How to Overcome Laziness

We all have those lazy days we look back upon with regret. Today, for example, I donated a paltry four hours to the animal shelter, wrote only two chapters of my book on pre-Renaissance psychiatric interventions, and barely finished reshingling my roof. Some days I just can’t get myself moving.

Ha. I wish I were that dynamic, but I struggle plenty with laziness and distraction. Today I’ll describe an anti-laziness tip that has helped me mightily: thinking small. But first, a little context.

In my previous post, Michele wrote in for advice on how to stop wasting time on video games. I offered some pointers on dealing with a mind that is determined to seek out diversions like shopping, over-eating, or any other activity that fills the senses and empties the mind.

My friend Stephanie told me that the advice was all well and good, but I didn’t address the problem of lazy minds that prefer to do nothing. She wrote:

“Your examples were about creating the discipline to stop playing video games, drinking, and eating donuts. I find changing my habits to start doing something – for example, making sure to eat breakfast every day – difficult to stick with. There isn’t a point of tension to study and step away from if the status quo is sweet, sweet laziness.”

She’s right. A mind that won’t stop (let’s call that compulsion) behaves a bit differently from a mind that won’t start (let’s call that inertia). Both are avoidance behaviors, but one of the big differences is in the way they handle shame. The compulsive mind is too busy occupying the senses to experience shame in any direct way. Shame comes later, after the fact. *

The inertial mind, on the other hand, can leave us stewing in the knowledge that we ought to be doing something more constructive. It can give us shame at the very same time that it’s urging us to take it easy. It’s quite a dirty trick because shame can be discouraging, which compounds the inertia.

Inertia got you down?

Dealing with our own mind is a bit like dealing with a small child. It doesn’t always know what’s best, and our job is to take it by the hand compassionately and set it on the right path. With practice, inertia is relatively easy to overcome – at least compared to other mental roadblocks. The key, in my experience, is to stop arguing with the mind.

Most minds, like children, don’t switch gears easily. “Time to go to the gym,” you might say to yourself, to which your mind answers, no thanks, I’m fine where I am. The gym is far away, and it will take too much time, and everything there is heavy, and do you really want to spend your day lifting heavy things?

And by the way, says your mind, you should be ashamed of yourself for laying on this couch.

It’s easy to get drawn into an argument with the mind, and it can stymie us with that bizarre combination of sloth and shame. Sometimes arguing works; sometimes it doesn’t and you feel awful. But there’s an easier way – a lazier way: don’t engage in the argument.

When the thought of going to the gym (for example) seems overwhelming, try shifting your attention to something more manageable, like the first small step that starts you down the path. We may not be able to prevent lazy thoughts and urges, but we can control whether or not we focus on them.

You might tell yourself, “I don’t have to run on the treadmill at this moment, I only have to put on my shoes.” Once your shoes are on, the next task is simply to get to the car, and so on. Momentum will often take over if you can get your body moving in the right direction. Don’t worry that your mind isn’t in the mood, it will catch up later. Before you know it, you’ll be working up a sweat.

It takes practice, but I’ve found this approach to be quite effective. While you’re in the process of ignoring the big picture and taking small steps, it helps to divert your attention to something external, like music. It also helps immensely to frame your goals in terms of what you want (“I want to be physically fit”) rather than what you don’t want (“I don’t want to be fat”).

When laziness has you in its grips, think small.


User's Guide to the Human Mind

* If you’re wondering why I refer to the mind as if it’s a separate entity you might look into my book, The User’s Guide to the Human Mind. I explain this figure of speech, and why it’s useful, in a fair amount of detail. Short version: the mind is not separate from us, but it can be quite useful to think of it that way.

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3 Responses to How to Overcome Laziness

  1. Stephanie says:

    Oh yes, your point about positive goals versus negative goals is actually something I recently learned while reading “The Logic of Failure: Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do to Make Them Right.” Dorner says: “This distinction between a positive and negative goals may sound academic, but it is important. With a positive goal we want to achieve some definite condition. With a negative goal we want some condition not to exist. With a negative goal what it is I actually want is less clearly defined than with a positive goal. Negative goals (intentions to avoid something) are therefore often defined in quite vague, general terms: things have to change “somehow”; the the present state of affairs, at any rate, is intolerable. Positive goals can be defined generally, too: “I need something to eat,” for example. But it is inherent in the logic of “not” that negative goals are more likely to be vaguely defined. A “nonstove” or “nonchair” is more difficult to define than a “stove” or “chair”…”Whether things will be better if they are different I do not know, but that they will have to be different if they are to become better, that I do know,” said the Enlightenment aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. In effect he was pointing up the vagueness of negative goals and at the same time warning us to be cautious in our approach to them.”

    So I did apply this to my breakfast problem. Rather than, “I should stop skipping breakfast”, it turned into identifying what kind of breakfast would meet positive goals like progress towards five servings of fruit and veggies per day and something quick to eat so that I didn’t have to adjust my morning schedule. The solution is a Larabar, every single day. It is getting boring, but it does the job and I have stuck to it.

  2. Chris B says:

    I’ve found this approach to be pretty effective for me. I tend to fall into ‘analysis paralysis’ where I keep thinking about doing something, making plans, and evaluating alternatives. It doesn’t feel like being lazy but it looks an awful lot like it. :) Taking action on some small piece of the project will usually kick-start me into following through will at least most of it. The other thing I find helpful (which I think ties into the negative vs positive goals) is managing your expectations. I recently moved and started going to a new gym that has a very different exercise format from the one I attended the last couple of years. The first few classes were almost overwhelming from the amount of information I had to process .. a new environment, new exercises, equipment that I had never used before. I joked with one of the instructors recently that my main goal has been ‘make it through the class’. I’m starting to get comfortable enough to start thinking about what progress I want to make. Without sufficent information and feedback I could have easily set unrealistic goals based on what other people were doing. Keeping my goals small (learn this technique tonight, even down to make it through this round of exercises before thinking about the next) kept me motivated.

  3. lilian says:

    I think laziness is like a personality, it comes natual. You can’t fake it. Even you want to be lazy but if you don’t have the gene it’s quite difficult to carry out the action. May be I’m wrong. I’ve work with a lot of people and you can tell who’s lazy or selfish.

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