I’ve been pretty interested in the idea of laziness for most of my life, tracing back to the experience of having a teacher in middle school who regularly accused me of being lazy. It really made me wonder what it means to “be lazy”. Sure, I didn’t like working. But isn’t it the default state of human beings to be averse to work? You might think, “No, not me. I’m willing to work very hard.” Well yes, you may work very hard when hard work is required to attain something you desire, but that doesn’t mean you’re not averse to work.

Einstein is reported to have said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Similarly, I would say that people should work as hard as is necessary, but no harder. It’s important to keep in mind that “laziness” can be very useful. Avoiding spending your time on things that are neither necessary nor valuable will keep your work efficient and productive, and an aversion to work can, at times, produce superior results.

For example, in all the times I’ve worked doing IT support, I would say that it was laziness that drove me to do a good job. I didn’t want to continually run around fixing the same things over and over again, so I arranged everything as well as I could such that things wouldn’t break in the first place, and that when I fixed something it stayed fixed. From everyone else’s point of view, this meant that the entire network ran more smoothly and without interruption. From my point of view, it meant much less work in the long run.

Of course, even if we accept that being work-averse can be a healthy inclination, we might still want to claim that people are “lazy” when they are unwilling to the important work we see as needing to be done. However, just because we think a job is important doesn’t address whether anyone else is convinced that the work is worth doing, i.e. whether the effort required is adequately justified by the benefit derived from the doing the work. So if you ask someone to do a task and he refuses on the grounds that the task isn’t worth doing, it’s not laziness; you simply have some kind of a disagreement. It may be that you underestimate the amount of effort needed to complete the work or that he’s underestimating the benefit that will come from the work, or it may be that you two are both estimating the same cost and same benefit, but are disagreeing on how much effort that benefit is worth.

On the other hand, I believe that a lot of what we call “laziness” isn’t caused by disagreements of that sort, but are actually caused by an excessive amount of misdirected effort and not by a deficit of effort. For example, so-called “perfectionists” sometimes squander their effort by refusing to engage in any activities at which they won’t excel. Instead of putting their effort toward accomplishment, their effort is put into the avoidance of failure. Instead of focusing on what they’re going to do and how they’ll do it, we sometimes focus on the prospect that we won’t be able to do things well and we make efforts to avoid mistakes and to avoid situations where we might fail.

Sometimes this failure-avoidance takes the form of procrastination. If we believe ourselves currently unfit for a task, we may put those tasks off in the hopes that we’ll gain sudden insight in how to complete them or that the situation will magically improve as time passes. If we believe a task will become easier to complete later on, and we don’t perceive any negative consequences of waiting, then it makes perfect sense to put off until tomorrow that which you can do today.

I may be wrong, but I believe that this is a fairly exhaustive explanation of “laziness”– that we call someone “lazy” when their cost/benefit analysis differs from ours, or that the “lazy” person is in fact unsure how to proceed or unsure of his ability to succeed. You may be asking, why is this interesting? Am I just trying to excuse my own laziness?

Well no, I’m not particularly trying to avoid blame or promote laziness, but I think this is important because it may be that there is no such thing as a person who is simply “lazy”. It may be that every “lazy” person is just someone who has no motivation to do the things we’d like them to do, someone who doesn’t believe that he will actually benefit from the work you’d like them to do, someone who is afraid of failure, or someone who doesn’t know where to begin. This is important to me because it suggests that, rather than writing people off as personally defective, we might be able to convince them to contribute something positive to our world.

So this would mean that, if someone isn’t motivated to help us solve the problems we’re facing, we have to learn to motivate them. If we disagree about the costs and benefits, then we can discuss them and reach an agreement. We can try to show people that they have an interest in improving the situation around them by demonstrating the various ways in which those things are connected to each of our best interests. When people don’t know where to begin, we can try to educate them on where they can get started. When they’re afraid of failure, we can encourage them to try their best.

And sometimes people will fail. We all fail, and we all have some false starts before we succeed. Perhaps we can begin by going easier on each other.