How to Kill Laziness by Debunking and Replacing It

Use science and philosophy to defeat laziness.

Sean Kernan
Jan 11 · 5 min read
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Our office was a museum on the body language of work ethic.

I rarely caught my friend Joe working. He was always leaned back, smiling and looking down at his phone, monitor off, despite having a $2M project to manage.

Conversely, my other coworker seemed as if she was defusing a bomb. Her body was upright and rigid, with her eyes wide. Her frantic clicking and typing were audible from across the room at any given moment.

That contrast always made me wonder, “Why do some people work with such incredible urgency, while others are little more than driftwood?”

There’s an old saying about explaining jokes, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You’ll understand it. But it dies in the process.”

That phrase is applicable to laziness — in a shockingly accurate way.

Laziness isn’t what you think it is

Energy conservation versus resource acquisition was human’s first inner war of survival.

  • If you didn’t save your energy for the hunt or turf war, you’d die.
  • If you didn’t acquire resources (territory, food, power) you’d fail to attract a mate and your genes would die.

Our modern struggle is complicated by self-manifestation, the desire to be our best self.

Beneath this evolutionary framework, as I combed through study after study, I discovered the most remarkable thing about laziness: it isn’t actually defined in psychology. There’s no such thing.

Laziness is a subset of other things. Here are three ways to kill those other things.

1. Use task hierarchies to destroy laziness

The common vessel of laziness — procrastination — is more clearly defined as task avoidance. It’s a product of fear.

Fear of

  • Discomfort.
  • Making the wrong decision
  • Imperfection
  • Missing out

It creates a task arms race. Your mind spins a wheel of alternative tasks that usually beats the one at hand.

One insight and solution

Procrastinators have irrationally negative perceptions of tasks. Making a bed feels like building a pyramid.

Psychologists advise you to split big tasks into smaller bits but with a caveat: place the easiest tasks in front.

Easy task completion builds confidence and momentum. Study participants often found the ‘hardest’ tasks weren’t as hard as expected, often because they’ve laid so much groundwork.

2. Develop a keystone habit

A misleading statistic is often thrown around about how vegetarians live 7–13 years longer than non-vegetarians.

You’d think that because they don’t eat meat, they live 7–13 years longer. The truth? Vegetarianism is correlated to other healthy habits: sleeping well, not smoking, skipping fast food.

Creating correlative good habits can kill bad ones.

I sometimes attend triathlons (my girlfriend competes). After seeing how much training the sport involves, I often wonder how these people do anything else. Then I meet competitors — it's a VP, a professor, a lawyer, a Fortune 500 manager.

The sport is saturated with high achievers. Fitness is a keystone habit. It correlates to other high productivity habits.

Other keystone habits include cleaning and organizing your house, planning your day, preparing healthy meals, meditation. The rule is that you are consistent with them (the definition of a habit).

Structuring your life with habits that don’t correlate to laziness tends to kill laziness. Start with something as simple as making your bed.

3. Lastly, understand the virtue of your journey

My friend is a top programmer at Apple. He recently said, “I’m not sure why so many people hate their jobs. I love coming in every day.”

I’m happy for him — but he forgets the glamor of his career. His position carries great significance and garners respect. He is very talented. He is surrounded by brilliant people and works at a killer office. He makes $200K+ annually. He gets to his product being used on a global scale.

He doesn’t feel the press of mediocrity and anonymity — like many of us do.

Yet, from the view of the universe, all of our existence is meaningless. There is no distinction between janitor or top programmer. What we do ultimately will be erased.

Most of us already understand this at a subconscious level. The despair of possible infinity/oblivion can underscore nagging, counterproductive questions:

“Why to make the bed?”

“Why bother with this nonsense job?”

“Why does it matter if I get these grades? Who cares?”

There’s a silver lining in this

In 1942, Albert Camus presented The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a Greek mythological figure. On two occasions, Death arrived to carry him to the afterlife, and Sisyphus tricked him, fleeing and buying himself unqualified time living.

Zeus was infuriated and brought a reckoning. He condemned Sisyphus to roll a giant boulder up a mountain. Then, just as the boulder got close to the top, it would roll back down. Sisyphus would then begin doing this again.

Forever.

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Camus argued that Sisyphus wasn’t actually condemned, positing him as an absurd hero. The ‘absurd’ is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled. If life has no purpose, why do we bother living? Most of us don’t choose suicide. So what is next?

Most of us won’t change the world in a significant way. We won’t be famous or innovate huge changes or be filthy rich.

Can you accept the absurdity of laboring to achieve nothing in the eyes of the universe?

I have a special appreciation for those who are passionate about unglamorous jobs:

  • The clerk who brings a great attitude and works hard, despite having a fixed, low hourly wage.
  • The truck driver who anonymously, and without fanfare, treats safety, and timeliness with religious importance.

This is Camus's argument for Sisyphus, that he has quietly embraced the beauty of his struggle. He smiles and enjoys his eternity, in servitude of a task that, like any we all have, doesn’t actually matter.

The struggle is a virtue.

Kill laziness — recap for your memory:

  1. Laziness doesn’t exist. It’s mostly task avoidance. Break a big task up into smaller tasks. Do the easiest ones first.
  2. Adopt daily keystone habits that correlate to work ethic. Lazy people don’t tend to exercise, be clean, organized, and plan their weekly meals.
  3. Embrace the beauty of the struggle. There might not be a reason for any of this. That’s OK. Smile and push your boulder up the hill. That’s what legends do.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Sean Kernan

Written by

Quality over quantity. That guy from Quora. Enjoy? Follow for more. https://seanjkernan.substack.com/ Open to gigs seanjkernan@gmail.com

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 150,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Sean Kernan

Written by

Quality over quantity. That guy from Quora. Enjoy? Follow for more. https://seanjkernan.substack.com/ Open to gigs seanjkernan@gmail.com

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 150,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

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