You read productivity tips, you’ve used a million to-do list apps, and you promise yourself every month that you’re going to start being productive, but it never happens. Here’s how to break the cycle when you feel like your problem is just plain laziness.
Determine If You’re Really Lazy, or Just Overwhelmed
Many active and productive people self-identify as “lazy” because they spend free time relaxing, or have projects they want to do but haven’t finished. In the cult of “busy”, doing things you enjoy is a cardinal sin, so it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re not focused, productive, or active enough. Before you try to fix your laziness, step back and try to identify your real issue.
Psychologist Leon F. Seltzer suggests that we consider eliminating the word “lazy” from our vocabulary entirely. Or, at the very least, avoid using it to describe someone’s entire personality. He explains that, while we may lack self-discipline, motivation, or a healthy sense of rewards, disguising those problems as “laziness” only makes it harder to fix them:
“My experience, both as an individual and therapist, has led me to conclude that laziness as an explanation of human behavior is practically useless. Referring to—or rather, disparaging, or even dismissing—a person as lazy seems to me a glib and overly simplistic way of accounting for a person’s apparent disinterest or inertia. And resorting to this term to categorize a person’s inactivity suggests to me a laziness more on the part of the describer than the person described. In short, I view this pejorative designation as employed mostly as a “default” when the person talked about is not particularly well understood.”
If laziness is an unhelpful characterization of a different problem, start by identifying what your issue actually is. Try out some time tracking software to see where you spend your time. Or you can simply use a spreadsheet and write down what you do, hour by hour, for a week. Once you’ve got some data, break down the underlying problem into a few categories:
- Self-discipline: If your schedule is packed, but you’re not getting as much done as you could or should in that time, you may have a self-discipline problem. Solutions may involve removing distractions, but you may also need to find ways to boost your willpower.
- Unrealistic expectations: If your schedule is packed and you’re actually getting stuff done, but you still feel lazy, your problem could be that you’re being too hard on yourself. We all want to get stuff done, but don’t forget to slow down every once in a while.
- Motivation: If your schedule is pretty empty, or a majority of your time is spent on sleep or leisure activities, motivation could be the problem. Motivation problems can range from not knowing what to do with your life to battling depression, but everyone deals with it in some form eventually.
Obviously, how you deal with “laziness” will depend on what the underlying issues are. And these issues aren’t mutually exclusive, either. No matter what, you’ll need to tailor any solution to your specific needs. Take time to examine your own weaknesses and come up with a plan that works for you.
The terrible irony of our uber-busy culture is that we often hate our work. As strange as it may be to accept, work can actually be enjoyable and rewarding, even if you don’t find some mythical “soul mate” job. Learning to appreciate the value of work for its own sake is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. However, your mindset about work will have a drastic effect on how much you get done.
As Forbes contributor Erika Anderson points out, if you’re surrounded by people who hate their work and can’t stop complaining about it, stop hanging around them. Your attitude can be brought down by negative conversation, and more importantly, you never hear about any benefits:
In every organization, there will always be some people who take great delight in trashing everything. Ultimate cynics, they’ll regale you with stories of how the boss is an idiot, the company is out to get you, the rest of the employees are chumps, and the work is ridiculous and meaningless. While there’s a certain mean-spirited, self-righteous satisfaction in taking the everyone’s-a-loser-but-us approach, in the long run it will just make you more unhappy. Hearing only the negatives about your workplace makes it hard to see the positives that may exist, and it ultimately will make you feel worse about yourself (if this place and these people are so awful, why am I still here?). Spending time with colleagues who have a more balanced view can dramatically shift your emotional response to your job.
Cynical attitudes about your work do nothing to help your productivity. To get back on track, try some exercises to adjust your mindset:
- Write a list of benefits. There are always benefits to doing work (otherwise, why would anyone do it?) so take a minute to appreciate them. If you get satisfaction from having a stack of clean laundry, an empty email inbox, or a full paycheck, take time to note it.
- Savor the times you enjoy working. Unless you’re dealing with deeper emotional issues, there are probably some moments when you actually enjoy your work. When that happens, pause (if you can) and describe the moment to yourself or let someone else know. Externalizing it can help you remember it later. Intentionally spotting the moments you like your work can also help with those dreaded “What should I do with my life?” questions.
- Reframe what “work” is in your mind. While you’re getting stuff done, if you’re feeling miserable about it, counter your own thoughts. Remind yourself that work is worthwhile. Smile on purpose. Just like when you’re dealing with failure, how you treat work sets you up for how you will experience it.
Ultimately, no one can make you enjoy work. But if you actively fight the urge to be negative about it, rather than indulge it, you can turn your mindset around. The quickest way to get more done is to look forward to doing it. If you’re still having trouble looking for a way to start, try filling out this three task checklist to keep it simple.
Disrupt Your Habits
If the first thing you do when you come home is throw your keys on the coffee table, lay down on the couch and turn on the TV, you set yourself up for an unproductive evening right off the bat. Similarly, if you check Facebook or even email first thing in the morning, you might be wasting your best hours.
To interrupt the cycle, make it harder to go about your usual routine. If you head straight for the couch when you get home, unplug your TV at night. If you check Facebook too often, uninstall the app from your phone. Even if it’s just a little inconvenience, disrupting your usual triggers can create a break in your muscle memory and kickstart a new habit.
Create Behavior Chains to Develop Specific New Habits
The road to lethargy is paved with wishful intentions. Everyone has said “I’m going to get more done tomorrow.” The problem with this promise is that it’s vague and depends entirely on you feeling the same way tomorrow that you do now. Except, you know that you won’t. You’ll feel just as unmotivated when you get wake up tomorrow as you did today.
A better way to change is to give yourself specific tasks that are attached to your existing routine. As productivity blog 99U explains, slight alterations to your habits are better than overly ambitious total overhauls. Small behavior changes lead to significant improvements over time:
For instance, instead of “I will keep a cleaner house,” you could aim for, “When I come home, I’ll change my clothes and then clean my room/office/kitchen.” Multiple studies confirm this to be a successful method to rely on contextual cues over willpower. So the next time you decide to “eat healthier,” instead try “If it is lunch time, Then I will only eat meat and vegetables.”
Being lethargic or unproductive is ultimately just a habit. By breaking out of your old habits and creating new ones, you’ll get used to being active as the new norm. Even if you still don’t totally know what to do with your days, you’ll be more motivated to find something to move on to.
Be Consistent and Check Your Progress
Once you get going, stick to it. Laziness, in any form, takes advantage of gaps in your willpower. Much like overcoming an addiction, it only takes one day, one relapse to slip and wind up right back where you started. It’s okay to fail, and you’ll probably miss some days every once in a while, but get back on the horse. Remember, laziness is a habit, not a personality trait.
One effective way to do this is to use a goal tracker. These apps allow you to set specific goals for yourself and mark off when you do them. This provides two major benefits. First, it reminds you what you need to do and helps your past self keep you accountable. Perhaps more importantly, it shows you how often you’ve succeeded.
Many of us can alter our habits without ever changing how we perceive ourselves. That’s why things like done lists can be so useful. Having proof that you’ve built a new habit, or that you’ve improved over time can give you the motivation boost you need to keep going. That moment, when you realize you’ve accomplished your goal, when you’re pleased with your progress and look forward to doing it again is when laziness dies.