Lazy. It’s a word that gets thrown around with carefree abandon. It’s used as a reason, an accusation, a self-criticism. But what does it even mean? And how useful is it? 

Lazy more often refers to a trait than a state. Someone may be lazy (trait), or they could feel lazy today (state). Herein lies the unhelpfulness and falseness of lazy, because as a trait it seems immovable. A characteristic that cannot be changed.

So how can change be made? Just stop being lazy? Just simply be more motivated? Yeah, just get off your ass! It’s easy if you try! Just go get a job. Stop being so lazy! Replace lazy with depressed, anxious, sad, sensitive, or a host of other words that refer to complex, painful circumstances and it becomes apparent that lazy is unhelpful. And while depressed, anxious, sad, or sensitive can be useful to refer to a pattern of behaviour, lazy is unhelpful because it carries an insinuation of fault. Laziness is the fault of the person who is lazy

At this point, you may be thinking, “yes, this is all well and good, of course we should be kinder to ourselves, yadda yadda… But there are some people who just are lazy.” Let’s consider those people then. And let’s change lazy to unmotivated. Motivation is a much more useful concept because it insinuates that motivation can be found from many different sources. Is the person unmotivated because they don’t experience a sense of reward? Are they unmotivated because they lack a sense of connection? Or is it because they don’t feel a sense of control? These three reasons come from a psychological theory called Self Determination Theory, that explains how intrinsic motivation comes from three sources; 1) Mastery and Achievement, 2) Connectedness and Belonging, and 3) Autonomy and Control. If a person lacks all three, there’s a good chance they won’t feel motivated.

Lazy isn’t a term reserved for others though. One of the most potent uses is when it’s used for ourselves. When you chastise yourself for being too lazy. For just needing to try harder. This is particularly problematic because it can be the start of a vicious cycle. You call yourself lazy, so you feel sad and guilty, so you feel unmotivated to do anything except feel bad, so you don’t get things done, and then you judge yourself for being lazy. It goes around and around, a cycle perpetuating inactivity and self-loathing. On the surface, the intuitive way out is to just try harder, but this often backfires because deep motivation doesn’t really come from trying. It comes from a sense of mastery, connectedness, and autonomy.

The “lazy” self-loathing vicious cycle can get so bad as to start depression, and that can only make things worse. People who are depressed often start viewing good things as products of other people and bad things as products of themselves, so they struggle to acknowledge anything that they actually do achieve. Instead they might think oh, I just got lucky, or I wouldn’t have done it without the help of my friend. This prevents the sense of mastery and autonomy, and again they come back to I am lazy

So lazy is a term that lacks depth, can perpetuate negative judgements of others, doesn’t help in understanding motivation, and can drive people to depression. What word(s) should we use instead? Try to find the thing that is preventing motivation. Someone who plays video games all day instead of getting a job isn’t lazy, they are just motivated to play video games. They must be getting a lot of rewards out of the games, like a sense of accomplishment, control, and maybe a connection to a gaming community. To be motivated to get a job, they will need to be shown that they can get the same rewards from paid work, although perhaps not as immediate.

If you really want to go for a run every morning but you wake up, hit snooze several times, and then rush to work, you aren’t not exercising because you’re lazy. Perhaps it’s really difficult to be motivated to do anything at 6:30am, especially something you haven’t had much practice at. Set small, achievable goals so you can experience a sense of reward, and once the rewards start coming, the motivation will slowly but surely follow.

Our use of language can have a surprising effect on the way we feel about ourselves and others. Be mindful over the coming days of when you use the L word, and think to yourself, “is this work useful.” Most likely it isn’t, and most likely you can find a fairer, more accurate, and more helpful way of thinking instead.

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The Author:

Dr. David Bakker is a psychologist practicing in Melbourne, Australia, and is Founding Director of MoodMission.