Is laziness a real thing?

people sleeping on a table
© Little Pig Studio/Shutterstock

A social psychologist says that, if you think someone's lazy, you're not seeing the real problem.

If you're struggling to write a screenplay, finish a term paper or come up with a business plan, you might be banging your head against the wall and calling yourself lazy. But good news: Erika Price, a senior lecturer at Loyola University, thinks you're wrong. In fact, she thinks laziness is a myth.

"In the past six years, I’ve witnessed students of all ages procrastinate on papers, skip presentation days, miss assignments, and let due dates fly by," Price wrote in an essay that's recently been making its way around. "I don’t think laziness was ever at fault. Ever. In fact, I don’t believe that laziness exists."

Here's the idea: when people put off planning parties or solving problem sets, it's not that they just don't care. Quite the opposite: They're procrastinating because they care so much.

"I’m hoping to awaken my fellow educators — of all levels — to the fact that if a student is struggling, they probably aren’t choosing to," Price said. "They probably want to do well. They probably are trying."

They could be fighting anxiety because they ironically care so much about their project that they're terrified it won't be good enough.

"If anxiety is the major barrier, the procrastinator actually needs to walk away from the computer/book/word document and engage in a relaxing activity," Price said.

Or they could not be sure how to start. Sometimes, big projects feel impossibly overwhelming. Lots of people need calendars and to-do lists to stay on track.

But these are just a few common possibilities. Plenty of people deal with other issues. A student who is constantly late to class might have OCD and need to make sure her doors are locked 10 times. Someone else might be losing her job.

Price found that issues like these don't mean a person can't succeed. They just mean that folks in charge of evaluating people need to understand their limitations and work with them. A boss dealing with a sleep-deprived employee can let said employee change her work schedule. A professor whose student works two jobs can let her take an exam late.

This mindset can be hard on authority figures.

"Since most professors are people who succeeded academically with ease, they have trouble taking the perspective of someone with executive functioning struggles, sensory overloads, depression, self-harm histories, addictions, or eating disorders," Price wrote. It's also tough for people without disabilities to imagine what it's like to have them, or for people who grew up wealthy to imagine what it's like to scramble to pay the rent.

Not that all professors and employers need to read minds (though that would be amazing/creepy). Price argues that, if a professor sees a student doing poorly and can't figure out why, there's always a reason. The professor just needs to look for it, rather than assuming laziness.

"If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context," Price added. "It’s that simple."

Is laziness a real thing?
A social psychologist says that, if you think someone's lazy, you're not seeing the real problem.

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