Slacker, couch potato, bum, bludger… There are endless pejorative terms to describe lazy people. Sloth is one of the seven capital sins. Whether or not you believe in such moral vices, most cultures see laziness as a negative trait.
But once you step away from moral judgement and focus on its most basic definition, laziness is simply the disinclination to use energy. And being lazy can actually have advantages — many of them backed by scientific research.
Why are we lazy?
While laziness can be a coping mechanism in depression and anxiety, it is very common beyond these medical disorders. Even the most motivated and hardworking people sometimes feel lazy.
“For all these arguments against laziness, it is amazing we work so hard to achieve it,” writes Hal Cranmer in In Defense of Laziness. If laziness is so bad, why is it so prevalent?
Nature seems to have optimised our biological processes for laziness. Even beyond notoriously idle species such as pythons — which sleep about 18 hours per day — most animals spend a majority of their time doing nothing in particular.
And the amount of time they spend doing nothing is correlated to the amount of time they don’t spend on activities such as hunting, foraging, and reproducing.
In Time Resources and Laziness in Animals, Professor Joan Herbers explains that because they have more free time, highly efficient predators may appear to be lazier than relatively unproductive predators.
The apparent paradox stems from a lack of nuance in the definition of laziness. Rather than a sign of inefficiency and unproductivity, laziness is often the result of smart work freeing up time for well-deserved idleness. Furthermore, laziness can be the trigger for smart work in and of itself.
“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”— Robert A. Heinlein.
In short — and as counterintuitive this may sound — laziness is often the other side of the productivity coin.
Ten benefits of laziness
Far from a fatal flaw, laziness can be beneficial. From increased wellness to better work efficiency, being lazy can lead to a more relaxed but also more productive life. A change in attitude towards laziness is overdue.
Here are ten overlooked benefits of laziness:
- Lazy solutions can be smart. Light switch, remote control, escalators, smart speakers… Laziness has been the source of many innovations. Frank Gilbreth Sr. famously said: “I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it” (often misattributed to Bill Gates). While it may be true that necessity is the mother of invention, laziness is a strong motherly figure of innovation as well.
- Slacking off can be a form of active procrastination. In a study about procrastination, “the authors proposed that not all procrastination behaviors either are harmful or lead to negative consequences. Specifically, the authors differentiated two types of procrastinators: passive procrastinators versus active procrastinators. Passive procrastinators are procrastinators in the traditional sense. They are paralyzed by their indecision to act and fail to complete tasks on time. In contrast, active procrastinators are a “positive” type of procrastinator. They prefer to work under pressure, and they make deliberate decisions to procrastinate.” The authors found that active procrastinators had great control of their time, coping mechanisms, and overall performance. Not too bad for people often labelled as lazy.
- Lazy people focus on high-leverage activities. Because they carefully manage their energy expenditure, people who are prone to laziness will tend to avoid unnecessary tasks. Instead, they perform high-leverage tasks with minimum input and outsized output. Such energy multipliers include automating monotonous and time-consuming activities.
- Unproductive time helps us manage our stress. Research suggests that procrastinating away from work and spending unproductive time can help us cope with stress. It is particularly true of teenagers. Activities (or lack thereof) that may be perceived as lazy by adults are necessary for the mental health of young people.
- Being lazy makes you less prone to burnout. “Boredom and laziness should be used as a means to regain control over one’s own body and one’s own time,” explains Dr Isabelle Moreau. By taking regular breaks, lazy people will give an opportunity to their body and their mind to recharge, thus avoid burnout.
- Lazy time encourages diffuse thinking. Our mind has two modes of thinking: the diffuse mode and the focused mode of thinking. We need to maintain constant oscillation between the two modes in order to be our most creative and productive. Mind wandering, a form of diffuse thinking, is a useful mechanism for our brains to process information—sometimes leading to non obvious solutions. Another benefit of letting our mind wander without paying any attention to a productive task is a higher focus on long-term goals, according to a study published in Consciousness and Cognition. A bit of lazy time today, for a more productive time tomorrow!
- Laziness can be good for our mental health. Psychoanalyst and professor of leadership development Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries writes: “Slacking off may be the best thing we can do for our mental health. (…) Keeping busy can be a very effective defense mechanism for warding off disturbing thoughts and feelings. But by resorting to manic-like behavior we suppress the truth of our feelings and concerns, consciously or unconsciously avoiding periods of uninterrupted, freely associative thoughts.”
- Being lazy is a way to recharge our energy stores. Rest and idleness have a less pejorative connotation compared to laziness, but the positive effects are similar. There is extensive research showing the benefits of taking daytime naps and regular breaks, from lowering your blood pressure to clearing your mind.
- Problems can solve themselves if you leave them alone for long enough. Either because someone who needs a solution more badly than you do will take care of it, or because the problem becomes obsolete—sometimes procrastination is the best answer to a problem.
- Laziness can be a helpful symptom. When we feel lazy, our body and our mind are communicating important information. Is it because we are tired or hungry? Because of a lack of motivation? Is the task itself boring or repetitive? Acknowledging the feeling of laziness can be a great way to better approach the task at hand.
If you perpetually feel lazy, you may need to dig a bit deeper into your thoughts and emotions to figure out the source of this lack of energy.
But don’t blame yourself if you feel lazy from time to time. Both a tool and a key to understand yourself better, laziness can be helpful when embraced in a self-compassionate way.
An ode to tactical laziness
While benefits of laziness are many, laziness itself is neutral. The specific context in which we feel lazy, the particular task at hand, the length of time we procrastinate for… All have an impact on how useful or not laziness can be.
When manipulated as a tool — with caution, control, but no unnecessary shame — laziness can be used to be more productive and more relaxed over the long run. Being lazy can lead to smarter decisions, innovative solutions, and better mental health.
“I’m lazy. But it’s the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn’t like walking or carrying things,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Wałęsa. Be more like Lech Wałęsa. Be tactically lazy.