In defence of laziness

Why absolute dedication to productivity is unnatural and harmful

By Jaclyn Pahl

There is a big secret about productivity: most people are lazy, or, rather, most people think of themselves as lazy. Many of us look for ways to be more productive, to waste less time, or to generate more output.

It seems that our culture is fanatical about productivity. A simple Google search of “how to be more productive” pulls up article upon article proclaiming to break down the key to success and productivity. Sources range from Forbes to Good Housekeeping. Much of the advice is banal and frighteningly obvious, such as getting more sleep. Nevertheless, such coverage on the subject indicates a deeper obsession with our own collective work ethic.

Writing for Forbes, entrepreneur Ilya Pozin tackled the demanding question of why exactly productivity is culturally overemphasized, hypothesizing that “in this digital age, staying on task and avoiding distraction is harder to accomplish than your actual work.”

He also added, ridiculously, that “The feeling of a productive workday is somewhat euphoric.” Getting a lot of work done does feel satisfying, but this satisfaction comes from the relief of eradicating tasks that previously caused stress. Needless to say, the experience falls considerably short of being ‘euphoric.’

By ‘productivity,’ what I and these articles are referring to is economically viable output. I have no doubt that people feel genuinely compelled to contribute to the world in whatever way speaks to them, but this is not necessarily productivity.

In my experience, productivity actually discourages genuine creation by forcing people to work harder than they can emotionally or energetically afford to, thereby encouraging apathy even from people who would otherwise care about the quality of their work.

However, productivity and laziness don’t need to be diametrically opposed — although laziness has a taboo that proves difficult to overcome. But when we speak about balancing productivity and laziness, we are really speaking about how to best exist in society, and how to navigate the world we occupy in a satisfying way.

Rebeca Moya/The Varsity

Why are we so afraid of laziness?

Cultural overemphasis on productivity is a capitalist ideology that encourages people to be hyperactive producers of work to which they typically feel little attachment. This same ideology treats laziness as a demon that must be fought off, rather than as an irremovable facet of human life.

I believe that people want to feel productive, but what drives this need to be productive is actually a fear of the inverse: laziness. It’s not that people want to be more productive out of genuine interest, but that they want to avoid being perceived as lazy.

The cultural condemnation of laziness is constructed on the notion that productivity and laziness are diametrical opposites. Productivity is defined by energy, speed, and utility. All of these attributes are inverted by laziness, which is characterized by atrophy, slowness, and uselessness. This last characteristic, uselessness, is the basis for the moral fury around laziness.

The idea of uselessness is tied up in notions of self-worth. As people, we want to be relied upon; we want to feel wanted and important. If you are useless, there is the idea that you are resigning your importance. This is why people feel guilt when they feel they are being unproductive.

The issue with productivity boils down to a crisis of importance itself. In the economic system by which we function, our sense of self-importance is derived from the rapid production of cultural products and the accumulation of capital. In other words, our world structures place importance on wealth and status. Thus, when people fail to be productive, they experience a loss of their sense of importance and are rendered vulnerable.

At the same time, uselessness becomes a social transgression because it is malignant to the economic forces that drive our society. Thus, the taboo around laziness is born.

Rebeca Moya/The Varsity

I work, therefore I am

The relationship between work and importance also affects our sense of personal identity. The first thing people typically disclose about themselves when meeting new people is their occupation. This makes sense because our occupations certainly do provide important information and are conversationally acceptable.

However, to position our occupations as the most crucial piece of information about ourselves erodes the notion of identity outside of economic contributions. This also leads us to consider occupation as almost synonymous with personal identity. This means that when we think about our identity, we are considering ourselves in relation to our economic means of production.

Thus, to accept laziness is to distance yourself from this system that gives us a sense of self. In this way, laziness corrodes our sense of personal identity.

Another reason for the stigma around laziness might have to do with the abdication of power that comes with this. In being lazy, we make ourselves comfortable with impotence. Our culture privileges dominance and vitality while condemning passivity and submission.

Yielding to power is often seen as demeaning. Embracing laziness means avoiding the struggle for power altogether and embracing unqualified submission. However, because our sense of identity is tied up in our economic system, embracing laziness functions as a form of self-annihilation.

The fear and shame surrounding laziness can reveal some of the deep-rooted fears we have about ourselves. We have a fear of becoming useless, of slipping from the world into unimportance.

The framework we hold ourselves to — the framework of being productive — is not natural; it is constructed through various socioeconomic structures. Therefore, it can be changed and subverted.

Challenging that framework disturbs our sense of purpose in the world. The capitalist notion of productivity sells us the idea that we can outrun ourselves, that we can escape our own inevitable descent into oblivion by producing more and more. On the other hand, laziness accepts oblivion as part of the human condition. Laziness allows us to come to terms with our own mortality, and, ultimately, our lack of cosmic importance.

In laziness, we find an alternative to productivity that is more in line with the truth of our existence. I see an issue when so many prudent and pragmatic people experience stress over their productivity level. I believe that the human experience should be more balanced, and I believe that idleness is important to balance.

Laziness and productivity are both facets of the human condition. The need to slow down is something humans will naturally experience, as is the impulse to add to the world. There is a balance that can be reached between these two impulses. Laziness and productivity are not opposing forces, but rather complementary ones — and both are important to the human experience.

Creativity, intuition, and genuine desire for contribution take time to grow. They are natural occurrences that cannot be manufactured. It may feel wrong to take a break and sit back, but it is necessary to fully enjoy our lives. Moreover, we should not let productivity define us. After all, we were whole before we were productive.