When you're sitting around feeling bad for something you've failed to do, it's easy to think of laziness as a character trait, an inherent weakness that you need to struggle with and feel bad about.
Guilt will get you nowhere, claims psychologist Leon Seltzer. "My experience, both as an individual and therapist, has led me to conclude that laziness as an explanation of human behavior is practically useless," he writes in Psychology Today. Shame has never helped anyone recover from procrastination, science shows. Trying to talk yourself into action is equally useless.
What does help us power through our most slothful tendencies? Not rumination or inspiration, but simple behavioral modifications like these.
1. Change the context.
Have you heard the popular quote attributed to entrepreneur John Rohn: "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." Apparently, it has some basis in science.
When I Will Teach You to Be Rich author Ramit Sethi interviewed his old mentor, Stanford University persuasion expert BJ Fogg, for a podcast, Fogg noted that studies show "our context controls us in a huge way." A friend of his came to him complaining about his daughter, who wasn't studying much at her high-priced university. How could this friend convince his daughter to get the most from her hefty tuition bill?
Fogg's answer: "The surest, fastest way to get her to start studying is to put her in a dorm where other people study." Could joining a co-working space, carrying your laptop to the local coffee shop, or taking your unfinished paper to the library be the magic bullet that slays your laziness?
2. Forget motivation--floss just one tooth.
If you're not accomplishing what you hoped you would, you probably blame your lack of motivation. Forget it, insists Fogg further into the interview. "If your goal is to go to the gym, I actually wouldn't beat yourself up on motivation. You wouldn't be moaning about not having motivation if you didn't have any -- you probably have enough," he tells Sethi.
Instead of stressing about your lazy nature, commit to taking baby steps. What's the smallest possible action you could take toward your goal? Do that. When Fogg decided he really needed to get with the flossing program, for instance, he didn't waste time berating himself for having the dental hygiene habits of a child. Instead, he moved the floss right next to his toothbrush and vowed to floss just one tooth a day. Just one.
That little daily win reinforced his commitment and cemented the habit. Soon he was flossing like a hygienist's dream. "Often our grand plans don't work out because they seem overwhelming," he claims. So start with small actions that can snowball. Or as entrepreneur Mark Manson has put it: "Action isn't just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it."
3. Tear down the barriers.
In addition to focusing on tiny wins, focus on the micro-barriers that are keeping you from your goals and tear then down. Humans, it turns out, can be ridiculously easy to discourage (but the good news is that these tiny obstructions are also usually incredibly easy to clear).
Opening the medicine cabinet to fish out the floss was enough to keep Fogg from healthy gums (and you thought you were lazy). Sethi admits that walking across his cold bedroom floor to get his workout clothes in the mornings was a sufficient barrier to keep him from hitting the gym. He put them on the floor next to his bed and became a regular exerciser.
"Looking for the barriers for doing a behavior you want, that's a much better use of energy than saying: how do I motivate myself," Fogg concludes.
4. Give yourself permission to fail.
Of course, not all projects can be completely reduced to easy and unthreatening baby steps. If you want to start a business, you can make a list of tiny, concrete actions to take -- and that's probably not a bad idea -- but in the back of your mind you're still going to know that what you're embarking on is a big undertaking. If you want to actually get cracking on that to-do list, you're going to have to confront your fear.
"Doing something means risking failing at it. Sometimes that risk seems to loom so large, and the drive to perfectionism is so strong, that any sort of meaningful and productive task just seems like it's not worth it. Why risk failing, when you can just do something else instead? Of course, in the back of your mind you know that those choices are causing you to fail anyway. That's why you're miserable," perceptive Reddit user IAmScience has said of this common problem in a hugely popular comment.
What's the solution? "You have to give yourself permission to fail, permission to be less than perfect sometimes. Failing at something, making mistakes, opens up a great opportunity to learn something new." If you need some help doing that, both psychologists and Richard Branson have tips.
5. Set yourself some constraints.
Another top tip to beat your laziness comes from super productive professor and author Cal Newport via blog Barking up the Wrong Tree. Achieving a lot doesn't mean working at all hours, Newport asserts. In fact, you're likely to accomplish more if you force yourself into a set schedule.
For Newport that means commitment to finishing his workday at 5:30. "Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit--ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way," he suggests. "My experience in trying to make that fixed schedule a reality forces any number of really smart and useful in-the-moment productivity decisions."
6. Buddy up.
Angst and shame are pretty much useless when it comes to overcoming sloth. Peer pressure, on the other hand, can be highly effective. "There's nothing wrong with asking for help from a more motivated coworker, friend, or family member. This is a useful way to get you up and moving, because they will motivate you to do the task," writes Lifehack's J.S. Wayne, for example.
IAmScience agrees: "You also need to enlist others to keep you accountable. Get a friend to check up with you, and kick your a**. When you need motivating to take an action, somebody is there to hold you accountable for that action. This piece alone helped me finally finish up a college degree that had been awaiting completion for over six years. My friends found out, did all they could to help, and held me accountable to get it done."
7. Or opt for a tech solution.
Not feeling social? Tech might be able to help. "Use a goal tracker. These apps allow you to set specific goals for yourself and to mark off when you do them. This provides two major benefits. First, it reminds you what you need to do and helps your past self keep you accountable. Perhaps more importantly, it shows you how often you've succeeded," suggests writer Eric Ravenscraft on Lifehacker.
"Many of us can alter our habits without ever changing how we perceive ourselves. That's why things like done lists can be so useful. Having proof that you've built a new habit, or that you've improved over time can give you the motivation boost you need to keep going," he adds.