You’re Not Lazy.

Melissa Shepard, MD

Melissa Shepard, MD

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They shamefully describe how lazy they’ve become, how they’ve always been plagued by laziness, or how many of their problems tie back to their supposed laziness.
I tell them the same thing every time. You’re not lazy. There are so many other potential explanations for your behaviors that are more accurate and helpful.
Let’s break it down. When people describe themselves as “lazy,” they usually mean that they have trouble motivating themselves to do things that they (or others) feel they should do. Things like exercising regularly, completing a project at work or school, or cleaning around the house. When people refer to themselves as lazy, they often describe a scenario in which they stop striving towards a long-term goal instead of a short-term pleasure or ease.
This sort of scenario happens to all of us, often on a daily basis. But that people are not inherently “lazy.” Let me give you a couple of examples that I hear from people all the time:
“I don’t exercise because I’m lazy.”
You may not want to get off the couch to exercise, but you would probably get off the couch to exercise if I told you that I would give you a million dollars if you hit the gym. You must not be inherently lazy then: you just haven’t found the proper motivation or plan to complete the workout you want to do.
“If I weren’t so lazy, I would eat healthier.”
You may not want to eat healthy foods right now, but if I had a professional chef who offered to cook you delicious and nutritious meals for free, you’d probably be okay with it. So you must not be “too lazy” to eat healthier foods; there are just other barriers in your way.

Labeling yourself as lazy will keep you stuck.

I know these are dramatic examples, but it’s the same concept with your goals. You are not lazy. Your “laziness” is just a sign that there is something you need to overcome to meet your goals.
Why does it matter? Because labeling yourself as lazy will keep you stuck.
While name-calling and harsh self-criticism often seems to motivate us momentarily, it makes us less likely to accomplish our goals in the long run. It also allows us to avoid looking for the root cause of our “laziness.” There is a reason we are choosing to sacrifice our long-term goals for something in the present, some short-term gain. If we believe our behaviors are simply a function of being lazy, then there is no reason to investigate any further and little hope of changing things. And if we want to change any behavior, we first need to figure out the cause.
Here is an analogy that might help. Say you go to the doctor because you’ve had a high fever for several days. The doctor doesn’t bother to ask you any questions about your symptoms or run tests. Instead, they tell you to take some acetaminophen (or Tylenol) to bring down the fever and send you on your way.
Does the acetaminophen help? Sure. The fever comes down as long as you continue taking the medicine.
Are you cured? Not even close. You still have no idea why you are having these fevers, and the underlying illness worsens without proper diagnosis and treatment.
In other words, laziness is not a character flaw or a personality trait. It’s a symptom. And when we are tempted to criticize ourselves for being “lazy,” it’s a sign that we need to be compassionate and dig deep to figure out what is going on, rather than relying on self-criticism to try and improve.
So let’s talk about what might really be going on when you call yourself lazy:
You don’t have the resources you need.
If you don’t have the resources to do what you want to do, it will be more difficult, if not impossible, for you to accomplish your goal.
Consider a student from a low-income family who calls themselves lazy because they didn’t do as well on standardized testing as they hoped. On closer inspection, we find that they had to work a full-time job in addition to attending school because they had to support their family. They simply didn’t have as much time or mental energy to devote to preparing for their exam as others with more resources might have. And they certainly didn’t have the expendable income to throw at a super expensive prep course. They weren’t lazy- their lack of resources limited them.
If you don’t have the resources you need to accomplish your goal (things like time, money, and energy), no amount of motivation or self-criticism will help. Focus instead on where you may have some control, for example, identifying and obtaining the resources necessary for success or reducing the need for those resources. And know that, even then, you may not be able to get yourself a fair playing field. You still deserve compassion, kindness, and encouragement for all that you have been able to do.
You need a break.
You’re not a robot. You can’t be constantly motivated and productive. Eventually, you run out of steam. When you are exhausted and need time to recharge, you can’t make as much progress towards your goals. And that doesn’t make you lazy; it makes you human.
I remember beating myself up in residency at the end of a 12-hour ER shift. “What is your problem?” I asked myself. “You need to hurry up and write these notes if you want to see the baby before bed.” My initial instinct was to try and bully myself into accomplishing more. But then I realized it had been a tough day, and by demanding more, I was setting myself up for failure. I decided to try some self-compassion and took a quick break. This gave me the boost I needed to finish my urgent tasks and head home to spend some time with my daughter. As you might imagine, I found myself far more productive (and happy) the next day.
Something else is more important right now.
Listen to me. No, really listen. If you don’t have the drive to be everything to everyone and the drive to work towards every single one of your goals every waking moment, THAT’S OKAY. Sometimes we can “do it all,” and sometimes, we can’t. And that doesn’t make you any less worthy as a person.
I recall feeling so frustrated with myself a couple of years ago because I lost the drive to eat healthily and exercise regularly. Sometimes I could force myself to do it, but there were long stretches where my formerly athletic self was exhausted just trying to get through the day. As I saw the effects on my body and mind, I became very critical of myself, wondering why I couldn’t motivate myself to do the things that had come so easily before. But my family was in crisis, dealing with my husband’s alcohol addiction. My focus shifted from self-improvement to survival as I desperately tried to hold things together. I added to my suffering by criticizing myself for not being able to do everything. And I also missed the opportunity to show compassion for myself in the midst of an already difficult situation.
You have trouble envisioning the future.
Many of our goals require a long-term commitment before we see any progress, and it can be tough to stay focused on achieving those goals before you start to see the benefits. This isn’t laziness; it’s human nature. Anytime we set out to accomplish a goal, we need a certain amount of drive and motivation to sustain us until we develop new habits and start to see results.
I work with many people with ADHD, and they tend to have a tough time envisioning and living for the future when it comes to their goals. The impulsivity and planning difficulties can make it hard for people with ADHD to work toward long-term, seemingly-invisible goals. Using things like vision boards, post-it note reminders, and finding other ways to make your goals visible can go a long way.
I always felt like this was too simple to work until I tried it myself. I wanted to get back to exercising regularly after losing steam when I was in medical school, but I couldn’t seem to stay motivated to get to the gym. I kept telling myself that skipping it “just this once” wouldn’t matter and that I had to attend to more urgent issues (like studying for an upcoming exam). I finally convinced myself to take a minute and a half to write down some of the reasons I wanted to make it to the gym more regularly. I wrote that regular exercise would help me with long-term goals of increasing my strength, improving my mental health, and having more energy. I put one note on my bathroom mirror and one on my refrigerator so that I would see them several times a day. Seeing these long-term benefits written out helped make the intangible benefits of exercise more tangible, which helped me get back to the gym.
Your habits are setting you up for failure.
Relying on willpower and motivation alone may make it seem like you are lazy because it’s just not an effective strategy. Willpower and motivation quickly dissipate after a long day at work, a fight with a partner, or a bad night’s sleep. However, these same issues don’t necessarily impact your habits. Think about it: if you argue with your partner, you probably still drop the kids off at school in the morning and head to work, even though you may be feeling some powerful and difficult emotions.
If you can weave your long-term goals into habits, it becomes easier to stick with them. If you’ve been heading to the gym every day after work for the past year, you’ll probably drive there on autopilot even after a difficult day.
So how do you go about creating a habit? It’s simple, but it takes time, so don’t expect to lock in your new habit overnight. Start by making small changes slowly until you don’t have to expend much effort to sustain the change. For example, if you want to get into the habit of writing every morning, you might start by setting a timer and telling yourself to write for five minutes every day until picking up your pen and paper feels automatic. It’s also essential to arrange your environment to support your new habit (see below for more information, but one example could be setting up your writing space so you don’t have to go hunting for your supplies first thing in the morning).
For more on creating a habit, check out this blog post.
Your environment is setting you up for failure.
Sometimes your supposed “laziness” is sheer exhaustion from fighting against your environment. When our environment is working against us, it’s like a salmon trying to swim upstream: it’s possible, but it is much more challenging than swimming with the current. Changing the environment may not seem like a huge intervention, especially if the change is subtle. But our environment has such a significant impact on us.
Although it may seem silly, changing where I store certain foods in my kitchen has probably done as much for my health as any other intervention I’ve made. If I keep certain foods in plain sight, I’m much more likely to eat them. If I make other foods less visible, I’m less likely to eat them. That’s why my vegetables no longer go in the crisper drawer. They may not last as long, but I’m more likely to remember they are there and get some health benefits before they go bad.
It’s also vital to remove distractions from your environment. If I’m working on my writing, I know that I have to put my phone somewhere else or lock myself out of the apps that tend to distract me.
Your level of accountability can also be an environmental factor that affects your “laziness”. When done correctly, accountability can provide you with motivation and the ability to power through when things get tough. Consider having an accountability partner, someone you can talk to for encouragement and who will remind you of your goals when you lose sight. If you can’t (or don’t want to) recruit someone to help, you can try tracking your habits. Writing down your accomplishments and building a streak (for example, putting a sticker on the calendar every day you go for a walk) can be a powerful way to hold yourself accountable. Once that streak starts building, it is painful to break it! You can also increase your personal accountability by committing to donate a certain amount of money to charity if you don’t reach your goals. If you really want to up the ante, choose an “anti-charity” (or a charity that supports a cause against your value system) as the potential recipient of the money you lose. Stickk is one company that offers these commitment contracts.
You believe that the criticism will motivate you.
Research has shown that self-criticism simply isn’t an effective strategy for long-term change. So criticizing ourselves for being lazy may motivate us to take action in the short term, but this motivation fades quickly and takes our self-esteem down a notch, making it more likely that we will struggle with the same issue again and again.
Letting go of criticism is especially important if you are trying to build a new habit. I remember starting back into an exercise routine after a long hiatus. Whenever I made it to class, I would spend most of the time beating myself up for not being able to do as much as I once could. I found myself comparing my performance to others and judging my speed, strength, endurance, appearance, and pretty much anything else you could think of. It was no wonder that I was finding myself dreading classes. I was basically attending my own internal roast whenever I went, which didn’t feel good. I became more mindful of how I spoke to myself during workouts. Whenever I noticed self-criticism creeping in, I would remind myself that it wasn’t helpful and try to find a more positive replacement. For example, “I can’t believe you’ve lost so much strength” became, “I’m proud of you for working on building your strength back up again.” It was much easier to get myself into the gym each day when I knew I wouldn’t be facing an onslaught of criticism.

I was basically attending my own internal roast... which didn't feel good.

You are struggling with your mental health.
Mental health issues are incredibly draining and will get in the way of being able to achieve your goals. So many mental health issues are erroneously labeled as “laziness” because they are incredibly draining and will get in the way of achieving your goals. Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is one of the mental health issues that is most commonly mislabeled as laziness. People struggling with MDD typically have a decrease in energy, low motivation, a disinterest in things they used to like, and may find themselves oversleeping, all symptoms that can be mistaken as laziness. For more information on the symptoms of MDD, see this blog post.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is another mental health issue that tends to be mislabeled as “laziness.” People with ADHD struggle with executive functioning tasks like organization, motivation, planning, and impulsivity. These struggles can make them appear “lazy,” but in reality, their struggles are due to a neurodevelopmental disorder that needs attention. For more information on the symptoms of ADHD, see this blog post.
Virtually any mental health issue and many physical health issues can masquerade as what we call laziness. It is always worth checking in with your doctor before you decide to attribute your struggles to something else.
The Bottom Line:
Don’t sell yourself short by calling yourself lazy. Challenge yourself to look deeper and be kind to yourself so that you can make the changes you want to make.

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