science of us

How to Be Lazy

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Lately, under therapist’s orders, I’ve been trying to relax a little more, a state of being that does not come naturally. I’ve been watching a lot of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I ordered some CBD gummies off the internet. I’ve been trying very hard not to let skipping a workout ruin my whole day, and trying not to feel too guilty for not having worked on my book in more than a week. Basically, I’ve been trying to be a little lazier. It’s terrible, and I hate it.

Maybe for most people, laziness is something to overcome; not so for the anxious perfectionists among us. Even when I know my work is done, I can’t let go of the feeling that there’s more I could be doing: if not writing, then researching, or planning, or going to the gym, or cleaning. The upsides are that I’m productive and true to my word. And yet I’m rarely satisfied with my accomplishments for more than a few minutes, before going to worrying about what I need to do next.

Surely there’s a way to keep doing work I’m proud of and chill out a little, too. To get some tips, I consulted with Sandi Mann, psychologist and author of The Upside of Downtime, as well as Jaye Derrick, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston who’s studied the energy restoring powers of binge-watching television (seriously).

Schedule your laziness.

Part of the reasons anxious-types don’t do well with downtime is because we don’t think it counts as time well spent. “[Type As] feel guilty if they are not doing anything ‘constructive’ or ‘useful,’” says Mann. “They are in the habit of doing, doing, doing. We need to convince them that relaxing is also doing, and is also immensely useful.”

In other words, if you can’t convince yourself to chill for chilling’s sake, then do it because it’s good for you. Relaxing can improve productivity and performance, so reframe your lazy time as work, if you have to. “We should actually schedule downtime that will let our minds wander and allow daydreaming,” says Mann. “Schedule your ‘free time’ and plan how you will use it: e.g. one hour of exercise, one hour of TV, one hour of messing about on social media, etc.” To be lazier, do what you do best: Plan it.

Don’t confuse “important” for “urgent.”

Sometimes I feel like I can’t relax because there’s always something more on my to-do list. But Derrick argues that many people (probably me included) confuse “important” items with “urgent” ones. “It might help to make a list of the different tasks you have and figure out which ones are unimportant and not urgent, unimportant but urgent, important but not urgent, and important and urgent,” she said. “Look at the things in your ‘unimportant’ lists: Which of those things can you let go? Which can you delegate? Which can you do at a less-than-perfect level? Now take a look at the things in your important boxes. You probably find a way to get the urgent ones done.”

As long as you’re getting your Urgent/Important tasks done in a timely manner, and you have some sort of outline for how the Non-Urgent/Important tasks might get done in the future, you’re good. There’s no sense in wasting your downtime worrying about checklist items that don’t fit either criteria.

Redefine laziness.

Derrick suggests focusing on hobbies or activities that recharge you, whether physically or emotionally. Binge-watching TV is fine, just know that not all binges are created equal. “You’re better off watching a favorite television show (in which you can really engage in the narrative, something my research has found can be energizing) than to channel surf (which has few, if any, benefits),” says Derrick. Even if you’ve long-ago canceled your cable, the channel-surfing warning may still apply: If you find scrolling through your Instagram Discovery tab energizing, Godspeed, but if not — stop it! Put the phone down and do laziness better, like by watching your favorite show, Vanderpump Rules.

Also: A little personal laziness now and again is beneficial to the people around you, too. “If you are engaging in a non-work activity that helps you to recharge, then I would say it benefits you, your employer, your family, and society at large,” says Derrick. But it’s okay, too, if this is just for you. Not everything you do has to be in service of a larger goal. Not everything you do has to sanctioned by your employer or your family or your personal guilt-o-meter. It is okay, sometimes, to do a little bit of nothing, for nothing’s sake. And yes, I’m talking to myself here as much as I am talking to you.

Katie Heaney is the author of the new memoir Would You Rather.

How to Be Lazy