relief, which is enjoyable. And so like other bad habits, procrastination can snowball.

Environment

Other researchers have noted?that laziness is a behavioral attribute that we may learn (and be more likely to practice) because of others. If your colleagues mess around and blow off work, you’re more likely to do the same.

Energy and Willpower (and Sleep)

Energy and willpower — or a lack of both — can also lead to procrastination. Researchers have shown that when shift workers are sleep deprived, their willpower drops and they become more likely to procrastinate.

Personality Characteristics

Pychyl says personality characteristics can also contribute to procrastination. These include low conscientiousness — “so people who are not planful, dutiful, and organized,” he explains — as well as impulsivity. Even some forms of perfectionism — a desire to meet some high self-defined standard — can load tasks with unpleasant emotional baggage that can lead to procrastination, he says.

Distraction

Last but not least, distraction — something many of us are struggling with these days — is a major driver of procrastination. “These technologies we have now are really problematic, it’s why we call them weapons of mass distraction,” he says.

Tech-based alerts, social media sites, and other enticements make it more difficult for many of us to get started on a difficult task and to stick with it, he says. And research in Computers in Human Behavior has shown that social media use (and high smartphone use) are both predictive of some forms of academic procrastination.

And it’s worth noting that others, like Price, hold the view that this thing we call laziness does not actually exist because there are always valid explanations for a person’s apparent indolence.

Is Being Lazy Bad for My Health?

There’s not much research on how being lazy affects health and well-being, or not.

But when it comes to procrastination, there’s evidence that it can prevent people from taking up new and beneficial behaviors — such as a new exercise program or a healthier approach to eating, according to a review published in 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Also, among people who feel they have a procrastination problem, putting things off may cause significant psychological distress, which can lead to anxiety, poor mood, and decreased well-being, according to that same review.

Price adds that people who consider themselves lazy may be anything but. Still, this self-perception can lead to problems.

“Time and time again I have found in my work that the people who are the most convinced they are ‘lazy’ are the ones who are being asked to do far too much, and are demanding too much of themselves, with too little support,” he says. “If your to-do list is 20 items long but you only have the energy to get 10 things done per day, you are always going to feel lazy even though you are repeatedly pushing yourself past the brink.”

Think if someone only asked you to do five of those things in a day. You might feel quite productive, not lazy, even though you got the same amount of stuff done.

Again, he highlights new technologies as a potential compounding factor. “Technology has created increased pressure to generate productivity all of the time,” he explains.

Whether that pressure is coming from a person’s employer or from themself — or a mix of both — technology, by enabling us to check our email, instant messaging apps, or self-improvement apps anytime, anywhere, has led many of us to feel lazy if we’re not constantly doing something productive online.

6 Tips for How to Be Less Lazy

Different experts take a different approach to helping you manage self-diagnosed laziness. These may involve learning to go easier on yourself, or taking up habits that help you avoid distractions.

1. Do Less, Not More

Your goal shouldn’t be to fit more in, Price says. Instead, you need to identify what’s most important to you and set aside the rest. “Cut your to-do list in half,” he advises.

Put simply, you need to prioritize. “Ask yourself what you are willing to let drop? What are you cutting back on? Who will you disappoint? What social standards can you afford to let go of? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves, not ‘how can I force myself to do more,’” he adds.

2. Get Specific

Procrastination, Pychyl says, is often fueled by “vague intentions.” For example, you tell yourself you need to fix up your place or start a new exercise program. But you’re hazy on the details, including what exactly you plan to do and when you’ll get on it.

“You tell yourself, ‘I’ll do it this weekend,’ but that has almost no motivational force,” he says.

Instead, think about exactly what you want to do, and determine a precise time and place to do it. For example, book a yoga class and put reminders in your phone. Getting specific will make it more likely you’ll follow through.

3. Make It Fun

Dr. Wood says that the trick to habit formation is “repetition, repetition, repetition.”

“We are most likely to repeat actions that we enjoy,” she says. “So, find something you like about a new action that makes it enjoyable.”

For example, if you’re lazy about exercise, find a compelling podcast and listen to it only when you run or work out. Over time, you’ll start to view the time you spend exercising as “my favorite podcast time” — something fun — rather than something you dread.

4. Practice Single-Tasking and Taking Tech-Free Breaks

To get anything done — or for that matter, started — you need to be able to resist distraction and stay on-task.

Technology is making this more and more difficult, so consider taking your tech out of the equation. “You can’t depend on willpower,” Pychyl says. “You’ve got to take your phone and put it in another room.”

He also recommends installing apps or programs, such as?RescueTime, that can prevent you from receiving alerts or accessing problem sites or apps. You can start small — 15 or 30 minutes of undistracted, tech-free time per day — and work your way up.

5. Be More Mindful

Pychyl says a lot of procrastination comes down to habit, whether it’s habitually delaying tasks or habitually reacting to them with anxiety or other unpleasant emotions. In both cases, mindfulness practices, which train present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness can be beneficial.

“Mindfulness and becoming aware of your own thinking is crucial,” he says. Mindfulness training can also help you ignore distractions and stay on-task, he adds.

6. Go Easy on Yourself

For one?study, Pychyl and colleagues examined the ways college students responded following periods of procrastination. Among students who procrastinated before an exam, the ones who forgave themselves (as opposed to getting angry with themselves) were less likely to procrastinate again before the next exam.

“Forgiveness allows the individual to move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts,” he and his coauthors wrote in their paper. He explains that getting down on yourself increases negative feelings and self-appraisals, which makes procrastination more likely. “You need to bring in self-compassion,” he says. “Focus on making progress, but acknowledge that you’re going to relapse.”

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  • Smith S. Patriotic, Honest and Selfish: How Americans Describe … Americans.?Pew Research Center. December 11, 2015.
  • Rainie L, Perrin A. Key Findings About Americans’ Declining Trust in Government and Each Other.?Pew Research Center. July 22, 2019.
  • Madsen T. The Conception of Laziness and the Characterisation of Others as Lazy.?Human Arenas. May 2018.
  • Prem R, Scheel TE, Weigelt O, et al. Procrastination in Daily Working Life: A Diary Study on Within-Person Processes That Link Work Characteristics to Workplace Procrastination.?Frontiers in Psychology. July 2018.
  • Interview with Devon Price. Loyola University Chicago. July 2022.
  • Interview with Tim Pychyl. McMaster University. July 2022.
  • Price D.?Laziness Does Not Exist. 2021.
  • Wohl M, Pychyl T, Bennett S. I Forgive Myself, Now I Can Study: How Self-Forgiveness for Procrastinating Can Reduce Future Procrastination.?Personality and Individual Differences. May 2010.
  • Jacobsen M. Laziness. Emotions, Everyday Life and Sociology. 2018.
  • Alexander E, Onwuegbuzie A. Academic Procrastination and the Role of Hope as a Coping Strategy. Personality and Individual Differences. 2007.
  • Interview with Wendy Wood. University of Southern California. August 2018.
  • Rozgonjuk D, Kattago M, T?ht K. Social Media Use in Lectures Mediates the Relationship Between Procrastination and Problematic Smartphone Use. Computers in Human Behavior. 2018.
  • Rozental A, Bennett S, Forsstr?m D, Ebert DD, Shafran R, Andersson G, Carlbring P. Targeting Procrastination Using Psychological Treatments: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 2018.
  • Devaine M, Daunizeau J. Learning About and From Others' Prudence, Impatience or Laziness: The Computational Bases of Attitude Alignment. PLoS Computational Biology. March 30, 2017.
  • Kühnel J, Sonnentag S, Bledow R, Melchers KG. The Relevance of Sleep and Circadian Misalignment for Procrastination Among Shift Workers. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 2017.
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