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Choosing Lazy over Busy

I’m very lazy. We all are.

Evolutionary biologist Dr. Dan Lieberman made the case that we evolved to be lazy. As he concluded in a journal article, “while humans are adapted to be physically active endurance athletes, we are just as adapted to be inactive whenever possible. It is natural and normal to be physically lazy.” Like our distant relatives alternating between periods of intense work conserving energy for our next big hunt. We alternated these periods of intense physical effort with periods of inactivity.

Yet, something so ingrained in us as laziness is routinely despised. The negative connotation that comes with the word is so strong that it’s often a go-to derogatory term. Look no further than the athlete who didn’t reach some assigned potential, or the man who sticks with his low paying and secure job as being ‘lazy.’ How could something so ingrained in our literal DNA, as Lieberman described, be so evil?

While I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that question, I believe that we are all lazy, some just hide it better than others. We are constantly engaged in an act of self-deception to convince ourselves and others that we are not lazy. And we go to great lengths.

Look no further than the art of being busy. When we are feeling lazy, but too guilty to go into full “off” mode, we often enter what I’d call fake productivity mode. We pick activities that trick our mind into thinking we are accomplishing something, when in fact we are not. Think about the last time you sat down at your desk to take on a big scary task. It could be writing a chapter in a book, finishing up that expense report, or tackling that 15-page research paper that is due in two weeks. Chances are, you’ve sat down with the intention to work and instead shifted to a mundane kind of working task. Maybe it’s clearing out your email in box or running some easy calculations in excel, or perhaps even doing the laundry instead. All of these tasks are substitute tasks that make us feel better about avoiding doing real work.

In modern society, we’ve become masters of doing busy work. We work haphazardly on some task that accomplishes very little in the grand scheme of things, then sit back and reflect on the hours of ‘work’ we put in, feeling completely satisfied. At the same time, we forget about the fact we didn’t actually move forward on the project we should have. No matter, as long as we weren’t sitting idly by somewhere, wasting away and being “lazy.”

So while the rest of the world continues with their disdain of being lazy, I’m embracing it. It’s during these periods when I am “off” that allows me to be more productive when I’m “on.”  Running taught me that I can’t simply grind away until I couldn’t stand anymore. I couldn’t constantly be training or always be able to run a hard workout or race at my best. If I wanted to be productive and improve, I had to pick and choose when to be fully invested and then completely turn it off.

As a society, I can’t help but think we have settled into this path of “middling”: always doing moderately challenging work that results in mediocre outcomes. Instead of negatively judging laziness, maybe we should see it as our avenue towards a more productive period.

Instead of living your life in the middle ground of “kind of doing but not really doing anything” of busyness, embrace your inner laziness. See it as a brief period of time where you are storing up energy and preparing for the actual hard work that needs to be done.

— Steve

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