Most of us think we know laziness when we see it--the employee who routinely turns in work late, the student who waits until the last possible moment to start every paper, the unhealthy person who can never manage to make it to the gym. Most of us see this sort of procrastination and immediately get annoyed with people's lack of willpower.

That's a huge mistake, according to one Loyola University psychology professor, not only because shame and anger do nothing to stop procrastination, but because laziness doesn't even really exist.

Context is more important than character.

Behavior we generally think of as lazy is certainly real enough. People miss deadlines and dodge work all the time. The problem arises when we assign this behavior to some character flaw and think berating people about it is going to improve the situation.

Conscientiousness is one of the so-called "Big Four" personality traits and varies person to person, but it plays a minor role in whether we get stuff done, according to a long and fascinating post by psychologist Devon Price on Medium.

"Situational constraints typically predict behavior far better than personality, intelligence, or other individual-level traits," Prices argues. "When I see a student failing to complete assignments, missing deadlines, or not delivering results in other aspects of their life, I'm moved to ask: What are the situational factors holding this student back?"

"There are always barriers. Recognizing those barriers--and viewing them as legitimate -- is often the first step to breaking 'lazy' behavior patterns," Price says. 

The rest of the article offers many examples of what this looks like in practice, from a student with mental health issues who is reluctant to speak in class, to others who are crippled by their fear of failure, to PhD. candidates paralyzed by the overwhelming scale of finishing their dissertations. In each case, behavior that looks like "laziness" at first is actually a symptom of some hidden--and fixable--barrier.

Curiosity beats judgment.

Which is the point. Yes, not being judgmental of other people will make you a nicer teacher or boss. But not labeling people as lazy and instead trying to understand what's holding them back is also simply more effective. Blame and shame, a ton of research shows, just makes procrastination worse. That's true whether you're a professor, a manager, or just annoyed at your own so-called laziness.

"It's really helpful to respond to a person's ineffective behavior with curiosity rather than judgment," Price writes. "If a person's behavior doesn't make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context. It's that simple."

Being curious enough to look into what barriers a person is facing will enable you to help him or her overcome them. Those paralyzed with anxiety can learn strategies to talk back to the terrified voices in their heads. If a task seems too huge, getting some help in breaking it down into manageable chunks can make all the difference. And if mental health struggles are behind apparent "laziness," understanding and accommodation won't just increase productivity, they might even be life changing.

Managers aren't required to be therapists. There are cases that may be beyond your ability to help, but there are also surely times when judgment is simply a knee-jerk reaction. Next time, before you label other people (or yourself) as lazy, take a moment to consider what barriers might lay behind that behavior. When it comes to procrastination, curiosity and kindness will probably do a lot more for productivity than blame.

Published on: Mar 19, 2019