Your Problem Isn't Laziness

What to do when fear keeps you back from your goals

                                                  A woman next to a wall with the writing "Fear is the mindkiller".
Photo by Alexandra I. on Unsplash

It's Saturday morning and the birds are singing. As you get out of bed and stumble forth in search of coffee, you remember that you were supposed to start your workout regime today. But just thinking about going for a run feels.....ugh.

You're tired before you start. Your motivation to go running is far less than your motivation to spend the day watching The Office for the 8th time.

This is a familiar feeling for most of us, and it's what we call "being lazy." Repeated over a few weekends, we completely forget about the fitness goal and relapse into unhealthy habits. And then a chance trigger makes us feel guilty about it once again. We tell ourselves, "this Saturday I'll start running." Rinse and repeat.

Why am I so lazy?


Laziness has been reduced to a personality trait ("she is so lazy!") and has deep cultural implications as well; sloth is one of the seven sins. Our societies tend to glorify busyness. We teach children to be like the industrious ant, and not like the lazy grasshopper who has no long-term thought or backup plans.

But laziness might not be what's holding you back.

When we say we're lazy, it's usually not a precise statement. It's shorthand to mean, "I don't want to do it." But why you don’t want to do something is important. You might view it as a lack of motivation, but it could be other emotions lurking just below the surface, the foremost and probably most insidious of which is fear.

Are you really lazy? Or are you scared?


Fear is a wondrous tool. It's a useful reaction that evolved over millions of years, to protect animals against percieved threats. It kept our ancestors alive across the bush and the savannah.

The human brain has two parts. The first is the limbic system, ancient and powerful, that evolved early to keep us safe. The limbic system controls basic survival instincts -- it's what makes you pull your hand away from fire reflexively, for example. It's the limbic system -- in particular, the amygdala, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response that is triggered when our ancestors saw a lion. Or when we see a report due by 4pm. When researchers compared the brains of procrastinators to non-procrastinators, they found that procrastinators have a larger amygdala.

According to Dr Pychyl, the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: a Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, when we encounter something scary, what happens is an "amygdala hijack." The way we cope with the fear is to escape. The signal courses through the system: Run away! Or the modern equivalent: dive headfirst into the latest season of a reality show.

Attempting to battle the signal to flee that the limbic system has sent out, is the second part of the brain -- the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the new kid on the block, more recently evolved, and deals with advanced executive functions such as planning for the future and predicting the consequences of one's actions. It also happens to be a lot weaker than the limbic system.

Prefontal Cortex: Hey, we need to get started studying for the exam, that's in, like, 1 day.

Prefontal Cortex: I merely make the suggestion.

Limbic system: NOOOO MATH SCARES ME. LET'S WATCH TV AND EAT CAKE TO MAKE OURSELVES FEEL BETTER.

And so, that's what we end up doing. The puny prefrontal cortex has no chance against the old, screaming, crazy limbic system that's freaking out when exposed to a threat.

So what are we afraid of anyway?

Fear of failure.


This is of course, a common emotion most of us have run into at some point. Failure goes hand in hand with so many associated fears: the fear of appearing silly, the fear of disappointing somebody. In some cases, this might even be atychiphobia, an irrational and paralysing fear of failure, accompanied by physical symptoms like faster than normal heartrate, difficulty breathing and sweating profusely.

The fear of failure can be so crippling that our motivation to avoid failure can be stronger than our motivation to succeed. Have you abandoned a goal (or shirked it, or never given it your best) because of a fear of failure?

Dr. Carol Dweck's research goes into having a Fixed Mindset (a belief that one's abilities are set in stone, and can't be changed) as opposed to a Growth Mindset -- the idea that you can work on your abilities. When students she worked with had more of a fixed mindset, they had a tendency to give up or avoid hard challenges altogether. When you hit obstacles, it seems safer to give up, so you can tell yourself "It's because I chose not to try" rather than try and possibly fail.

The way to counter this is to encourage a "growth mindset" in yourself, where you look at every mistake or failure as a chance to learn, rather than as a measure of your abilities.

Fear of success.


Yes, this is a thing too! It manifests in thoughts like "What if my responsibilities increase because of the success and I can't cope?" or "What if this puts me in the limelight and people start to criticize me, and I start attracting hate?"

Fear of the task itself (Task aversion).


Some tasks are hateful enough to cause a visceral physical reaction. For me, the very thought of doing accounting and taxes produces a sinking feeling in my stomach. Sometimes we make it worse by avoiding the task assidiously, till it assumes the proportions of a dread demon in our heads, enough to terrify anybody. This has been called the Ugh Field – the very act of postponing it makes you feel guilty each time, and if you receive constant negative conditioning via unhappy thoughts whenever you think of that task, you start to develop a "psychological flinch mechanism" around it.

What to do when you're "lazy and unmotivated" – and afraid to start


When you feel "lazy" or don't feel like working on whatever it is you need to be doing, examine your feelings a little. Try to separate the whorling swirls of emotion, and see if there's a thread of fear in there.

Try to isolate the fear.


What are you afraid of? This is easier said than done – after all, it's a confusing tangle of feelings. But if you do manage to understand exactly why you're scared, that's a great start towards making progress.

Don't pass a judgement.


Beating yourself up, and calling yourself names like lazy or unmotivated is not only counterproductive, it isn't true. In any case, laziness itself is not an immutable personality trait. The human desire to avoid unpleasantness is ingrained – forgive and be kind to yourself. Research appears to show that self-forgiveness can reduce future procrastination!

Test the waters.


Okay, so we've realized that this goal is a scary thing to do. Let's break it down by figuring out the smallest piece of action you can take towards it. Write it down. Write down 3 tiny actions. If it's "open my tax folder", "click on the excel sheet", "Write 'January' in the first line" that's okay. The point is to make them tiny. Once you figure out the first 3 tiny steps, do them. Alright, did you do them? Are you still alive? Okay, let's tell the limbic system to freak out a little less. Time to write the next 3 steps.

Think about the realistic result.


Fear also tends to carry us away and we begin to catastrophize. What's a realistic worst case scenario? For example, perhaps you're publishing a blog post. The fear holding you back could be that the blog post you're writing is not good enough. If you write a bad piece, what's the worst that could happen? Perhaps you'd get some bad feedback? Or some people might be disappoi

The fear holding me back right now could be that the blog post I'm writing is not good enough. If I write a bad piece, what's the worst that could happen? Perhaps I'd get some bad feedback. Or a few people's opinion of me as a writer might suffer? Or some people might be disappointed enough in me that they unfollow me on Twitter. It's definitely nothing that approaches the picture in my head, which involves brickbats, hate mail, and my family disowning me. Think about whether the emotions that are going through your head is a proportionate response to the actual risks or danger presented by failing the task.

Re-frame the goal.


Instead of a big, scary goal, measure it in terms of input. Instead of "complete writing my 100 page report", make the goal, "work for 2 hours each day this week towards the report." Hey, you can handle just 2 hours!

Final Thoughts


The more we read about procrastination, the more we realize it has nothing to do with personality traits, being lazy or even a lack of motivation. Lack of motivation is a symptom, but procrastination is essentially an emotional management problem. The best way to tackle it is understanding what emotions are standing between you and getting work done.

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