‘Why Am I So Lazy?’

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Dear Polly,

Why am I so lazy? As long as I can remember, I’ve always done as little as possible to still get the job done, to still get the A, to get the extra credit and be the teacher’s pet. I have always procrastinated everything from homework, cleaning, and even my job, which I’m doing at this very moment by writing you.

At one point, I reveled in my extreme procrastination abilities. Why spend all week working on a paper that I could write the morning of and still get a 3.5? Sure, I would fret over the hard assignments and easily could have avoided the stress that comes with waiting, but there was TV I wanted to watch. I’ve generally excelled at school and my selected extracurriculars. When I finally do get down to business, I consider myself to be fairly hardworking, if only for the shortest amount of time possible.

I was always comfortable with my messy room or apartment. Stepping over piles of laundry or suitcases I’ve yet to unpack. Cleaning was just time I could have spent on reading, or TV, or living life in more enjoyable ways. I’ve even joked at my status as being one emotional travesty away from going “full hoarder.” I keep everything, and everything is in its place; that place might just be the second pile under the chair next to my dresser. To be clear, this does not extend to the kitchen and bathroom; the counters might be cluttered, but the Clorex wipes are heavily used.

All of this is to say, I’m a procrastinating, type B, introverted pack rat who would rather sit on my couch all day than do the things I don’t want to do but know I really should.

And then I married a type A extrovert who loves being proactive, putting things away, and getting things done. In many cases, this is great. He’s on top of dishes and the leaves in the yard. But mostly he’s a constant reminder that I’m a lazy bum pretending to adult and “sort of” getting away with it. To his credit, he spends his days silently suffering his new life living with the sloth that I am, but I know this can’t go on forever. The honeymoon period will end, and my inability to come home from work and finally write our thank-you cards will catch up with me.

I want to change. To be the “adult” my life suggests. I have all the good intentions of a child making breakfast for their parents, but I just can’t follow through.

If it matters, I’m a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted young woman from a loving family, with no childhood trauma, and newly married to a wonderful man. I’m realistically positive, and while times are tight, I don’t want for much, except a dog.

Why am I lazy? Why do I put off everything I don’t want to do? And why can’t I flip a switch and just be a goddamn adult?

A Sloth

Dear Sloth,

Doing the bare minimum at the last minute isn’t lazy. It’s simply a choice, devoid of moral weight. It’s a strategy that’s mostly worked for you, up until this point. You’re smart and focused, so you can pull it off. Have you missed major deadlines? Have you flunked out? Have you had a panic attack while finishing a paper a few hours before it was due? No. You’ve sallied forth in life, somewhat messily, sometimes finishing things at the last minute, without experiencing any major failures or traumas due to your particular behaviors and habits.

But I do want you to notice how deeply and profoundly you’ve made messiness and procrastination part of your identity. You want to write the thank-you notes for your wedding, but you also really don’t want to write them, ever, and your excuse is that this is Just Who You Are. You want to clean up after yourself, but you also don’t want to clean up, and some small stubborn part of you thinks, “Why can’t I just do what I do the way I do it? This is ME!” And in spite of the fact that you always do exactly enough work to get the good grade, stay solvent, and avoid bad outcomes, you still call your methods “lazy,” as if there’s some very slow, hesitant, lackluster person at the center of your being who would rather never work hard at anything.

To be perfectly clear, you can form your identity however you like. If “lazy” and “introverted” and “messy” feels good to you, then go for it. But do you see how conflicted you are about these habits, even though you choose to view them as part of your core identity? Your days are filled with the sound of “Why can’t I just …” and “What’s wrong with me?” And you encounter each new task with a feeling of dread: “Here’s another pesky to-do item I feel ambivalent about because I Am Lazy.” “Here’s another pile of junk to step over because I Am Messy.” “Here’s another project I’ll think about for weeks without making any progress because I Am a Procastinator.”

As long as you’re deeply conflicted about your choices and the ways you’ve chosen to identify yourself, you have a problem. Maybe your habits used to work for you and now they don’t. Or maybe they never really worked, and you just liked the idea that you were someone who Never Worked Too Hard. Either way, if you say to people, “Yes, I’m a lazy, procrastinating mess” and there’s an edge of defensiveness in your voice, then you’re choosing both habits and an outward presentation that you feel insecure and unsettled about. This is what works, sure, but it’s also something that embarrasses you. This is how you are, for now anyway, but you spend your days telling yourself that you shouldn’t be this way.

Your letter suggests to me that you actually do want to change your habits. YOU want that, for yourself. It’s not about your marriage. Because getting shit done is never simple for you. It incites a major emotional response. And I would argue, given what I know from your letter, that your response is not merely ambivalent (which is unnerving enough on its own) but actually fearful. You are a fearful, avoidant person because you’re a little bit anxious about the world and the other people in it. Even though you seem relaxed enough to other people, the truth is that you privately expect way too much from yourself and from other people, too. Outwardly, you describe everything and everyone as wonderful. Inwardly, you’re preemptively disappointed to the point of wanting to avoid most people and situations. So you’ve chosen to hide. You will go to great lengths never to disappoint yourself, by clearing the lowest hurdles possible. You’re choosing a lifestyle of avoidance and low expectations.

I know that sounds a little bit dramatic and unfamiliar, but try it on for size for a minute. I believe you when you say that your family is healthy. But I’m also guessing that they’re a bunch of overachievers who gently characterized you as lazy and weird from an early age. You married a guy who matches your family, because that’s what feels like home to you. But you’re perpetuating the conditions of your childhood, and you’re telling yourself the same limited, unimaginative stories about yourself that your family did.

A big part of our jobs, as mature adult human beings, is figuring out who we are and what we value WITHOUT falling back on a million and one inaccurate and clumsy stories told by other people who know us about as well as a fucking squirrel knows the moon. The squirrel might say, “The moon is on fire, dude! Look, it’s lighting up the whole night! That’s white-hot fire, my friend!” And even though we have literally visited the moon (because we are experienced astronauts!) we listen to the squirrel and we tell ourselves, “You freak, you blocked all of that white-hot fire from your memory, I guess because you’re just someone who hates heat.” “Yeah, you can’t stand the heat, you’re always getting out of the kitchen just when things get fun,” the squirrel chimes in, then swigs his bourbon and trips over the throw rug and breaks one of your best highball glasses and it takes hours to fish the shards of glass out of the piles of stuff all over the floor.

Okay, that fucking metaphor ran away from me real quick-like, but it still works, because that’s exactly how confusing and stupid it feels to keep using other people’s bad observations as your own personal guide to yourself. I see this shit every day in other parents: “She hates to read!” “He’s lazy!” “She’s bad at math!” You are imprisoning your kid with your words, fuckers! I say this openly to the parents of the world now because I’m exceedingly judgmental. (See, that’s an observation I’ve made of myself and I know it to be true — resoundingly, repeatedly true. And I know it doesn’t always serve me, but I treasure my precious judgments so much!)

I’m making plenty of parenting mistakes, too, of course. No one has it all sorted out, and even when it seems like we’re close, we still surprise ourselves by waking up one day to find that the habits and identities we’ve chosen no longer fit. But in order to notice that, we have to notice how we FEEL and also interrogate THE STORIES WE TELL ABOUT OURSELVES.

Because all humans get told inaccurate stories about themselves by everyone everywhere. Even on the off chance that our parents’ stories are accurate, our culture’s stories are dead wrong and deeply fucked nine times out of ten. So you have to peel back layer after layer to figure out the truth. Why? Because otherwise you just keep slogging along, (1) doing the same things over and over and (2) pretending that you have no choice in the matter, while (3) beating yourself up for all of it.

You aren’t lazy. Lose that one first. You’re afraid. You’re afraid of investing your full self in anything, only to be disappointed. You’re afraid to show your heart. You’re afraid of trying to change your habits only to disappoint yourself. You’re afraid of feeling locked in by an overly strenuous schedule. You’re afraid of disappearing into someone else’s rigid structures (a very common newlywed fear, to be sure!). You’re afraid that if you play along, you won’t be honored and respected for who you are; you’ll feel silenced. You got attention when you didn’t play along as a kid. Even though you heard “You’re lazy” or “You’re procrastinating again” (in a good-humored way), that was better than being neatly folded into the herd with everyone else. You didn’t want to fit in.

So look. I know this sounds taxing, but you have to put every single thing that you think you are on the table and reexamine it. That’s what it takes to become an adult and start making active, organic, thoughtful choices about how you want to live. You have to dare to see that these things that you’ve come to view as FUNDAMENTAL TO WHO YOU ARE aren’t actually that profound or deep or rooted in anything that you care about that much. You CAN live in a completely different way, starting tomorrow, if you want to. Do you want to? Or do you just want to silence the voices in your head that say, “You lazy piece of introverted shit, why haven’t you written those thank-you notes yet?” (Or do you want to ask your go-getter husband to write some of those thank-you notes with you?)

Whatever you do, don’t just keep reacting to what came before, like a very simple machine. Simple machines repeat the same functions forever and ever, and the squirrels of the world can tell whatever fucking stories they want to about them, and it all feels broken and wrong. Actively choosing who you are and what you care about, outside of the limited confines of other people’s narratives about you, is what happiness is all about.

So what do you value? Don’t look at the failures of the past to answer that question. Look at what made you feel good. Consider what makes you feel good now. But also, consider what makes you feel bad. Do you feel bad when you start a task because it feels like giving in to someone else’s demands? Do you feel bad when you think about getting out into the world because there are too many factors you can’t control?

You know how they say “Scratch a cynic, find a romantic”? Well, scratch an underachiever and find a hard worker afraid of disappointing herself. Both the cynic and the underachiever are afraid of sticking their necks out and becoming who they deeply, passionately want to become, for fear of looking stupid or failing. I think you’re conflicted about your current habits because you’re not actually a person who wants to avoid work or avoid cleaning or avoid schedules or avoid the world. I’ll bet you’re not even an introvert at heart. You’re someone who wants to live out loud, share herself with the world, and stop overthinking and delaying and avoiding the pesky little tasks that make up a life. You married your husband because he’s a lot like your family, but you also married him because you admire him. He wears who he is on the outside. But your real self is still hidden.

I used to believe that I was a slacker. I thought it was efficient and cool to always do the bare minimum. I saw people who worked really hard and kept a consistent schedule and showered regularly as extremely uncool and rigid. I was cooler than that! I was impulsive and awesome! All of these assessments were about as sophisticated as a squirrel’s guess that the moon is on white-hot fire. And now here I am, writing this column two weeks in advance while I walk four miles on my treadmill desk. I got out of bed and did this, on vacation, because I know that I love to keep a schedule that starts with writing and walking, every goddamn day, even when I don’t have to, even when no one minds if I sleep late. THIS IS WHAT MAKES ME HAPPY. But it took a lot of questioning and experimenting and breaking through some deep shame to figure that out.

It’s not cool. The irony of cool is that things that are cool are only cool if they’re authentically felt. If you do something in order to avoid being uncool, that automatically makes you the least cool human in the world. Likewise, if you do something that you love even though it’s seen as disastrously repugnantly dorky (and I don’t mean nerdy in the now-cool sense of the word, either), well, I don’t know if it qualifies as cool, but it is authentic.

You’re conflicted because your current habits and your story aren’t authentic. Of course, you WOULD go and have this crisis AFTER you married a neat freak! This is always how it works: We choose the exact cauldron that will boil off our inauthentic self the quickest. Just remember that you won’t move through this challenge simply by being more like your husband, or by being less like him. That’s a child’s response. That’s the way a simple machine would do it. Instead, you have to dig deep: Locate your fears. Face them. Get a therapist. Experiment with schedules. Try on different behaviors for size. Get very organized (without piles of things on the floor). Try making new friends. Try vigorous exercise. Try leaving the house more. Try not leaving. Try writing your feelings down. Check in with your body when you do things that stress you out. Notice your feelings. Express your feelings. Be honest, be honest, be honest. Take notes.

You will dislike all of the hard work involved at first, because you’ll think that you’re someone who dislikes hard work, so that’s the story you’ll tell yourself as you experiment with working hard. But what you’re really feeling is not dislike. It’s fear. You’re afraid to fail. You’re afraid to disappoint. Do you feel that? Feel the full force of it.

Now open up your mind and your heart. Your future has never been cleared of bad messages and dumb stories and simple-machine reactions before. You’ve never been free to be your FULL authentic gorgeous brilliant self before. Can you feel that? This is the start of a whole new life for you. Whatever happens next is completely your choice. Doesn’t that make you want to cry, or dance, or run for miles without stopping? That’s because you’re not a sloth. You’re a stick of dynamite that’s been waiting for a spark for way too long.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Why Am I So Lazy?’