November 22, 2013 by Shawn Smith
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.
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.
* 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.