Dermaskin – Your Problem Isn’t Laziness!! It’s Saturday morning, and the birds are singing. Rolling out of bed and looking for a coffee, you remember that you had to start your workout routine today. But just thinking about going for a run makes you feel tired…
You are already tired before you start. Your motivation to run is far less than your motivation to spend the day watching The Office for the 8th time.
It’s a familiar feeling to most of us, and it’s what we call “being lazy.” Repeated over a few weekends, we forget about the fitness goal and relapse into unhealthy habits. And then a triggering element makes us feel guilty again. We say to ourselves: “This Saturday, I will start running”. And so on.
Why am I so lazy?
Laziness has been reduced to a personality trait (“she’s so lazy!”) and has profound cultural implications; sloth is one of the seven sins. Our societies tend to glorify activity. We teach children to be like the industrious ant, not the lazy grasshopper who doesn’t think long-term and has no backup plan.
But laziness might be something other than what’s holding you back.
When we say we’re lazy, that’s usually not an accurate statement. It’s a shortcut for saying, “I don’t want to do it.” But the reason why you don’t want to do something is essential. You may see it as a lack of motivation, but it may be other emotions lurking just below the surface, the most important and probably the most insidious being fear.
Are you lazy? Or are you afraid?
Fear is a beautiful tool. It is a helpful reaction that has evolved over millions of years to protect animals from perceived threats. It allowed our ancestors to survive in the bush and the savannah.
The human brain has two parts. The first is the ancient and powerful limbic system, which evolved very early to protect us. The limbic system controls basic survival instincts, making you reflexively pull your hand out of the fire, for example. The limbic system – specifically the amygdala – is responsible for the fight or flight response triggered when our ancestors saw a lion. Or when we see a report due before 4 p.m.
According to Dr. Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: a Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, when we are faced with something scary, “amygdala hijacking” occurs. The way we deal with fear is to escape. The signal goes through the system: Flee! Or the modern equivalent: dive headfirst into the final season of a reality TV show.
The second part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – tries to fight off the flight signal sent by the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is the new kid of more recent evolution, which takes care of advanced executive functions such as planning for the future and predicting the consequences of one’s actions. It is also much weaker than the limbic system.
Prefrontal Cortex: Hey, we have to start studying for the exam in a day.
Prefrontal Cortex: I’m just making the suggestion.
Limbic system: NOOON, MATH SCARE ME. LET’S WATCH TV AND EAT CAKE TO FEEL BETTER.
And so, that’s what we end up doing. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t stand a chance against the old, crazed, screaming limbic system that freaks out when exposed to a threat.
So what are we afraid of anyway?
From the fear of failure.
This is a common emotion that most of us have encountered at one time or another. Failure goes hand in hand with many associated fears: fear of looking stupid and disappointing someone. In some cases, it can even be atychiphobia, an irrational, paralyzing fear of failure accompanied by physical symptoms like a faster-than-normal heartbeat, difficulty breathing, and profuse sweating.
The fear of failure can be so paralyzing that our motivation to avoid disappointment can be stronger than our motivation to succeed. Have you ever given up on a goal (or dodged it, or never done your best) for fear of failure?
Dr. Carol Dweck’s research focuses on the existence of a fixed mindset (the belief that a person’s abilities are set in stone and cannot be changed) as opposed to a growth mindset (the idea that one can work on their abilities). When the students she worked with had a more fixed mindset, they tended to give up or avoid complex challenges altogether. When you encounter obstacles, it seems safer to give up, so you can say, “It’s because I chose not to try,” rather than trying and eventually failing.
The way to counter this phenomenon is to encourage a “growth mindset” within yourself, where you view every mistake or failure as a chance to learn rather than a measure of your abilities.
The fear of success.
Yes, there is too! It manifests with thoughts like “What if my responsibilities increased because of success and I couldn’t cope?” or “What if this puts me in the spotlight and people start criticizing me, and I start attracting hate?”.
Fear of the task itself (aversion to the job).
Some tasks are loathsome enough to cause a visceral physical reaction. For me, the very thought of doing bookkeeping and taxes causes a sinking feeling in my stomach. Sometimes we make the situation worse by stubbornly avoiding the task until it takes on the proportions of a fearsome demon in our head, enough to terrify anyone. It’s called the “urge field”: just putting it off makes you feel guilty every time, and if you’re constantly negatively conditioned by unhappy thoughts every time you think about this task, you begin to develop a “psychological recoil mechanism” around it.
What to do when you’re “lazy and unmotivated” – and afraid to get started?
Look at your feelings when you feel “lazy” or don’t feel like working on what you need to do. Try to separate the swirls of emotions and see if there is a common fear thread. Remember, Your Problem Isn’t Laziness.
Try to isolate the fear.
What are you afraid of? It’s easier said than done – after all, it’s a confusing tangle of feelings. But if you can figure out exactly why you’re afraid, that’s a good start.
Don’t be judgmental.
Blaming yourself and calling yourself lazy or unmotivated is not only counterproductive but also wrong. Either way, laziness in and of itself is not a fixed personality trait. The human desire to avoid unpleasantness is ingrained – forgive yourself and be kind to yourself. Research shows that self-forgiveness can reduce future procrastination!
Give it a shot.
Alright, we figured out that this lens is scary. Let’s break it down by determining the minor action you can take to achieve it. Could you put it in writing? Write down three small steps. If it’s “open my tax file”, “click on the Excel sheet”, or “write “January” on the first line”, it doesn’t matter. The goal is to make them tiny. Once you have found the first three small steps, do them. Alright, did you do them? Are you still alive? Let’s tell the limbic system to freak out a little less. It’s time to write the following three steps.
Think of a realistic result.
Fear also tends to take us over, and we start to disaster. What is the worst realistic scenario? For example, you might be publishing a blog post. The fear holding you back might be that your blog post needs to improve. If you write a terrible article, what’s the worst that can happen? Did you receive nasty comments? Or some people might be disappointed.
The fear holding me back now might be that my blog post needs to improve. If I write a terrible article, what’s the worst that could happen? I might need better feedback. Or might some people’s opinions of me as a writer suffer? Or, some people might be disappointed enough in me to delete me from their list on Twitter. But it’s certainly nothing close to the image I have in mind, which involves attacks, hate letters, and denial of my family. Ask yourself if the emotions running through your mind are a proportional response to the risks or dangers of failing the task.
Reframe the lens.
Instead of a big scary goal, measure it in terms of intake. Instead of “finishing my 100-page report,” set a goal of “working 2 hours a day this week to write this report.” Hey, you can only manage 2 hours!
The more we read about procrastination, the more we realize it has nothing to do with personality traits, laziness, or even a lack of motivation. Lack of motivation is a symptom, but procrastination is a problem managing emotion. The best way to tackle it is to understand what emotions are holding you back from doing your job.