Laziness is Not the Issue

Recently, I asked a coaching client what was stopping him from taking action on a task he had given himself to do but had not yet seen through.

His reply: “It all comes down to one big reason: laziness.”


Is this accurate? Or could it be that “laziness” is nothing but a damning self-judgment that also serves as a blanket excuse for whenever we fail to do something?

If we self-identify as lazy, we take this to be a character flaw — something extremely difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

But maybe laziness is not the issue. Maybe laziness does not even exist! Maybe there is simply being motivated to do a particular thing, and not.

If you are a human being, I am willing to bet that you have experienced yourself as both incredibly motivated in certain situations and utterly unmotivated in others.

I told my client that I have observed about myself that when I am not taking action on something, it’s usually for one of three reasons:

1) It’s not important to me.

2) It is important to me, but I’m avoiding it because I anticipate it will be difficult or unpleasant.

3) It’s a “it’d be nice to do” as opposed to being a “must do” — in other words, the stakes are not subjectively high enough, so I’m not making it a priority.

If you are defaulting to “laziness” as your reason for not doing something you claim you want to do, I invite you to probe deeper.

Whereas “laziness” does not offer us much to work with, the above are statements that, when considered, can allow us to move forward rather than remain stuck.

Let’s look at each of them, one by one:

1) It’s not important to me.

We may tell ourselves that something is important to us when, in fact, it is not.

Maybe by stating that x is important to us, it convinces us that we are a certain kind of person, one with character traits or values that we like to associate with ourselves. (An example: that promotion is important to me because I am an ambitious person.)

Or: maybe we think that x is something that should be important to us, because of what others around us are saying or outside messages we have internalized without even realizing it. (Applying for that position should be important to me because everyone else at the company seems to think it’s a great opportunity. And think of how disappointed my co-workers, or family, would be in me if I did not go after it.)

Maybe we would feel guilty to admit that x is not all that important to us.

Maybe x is something that once was important to us but isn’t any longer.

The challenge here is to be honest with ourselves.

It does us no good, and it does others no good, to claim that something is important to us if it is not.

Others may want to hear that it is, and we may want to please them by telling them so. But if our actions don’t line up (we either don’t apply for the position, or don’t apply ourselves in the position once we achieve it), those same others will observe soon enough for themselves the truth of the matter.

If you determine that something is not actually important to you — for whatever reason — than that, and not laziness, is why you are not taking action on it.

So, be honest with yourself if this is the case.

You then have two options: you can proceed in that direction anyway, or you can let go of it.

Proceeding anyway would enable you to avoid conflict, disapproval, or possibly even some upheaval in your life (at least in the short term). If you make this decision, at least you would be making it consciously if you are being honest with yourself about why you are doing it. Making decisions consciously as opposed to unconsciously is progress in and of itself.

The other option, of course, is to accept that this thing is not important to you and to let go of it altogether. Letting go of it would unburden yourself from the feeling of obligation tied to pursuing something you don’t really want. And you would also unburden others from expecting something from you that you will not, in good faith, be able to deliver on.

Letting go frees you to channel your energy elsewhere (in a direction that matters to you, even if you are not clear about what that is yet!), and it frees others from unrealistic expectations of you so they, too, can invest their energy more productively elsewhere.

Short-term pain, perhaps, but long-term gain for everyone involved.

2) It is important to me, but I’m avoiding it because I anticipate it will be difficult or unpleasant.

Is there a more common human experience than avoidance?? (Hey, don’t avoid the question!)

Some may prefer to call this procrastination. But it’s really just good old-fashioned fear (or anxiety), which never itself seems to procrastinate on rearing its ugly head.

Most of us understand that it’s better to face the unpleasant things that are important to us sooner rather than later. We know that this is, in fact, the path to the relief that we seek. (“The only way out is through” as the saying goes.)

In fact, sometimes the facing and doing of such a task ends up being not nearly as unpleasant in actuality as it was in our imagination. Sometimes we may even find ourselves enjoying it once we get going!

But, even if that gym workout or dreaded conversation or doctor’s appointment turns out to be as arduous, unpleasant, or unappealing as we anticipated, we usually feel good about ourselves for taking care of it and getting it over and done with, don’t we?

I think it is important to acknowledge fear or anxiety for what it is, rather than use the unhelpful — if not inaccurate — label of “laziness” as our excuse.

OK, fine, you say. I’m not lazy; I’m just afraid (or anxious). So: what do I do with that?

The answer is simple, if not always easy to execute. You decide there is something more important to you than the fear or anxiety you are experiencing, and you act accordingly.

Think of it as a favor you are doing for your near-future self. Wouldn’t you rather feel gratitude toward yourself than the dread of lingering anxiety (anxiety which is only likely to increase the longer you keep your feet planted in avoidance)?

Isn’t this how we make ourselves proud of ourselves? Isn’t this how character is built (not to mention self-confidence) — by repeatedly facing the things that make us anxious or uncomfortable but that are important to us?

At the very least, call a spade a spade. It’s not laziness that is stopping you; it’s fear or anxiety. Welcome to Club Humanity!

3) It’s a “it’d be nice to do” as opposed to being a “must do” — in other words, the stakes are not subjectively high enough, so I’m not making it a priority.

We each are allotted twenty-four hours in a day. Decisions must be made regarding how and where we direct our time, energy, and attention. In other words, we prioritize some time-and-energy investments over others. Inevitably, some things — though we may give lip service to their importance to us — will fall by the wayside and not make the cut in a given day, week, month, year, or lifetime.

It’s not just a matter of deeming something to be worthwhile or not. There is also a calculation that is made — consciously or otherwise — about the cost of investing in a particular activity. That is, we make a judgment call about whether or not something is worth it to us to do. This is an entirely subjective matter, and a reflection of our values, at least in that moment. There are always sacrifices inherent in choosing one thing over another. But it is these sacrifices that make our choices, and our values, meaningful.

If you are wondering how the things you consider important to you rank in your life right now, study your own behavior as an impartial observer would (for instance, by faithfully recording how you spend your time hour-by-hour for, say, a full week) and your true values will be revealed!

The good news is that our values are not fixed — they can be changed at any time. When we decide that we wish to modify something about the way we are living, we can revise our investments of time, energy, money, or attention. We can experiment by adding or subtracting certain activities or behaviors (or relationships) from our lives and see how we feel about those choices and the results they produce for us.

Determining our values is an ongoing calibration process. It is perfectly natural for our priorities to change over time. But to undertake this process consciously starts with an honest self-assessment: how am I currently investing my time and energy, and what changes do I wish to make in that regard?

We are not being lazy when we are neglecting something we claim is important to us. If we’re not in avoidance mode, we might simply be prioritizing other things over that one right now, and we can choose otherwise whenever we decide to.


To sum up:

When you really want to do something, or something is really important to you, do you have trouble mobilizing yourself? My guess is probably not. In which case, you’re not lazy.

So, instead of calling it laziness when motivation does not arise spontaneously, dig deeper and uncover what the ambivalence is all about:

  • Learn to differentiate that which “should” be important to you versus what actually is.
  • If something isn’t genuinely important to you, consider giving yourself permission to let go of it. It’s your life, and we’re not here for all that long.
  • If something is important to you, but you are having a hard time getting yourself to take action on it, you might be in avoidance mode. This is understandable, human person! Acknowledge when you have fear or anxiety about something and resolve to face it. Seek out help if you need to. Ask yourself what is more important to me than this discomfort? and lean into that. The more you build this muscle, the better you will feel about yourself.
  • Ask yourself Is this a priority for me right now? Not everything can be. If it’s not, accept that and know that priorities can and do change and evolve. If it is a priority, or you wish for it to become one, study yourself like the fascinating and complex creature that you are. Tune in to the conditions under which you have found yourself naturally motivated in the past. Observe any patterns or insights you discover about yourself. Try new techniques or tactics. Change your environment to make it more hospitable to what you want to prioritize. Do your best to understand what makes you tick so that you can get yourself to do things you might not “want” to do in the moment but that you will later thank yourself for having done.

First and foremost, cultivate honesty and patience with yourself. This is essential to living with integrity, and to cultivating honesty and patience with others, as well.

This is the lifelong work of being human.

Originally published at on June 7, 2022.



Writer, musician, teacher, coach, philosopher, biped.

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