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For most of my life, I was held up as a model of Puritanical work ethic through all jillion years of my schooling (K-PhD). I was the shining example of not being "lazy".


The reality was that I had enough privilege and luck to be able to design my life such that my own particular brand of "laziness" had a minimum negative impact:

  • I had ADHD (but didn't know it), and the hyperfocus aspect made it super easy to do things that I found interesting.
  • I found ways to structure my life and goals so that I could neglect the stuff I wasn't interested in.
  • My interests aligned with those that American society deems Important and Industrious (math, science, etc). If I wasn't interested in these things I probably wouldn't have been able to focus on them.
  • My forgetfulness and social detachment were easily classified by everyone else as fitting the "Absent-Minded Professor" archetype. Consequently, I was granted permission out of the gate for many things that would be seen as "laziness" in others.
  • I didn't have to surmount constant, systemic oppression. People believed in me by default, and I didn't have to expend enormous energy just getting to the table. I was already at the table, with all my energy, ready to work.

This list could keep going and going, but that's probably enough to make the point that "industriousness" -- and therefore its opposite, "laziness" -- are context-dependent properties that societally we treat as context-independent.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently, mostly triggered by learning that I had ADHD while also realizing I had developed a mild depression over the past couple of years.

The depression was raising all of my energy thresholds. The thing about depression is that it makes you disinterested in things. The thing about hyperfocus is that it requires your interest. So depression gave me all the downsides of ADHD without the upside.

(Note that hyperfocus is only an upside in the right context. It is often a huge downside because people with ADHD can't choose what they hyperfocus on.)

For the first time in my life, I was having trouble doing things that I wanted to do. This lead to the question... was I being lazy? I certainly thought that I was, which didn't help matters any since that added guilt on top of all the rest. It wasn't until realizing I was depressed that I stepped back to think about the context of laziness.

Fortunately, there are more knowledgeable people than me who have already been thinking about this for years and years. Go read "Laziness Does Not Exist" by Devon Price (which was recently turned into a book on the topic). I hadn't seen this until a few weeks ago, which reminded me that I wanted to do some writing on the topic.

Devon focuses that article on how mental health and privilege intersect with societal ideas of academic laziness. This is a super important aspect of the problem, which I defer to Devon and others and recommend that you go explore.

What I want to do here is take a step back to ask what we even mean when we think of ourselves or others as being "lazy".

My bet is that if you try to define it you'll end up with something like:

Laziness: Avoiding doing something you're supposed to be doing, due to a character flaw.

We could spend hours fine-tuning that definition, but I think you'll have a hard time finding one that others would find accurate that also means something substantively different.

We define laziness relative to "supposed to", and use it as a moralistic judgment about a person's fundamental being.

This whole "supposed to" thing so often goes unexplored. Why are you supposed to be doing these things in the first place? Why are you supposed to do them in that way? Why aren't you supposed to be doing these other things?

Who gets to decide?

I think that the message of the "Laziness Doesn't Exist" article is exactly right, which is that the moralistic idea of laziness is toxic, anti-human nonsense.

When the word "lazy" comes up, treat it as the discovery of a structural problem. By identifying someone (including yourself) as lazy, what you've actually done is uncovered a conflict between the context of reality (how things are) and the context of your imagination (how things "should be"). That means it's time to dig deep and find out what's really going on.

If you find yourself thinking that you are being lazy, or that someone else is, here are some questions to help you guide you to a more humanistic and empathic interpretation and hopefully reveal your next steps:

  1. Why this task?
  2. Why this person?
  3. Why might this task be particularly hard for this person?

Example time!

In college I spent most of my hours glued to science textbooks and doing related coursework and lab work. I never turned something in late, and usually had it done well in advance.

For my non-science courses, on the other hand... I put in the least effort possible and delayed all tasks until the last possible moment. I was, in a word, "lazy." But... why?

  1. Why this task? I took those courses because they were required to meet graduation requirements. I would have rather been in the lab, in another science class, or really anywhere else. Someone else decided this was important but didn't convince me of that.
  2. Why this person? My school required that everyone take courses across a variety of disciplines. I had to because everyone did. It had nothing to do with my interests or goals.
  3. Why is it so hard? Turns out I had undiagnosed ADHD. The hyperfocus aspect allowed me to excel at the stuff I was interested in. The other aspects made it hard to do anything else. It has always been important to me to know why, and "because!" has always been an answer that chaffed. Probably because the why is what allowed me to become interested, which in turn allowed me to excel. For a person like me, something I don't see the importance of is something I can't pay attention to.

Importantly, the fact that laziness is the outcome of a structural problem doesn't necessarily let you off the hook for not doing something. But taking out the nonsense moralistic component to get to the why allows uncovering the responsible structural issues so that they can be addressed where possible, and without blame. Where you can't address them directly, explicit awareness still lets you work on management and coping strategies.

The next time you start getting down on yourself about being "lazy", remember that there's no such thing and then dig deep.

A version of this article originally appeared in the DevChat Newsletter.