A surprising influence helped author Devon Price understand what can be harmful about closely associating our worth with our work. His pet chinchilla, Dumptruck. "He's never been productive in his life," Price says. The social psychologist and author of Laziness Does Not Exist says Dumptruck is pretty much the opposite of productive, and frankly, rather destructive.
"I would never look at him and think of his life in terms of has he justified his right to exist? He's not paying rent. He's not performing any service. And it would be absurd to even think about his life in those terms," he says.
A pet chinchilla, Dumptruck, helped Devon Price realize that you don't have to be productive to earn the right to exist.
"I think animals help us remember that we shouldn't have to earn our right to exist. We're fine and beautiful and completely lovable when we're just sitting on the couch just breathing. And if we can feel that way about animals that we love and about, you know, relatives that we love, people in our lives who we never judged by their productive capacity, then we can start thinking of ourselves that way, too."
Price says the idea of laziness has been effectively and expertly wielded to make people feel unproductive and unworthy. He calls it a lie, and a trap that makes us believe there's always more we could be doing — at work, in our relationships, at home — and that worth is productivity. Instead of viewing "laziness" as a deficit or something we need to fix or overcome with caffeine or longer work hours, Price says to think of laziness as a sign you probably need a break instead.
"Laziness is usually a warning sign from our bodies and our minds that something is not working," he says. "The human body is so incredible at signaling when it needs something. But we have all learned to ignore those signals as much as possible because they're a threat to our productivity and our focus at work."
That achievement mindset might actually be hurting you. And rethinking "laziness" can lead to more compassion.
Price spoke with Life Kit about the problem with emphasizing "hard work" over our own health, the people who are often labeled as lazy and the positive impacts laziness can have in our lives.
Left: Atria Books; right: Collin Quinn Rice
Price is a social psychologist, a professor at Loyola University of Chicago's School of Continuing and Professional Studies and the author of Laziness Does Not Exist.
Left: Atria Books; right: Collin Quinn Rice
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why overemphasizing "hard work" is problematic
We live in a reality where people do accurately recognize that that we live and die by our ability to work. And so there's this self-defeating but also really rational quality to our compulsive overwork that a lot of us have. It becomes really self-defeating to say, "I'm in this on my own. I need to work really hard and make a lot of money so that I can take care of myself." Because when you think that way, you also take on a much gloomier view of other people. Anyone else and their needs is kind of a threat to my own kind of rugged individualism and independence. So it keeps us really isolated. It keeps us judging our co-workers for not pulling their own weight because we're suffering so hard. [It] can kind of create this downward spiral of just workaholism and isolation.
The people who get tagged as lazy
People who are dealing with any kind of anxiety, ADHD, depression, any kind of mental health struggle, those are people who tend to have been called lazy throughout their lives. Any time they're out of energy or just having trouble getting through a really overwhelming moment or day, people can't see that internal struggle. They just judge it as them lacking willpower or being lazy.
Marginalized people, especially people of color, tend to be branded as lazy a lot in a lot of really insidious ways. There's a way in which learned helplessness is really just accurately recognizing that you're in a really difficult situation where people aren't giving you freedom and autonomy and not really respecting you or letting you feel heard. So a lot of times we call people lazy when he's just kind of checking out of a really unfair situation or really unmotivated situation.
How laziness actually helps us define our values and see ourselves more clearly
I think laziness really is this canary in a coal mine kind of emotion that tells us when our values are out of step with our actual lives. A lot of times we pour so much energy into being impressive at work, satisfying all the demands of our friends and family and just trying to overachieve in every possible way that we don't really listen to that inner voice that tells us, "Here's what matters most to me in my life. Here's what I really believe in and value. And here's how I really would live if I wasn't just setting out to satisfy other people."
I think when we start listening to laziness, we can really question a lot of unfair social standards like fat phobia. This social standard says that our bodies need to look a certain way and that we need to exercise and cook meals that look a particular way. And it's just all of this drive towards meeting a really arbitrary standard of perfection. When we stop pushing ourselves to kind of overachieve by this completely arbitrary metric, we can say, "OK, what actually feels good for my body? How do I actually want to spend my time?"
How to fight overwork and over-identifying "hard work" with our worth
I do have this exercise in the book, but you can also get it online. It's just called the values clarification exercise, and it's something that a lot of therapists give out where it's just a list of different values that a person might have. You're asked to rank order them. It can be things like achievement, family, connection, humility, care for other people. If you have to choose three of these values off of this really long list, what are the three that you're going to choose? Because you can't actually fulfill all of them equally all of the time. Once you have a sense of what really matters most to you in your life ... then you can look at how your actual life is out of step.
What to do if you're not in control of your time
Most of us don't have that ultimate freedom to walk away from things that are exhausting to us and just work at a much slower pace. Unlearning the hatred of laziness isn't another thing to beat yourself up for not doing correctly, because most of us are in a situation where our freedom and our choice is pretty restricted. If you're in a workplace where you aren't kind of trusted to self-motivate and you aren't given the room to set limits, you are really in a coercive environment that's going to keep running you down. A lot of times it comes down to looking into things like unionizing, documenting problems as they occur, demonstrating how when one person leaves the company, all of their work is just dumped onto someone else instead of replacing them.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Brian Jarboe.
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