The Art of Positive Laziness – Part 1: Setting the record straight

Since this book is all about the positive side of laziness, the logical thing to do is to start with the following question: ‘What is laziness?’ Laziness has had a bad reputation for centuries now. At one point in time the church even went so far as labeling laziness (in the form of sloth) as one of the Seven Deadly Sins! So what is it? And what gives it its bad name? It’s time to set some records straight.

We will start by exploring and busting three major myths about laziness and success:

  1. Laziness is an inherently bad thing
  2. Laziness keeps you from being successful
  3. Laziness and self-discipline cancel each other out

After that we will quickly look at why being busy all the time, by being overwhelmed with tasks and working hard to get through them, is actually a form of negative laziness.

Myth 1: Laziness is always a bad thing

The idea that laziness is a bad thing comes forth from misinterpretation and abuse of the term laziness itself. When we think of a lazy person, the picture that quickly comes to mind is one of a profiteer; someone who refuses to do anything and makes other people do all the work. However, laziness does not always have to be a bad thing. In a lot of cases it is actually a good thing. There is a good reason why we are born with lazy impulses. Before looking why this is, let’s start with defining what laziness precisely is.

Laziness is: The absence of the will and energy to undertake a certain action. It is nothing more or less. Laziness is a built-in firewall which protects us from blindly rushing into pointless tasks and prevents us from wasting time and energy. However, since we are brought up with the notion that laziness is a negative character trait and should be avoided altogether, this mechanism is deteriorating. We are being trained to suppress the impulses of laziness, not knowing that by doing so we are switching off our natural defensive mechanism which protects us from distress and burn-outs.

In the meanwhile we are showing signs of laziness without realizing it. This is because society does not recognize these phenomena as manifestations of laziness. One example of these phenomena is being too busy to get anything done. How this is actually a manifestation of laziness we will discuss later on. First let us shine a light on the yin and yang of laziness.


The two sides of laziness

Laziness itself is a neutral thing, laziness can be good or a bad depending on the context. Even though this book is all about the positive manifestation of laziness, we will take a quick look at the dark side of it. To be able to use laziness to our advantage, we first have to be able to tell when laziness is good or bad.

Negative Laziness

Negative laziness is the manifestation of laziness which gives laziness its bad name. It’s this form of laziness which leads to piled up work, missed deadlines and a shortage of healthy exercise.

Negative Laziness can be easily recognized by the following standards: Laziness is bad when it leads to harm to you, your work, your friends and family or your environment. It all depends on the effects of not doing certain things.

We will now take closer look at a few examples of Negative Laziness, starting with one of the most dangerous forms.

Mental Laziness

Mental laziness is one of the most dangerous forms of negative laziness. Mental laziness comes down to being too lazy to think for oneself. It’s accepting and copying ideas and stereotypes without ever thinking them through. It’s doing things in a certain way just because everyone else is. It’s accepting that certain things are true just because everyone else believes it, without checking the facts properly.

People who exhibit this kind of laziness are an easy target for manipulation. People that don’t think critically are easy to influence, for better or worse, because they won’t doubt the presented facts properly. Making sure you are not one of those people being controlled by others is easy; just use your brains where you got them for. Avoid mental laziness at all costs.

A small example

The following short story shows how people unconsciously copy behavior without ever doubting how useful certain habits are. It also illustrates the way to counter this mindlessness.

Mike walks into the kitchen where his sister is preparing a piece of meat. Just before she puts it into the oven she takes a knife and cuts it in two. Mike asks his sister why she cuts the meat in two before putting it in the oven. “I don’t know, that’s how mom always does it” she replies. Mike doesn’t give up and decides to ask his mom why she always cuts the meat in two before putting it into the oven. His mom replies to his question “I don’t know that’s how your grandmother used to do it”. Mike decides to settle this once and for all and he calls his grandmother. “Grandmother, why did you always cut the meat in two before you put it into the oven?” Mike asks over the phone. His grandmother bursts into laughter and answers “Because I used to have a really small oven, it was the only way it fitted.”

In the previous story you could clearly see how both Mike’s sister and mother showed signs of mental laziness. Be like Mike and stay critical. Check the facts if possible, and ask yourself if the things you do are really the best way to achieve something. The fact that everyone is doing something a certain way doesn’t automatically make it the best way to do it. Keeping this in the back of your mind is crucial while practicing the art of positive laziness which consists of looking for alternative ways to achieve the same goal with a lot less effort. It’s self-evident that mental laziness stands in the way of positive laziness.

Giving up

Another manifestation of negative laziness is giving up. Here I don’t mean giving up on doing something when you suddenly realized that it was pointless. By all means, as soon as you realize something is going nowhere, please stop immediately. However, giving up because you are too lazy to look for solutions when you are facing obstacles is clearly a form of negative laziness.

A lack of ambition

A lack of ambition is a manifestation of negative laziness which is inclining towards mental laziness. A lack of ambition springs forth from a fatalistic worldview. The view that things just are the way they are, and that you don’t have any control over it. By this people convince themselves that, because there is nothing they can change about their situation, there is no use in trying it. This is how it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s the attitude that makes people give up before even trying. It’s what people gets to give up their dreams and prevents them from ever achieving their goals and reaching their full potential. This is a truly tragic thing. Beware of this destructive attitude. The best way to ensure something won’t succeed is by just not trying it at all.

In the last part of this book we will continue on the topic of ambition. For now we will move on to exploring ways in which laziness is used as an excuse to cover up for something else (and by that giving laziness a bad name).

Laziness as an excuse

Next to a lot of people not knowing the difference between positive and negative laziness there is another reason why laziness has such a bad name. Often when we say we are too lazy to do something, we actually mean that we are just too scared. While blaming laziness for avoiding a certain action, the actual cause can be found in the (unconscious) fear of the consequences. No matter if these consequences are positive or negative.

It’s easier to say that you are too lazy to find another job or to start your own company than to admit that you are afraid of taking the leap. Laziness is being used to camouflage a lack of courage. Fear of change, fear of the unknown and a loss of certainty. People who say they are too lazy to start the journey towards a better life are usually just too scared to take the first step.

Fear can have a big influence on people, especially the fear of loss; the loss of certainty, friends, respect, credibility, love, or money. Just name it. People who are being paralyzed by their fear might seem to exhibit laziness because it stops them from taking certain actions. This doesn’t mean it really is laziness. Learn to see the difference.

Sometimes we are so scared of the potential outcome of certain actions that we’d rather don’t do anything at all. This because we are scared of what other people might think or say about us. We live within the constraints that we put on ourselves. We are afraid of letting other people know how we really feel, afraid to say out loud what we really think, afraid to take new paths and try out new ways to achieve our goals. We often do this without realizing how dumb this is. We are keeping ourselves small. By this we are our biggest obstacle in achieving our life goals. The only thing standing in the way of success is our own fear. This doesn’t have to stay this way. The thing a lot of people fail to see is that there are two kinds of fear. One the one hand there is natural fear and on the other there is learned fear. Natural fear is the kind of fear that makes us avoid potentially deadly situations like jumping off the top of high buildings. It keeps us from doing the dumb stuff like putting our hands in the mouths of sharks and makes us run away in time when we encounter a tiger in the jungle.

Learned fear on the other hand constitutes of most social phobias like being afraid of rejection, as well as the fear of speaking in public. While natural fear revolves around protecting our lives, learned fear revolves around protecting our ego. Most of these learned fears are unfounded and can be discarded. That’s why it’s important to train yourself to distinguish the two forms from one another. When fear is of the natural kind you’d better listen to it. Learned fear however, might be better ignored or conquered.

The problem with learned fear is that a lot of the time it feels very real. It can be pretty nerve wrecking to give a speech in front of a hundred people. However, there is nothing that really can go wrong. In the worst case scenario you might forget your lines or screw up a few words. Unless you are performing for some Mafia boss who can’t stand slipups, there is no real life threatening danger involved. The world won’t end if you screw up the presentation.

A weird thing about a lot of social fears is that the fear of the consequences increases the chance of those consequences really occurring. For example, by being afraid that you will forget your lines at a big presentation, the fear itself will probably be the cause of you forgetting your lines. It is a vicious circle. Luckily, by conquering your fears, you’ll be able to decrease the chances of failing.

Conquering (learned) fear

Conquering fear takes nothing more than temporarily putting your emotions on stand-by and letting your rational mind take over again for a minute. Ask yourself what the worst case scenario could be, how likely this is to happen, and if that would really be the end of the world. In case of learned fear, action beats fear. It’s about just getting over it and taking the first step.  As soon as you do it you’ll realize it wasn’t as bad as you’d expected. You need to get over this hurdle by stepping it up and just going for it. The more often you do this the easier it gets. Start with small challenges and work your way up from there.

Myth 2: Laziness keeps you from being successful

This myth has its roots in the still widely popular misconception that hard work is the key to success. Today there are still people who seem to believe that if you just work really hard you will end up being successful. Alas, the world doesn’t operate that way. Not hard, but effective work is what leads to results. The people who work the hardest (physically) are usually not the ones who are paid the most, while people who work with their head are being paid a lot better.

If hard work really was the key to success then everyone who worked hard should be successful while the persons who refrain from hard work could never become successful. Alas, there are a lot of hard working people who still have to work around the clock just to get by.

For example imagine a factory owner and his employees. Who is more successful? The owner who delegates all the actual work and takes in all the profits or the employee who works day in day out as hard as he can just to get by? Of course the definition of success can vary for different people but it should be clear that just hard work is not the key to success.

If you want to achieve something, it is not about working hard but about working effectively. In the end it is the result that counts, not how hard and long you worked for it. Positive laziness helps you to be more result oriented and helps you to achieve your goals while spending less energy.

Remember: It’s not about how hard you work, what counts is how much you achieve.

Laziness does not keep you from being successful. As a matter of fact, positive laziness helps you to become more successful by pushing you to find more effective ways to achieve your goals. 

Myth 3: Laziness and Self-Discipline cancel each other out

This myth fits the idea that laziness is a negative thing. While a lot of forms of negative laziness can be contested by improving your self-discipline, self-discipline and laziness do not have to cancel each other out.

The common idea is that someone is either disciplined or lazy. A combination of these two extremes may be hard to imagine but it’s still possible. Positive laziness makes sure you won’t do any unnecessary tasks while in the meanwhile self-discipline helps you to get the remaining essential tasks done as fast as possible. More about self-discipline can be found in part 3.

Even though a lot of forms of negative laziness can be contested with self-discipline, self-discipline and laziness can still complement each other. You can be proactively lazy where you flat out refuse to do anything that doesn’t bring you closer to your goals but do those things that do bring you closer consistently in a disciplined way.

Why being too busy is a form of negative laziness

Often you hear people complaining about how busy they are. They got so much to do and complain about not having enough time to get anything done. These people always seem to keep themselves busy. They constantly seem to be doing one thing or another without getting any closer to their goals. Even though these people might be hard workers they display a form of negative laziness.

“What?! You must be kidding me”, you might think. “How can being flooded with tasks and working hard trying to get them done be a form of negative laziness?” Well, the answer is pretty simple. Being too busy is the result of being too lazy to take the time to review your to-do list and think it through properly. It’s being too lazy to set priorities. Paradoxically this leads to extra work and wasted time and energy. Not doing one thing leads to doing a lot of other things.

Being too busy is usually the result of one or more of the following causes:

– Not setting priorities

– Being unable to see how useful a task really is

– Bad planning

– Mindlessly rushing into tasks

– Not being able to say no

On top of that, being busy is quite a good excuse to avoid the tasks that really need to be done but you dread doing. An excuse, being too busy is actually nothing more than that. It’s being too lazy to stop for a second and ask yourself if that what you are doing really is a useful way to spend your time and energy. Being too lazy to review your to-do lists, set priorities, and focus on doing the things that really matter the most.

Previous: Preface – Next: Part 2: The foundations of Positive Laziness

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