Laziness Is Fine


The Sisters, 1894/1895. Artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images...
Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
James Greig

Sometimes, an idea comes along that’s so seductive, so absolving of all of your flaws, that it makes you suspicious. The last few months has seen a spate of viral tweets about laziness, all of them variations on the same theme: that there is no such thing; that you are not, nor could you ever be, lazy.

Curious about where this notion might be coming from, I traced it back to a book published earlier this year. In Laziness Does Not Exist, social psychologist Devon Price explores how what they term ‘The Laziness Lie” has contributed to the marginalization of the poor, the homeless, disabled people, and the unemployed, as well as making everyone at all levels of society miserable. It’s a timely intervention: within the last year, it’s become common to see people castigated as lazy for not wanting to accept badly paid work, or accused of “malingering” for suffering from the long-term effects of Covid. Price bolsters their argument against the concept of laziness with illustrative wisdom from the lives of figures like Bo Burnham and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who “famously” came up with the idea for Hamilton while reading a book on holiday) alongside fictional characters like Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation (who, guilty of “disrespecting her body’s needs and ignoring the boundaries of her friends'' is not someone we are invited to emulate.)

I agree with the thrust of Laziness Does Not Exist, and found it an empathetic and largely persuasive work. But it’s at least partly geared towards people who “often try to cram every waking moment with activity. After a long day at work, they try to teach themselves Spanish on the Duolingo app on their phone [or] try to learn how to code in Python on sites like Code Academy.” In other words, people who aren’t remotely lazy by any stretch of the imagination. It can at times read like a manifesto for former gifted children, the kind of people who need to be thought of as conscientious and make a big deal out of buying too many notebooks.

It’s true that our culture places a high value on productivity, but the last few years have seen a backlash against these values, at least in well-educated, liberal circles: you can see this in a recent cluster of self-help books taking (often tepid) aim at “burn-out” and “hustle culture,” in articles about nebulous new pathologies like “productivity dysmorphia,” and all those tweets at the beginning of the pandemic which assured us it was “valid” not to write King Lear. And now there is “laziness doesn’t exist.” Unmoored from Price’s book, and the opportunities for nuance afforded by a full-length text, this becomes a less convincing claim.

“Laziness,” according to some real life examples from people on the internet, is in fact: unrecognized depression; a sign of intelligence; choosing to meet one’s own needs ahead of someone else’s; being tired, overworked, exploited, exhausted, or under-stimulated; and ultimately a trick, designed to shame people into capitalist productivity. Within this framework, it is impossible for anyone to ever choose to be lazy. Nor are we ever at fault: a conservative, moralizing view of laziness is traded for an affirmation. “You’re fine exactly the way you are,” writes Price, which is where I must respectfully disagree.

I struggle to believe that laziness is never just… laziness. In fact, the notion makes me even more insistent on asserting my own laziness, neither in a spirit of defiant reclamation or self-castigation, but simply as a more or less neutral disposition I know I often exhibit. I don’t want to reclaim “the lazy slur.” I’m not especially proud to be lazy, nor do I think it’s important to be proud of all of our attributes and sensibilities. I have no desire to write a pastel-colored book called Blowing It Off: The Quiet Radicalism of Doing F*ck All or The Mindful Layabout: Why Doing Nothing Will Save the World. But there is a case to be made in its defense. For a start, few of us work jobs so meaningful that our failure to do them constitutes a moral crime. Beyond annoying my editor, there is no social cost incurred by my failing to write another article about TikTok. Commentary about “overwork” and the “late capitalist grindstone” often ignores the fact that, rather than hustling for every hour of the day, many of us put forth a modicum of effort toward work which is boring and inconsequential.

Laziness can manifest in lots of different ways. Sometimes it’s the soul-crushing torpor of scrolling through your phone or failing to find something to watch on a streaming platform, activities which can sometimes feel as draining as work itself. But laziness can be cheerful, too: an afternoon spent skiving off in the park with a devil-may-care grin, deciding to go to the cinema instead of the gym, committing any and all forms of time theft. It would be a stretch to claim that these things constitute political protest, but they can be a way of preserving dignity, and mounting a refusal against a culture of hyper-productivity. The idea that laziness doesn’t exist means we can never have any agency in choosing it for ourselves — we’re always at hostage to some pathology or structural failure or another.

Of course, we should reject the idea that certain groups are inherently lazy — this concept is abhorrent, and not for this essay. We should also insist upon the principle that everyone should be entitled to a good life regardless of their productivity. But there is a maturity in admitting to ourselves when we are simply being straightforwardly, honest-to-god lazy. In her essay On Self Respect, Joan Didion writes that people with self-respect “know the price of things” and “have the courage of their mistakes.” “If they choose to forego their work—say it is screenwriting—in favor of sitting around the Algonquin bar, they do not then wonder bitterly why the Hacketts, and not they, did Anne Frank.” Thinking about laziness like this — as a choice I’m occasionally willing to pay the price for — causes me less anguish than always viewing myself as the persecuted victim of social forces or my own misfiring neurotransmitters.

There is always a price though, and perhaps the key lies in choosing to pay it yourself rather than offload the debt to others. As everyone who’s been in a relationship or lived with people can attest, it’s possible to hurt other people through inaction. If I don’t do the dishes, I am the cause of my flatmates’ suffering, or at least their annoyance. If I don’t lift a finger to help any kind of social cause, I’m surely complicit in the suffering of others. I could be getting involved in a union, teaching English to refugees, or plotting to blow up an oil pipeline, but for the most part I’m doing very little to advance the causes I profess to care about. It’s true that the idea of laziness serves the interests of the ruling classes, but the same might be said of encouraging middle class dilettantes like myself to absolve themselves of any ethical commitments, provided they can’t be arsed. “Nothing surpasses the pleasures of idleness,” wrote the Romanian aphorist Emil Cioran (perhaps the most ardent defender of being a lazy piece of shit the Western canon has yet produced), “even if the end of the world were to come, I would not leave my bed at an ungodly hour.” Mood! But in the face of the apocalypse, it might be worth getting up at a reasonable time and trying to do something about it.

The aversion to work, while sympathetic, is often expressed in a manner so twee it brings my inner Presbyterian minister raging to the fore. Every once in a while on Twitter, someone goes viral with a tweet asking, “what job would you do in the Gay Space Luxury Commune?” Even though this utopia is in no danger of being realized any time soon, I always feel the urge to fact-check these people’s harmless fantasies, which are no doubt informed by the lack of time they have to pursue their own passions. Every time I see some beleaguered 22-year-old retail assistant suggesting that under communism they’d like to be a cat therapist, anime archivist, or the proprietor of a cute little queer cafe that serves snacks, I want to grab them by the shoulders and bellow, “Actually, no: you’ll be working in a Sewage Treatment Center! And what’s more, you’ll like it!”

As well as being (potentially) annoying, treating laziness as a political act has its limitations. Any suggestion that it might be radical must contend with the reality that there’s a great deal of money to be made in pandering to it. London is now plastered with adverts for grocery delivery apps, which offer to realize the tantalizing promise of having the ingredients for a mojito brought to your door within ten minutes. The general manager of one of these companies recently said outright, “we are democratising the right to laziness” (perhaps he was referencing a socialist text of almost the same name, written by Karl Marx’s son-in-law). But the “right” to be lazy is always upheld by the exploitation of other people, with apps like Gorillas and Instacart coming under criticism for their low pay and poor working conditions. The convenience economy goes hand-in-hand with the fact that people are tired and overworked, but it stretches credulity to think there are that many people so harried they can’t spare ten minutes to nip down to the shop to buy pizza rolls. Perhaps some of these people are simply lazy, in a way that’s only emancipatory for themselves.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers remains one of the most vivid depictions of laziness I’ve ever seen. In the weeks building up to the May 1968 civil unrest in Paris, its three characters drink vintage wine, listen to The Doors, take baths with one another and engage in a doomed, steamy, incestuous menage-a-trois — the kind of escapades which, presumably, people who live in Paris get up to all the time. They discuss the coming revolution frequently but they never do anything to bring it into being, and when the riots finally start, they’re still sitting around the kitchen table. A brick is hurled through the window from the street below, exposing them in all their inertia and smug self-deception.

Whether it’s unkind to call someone lazy, whether it’s valid to do absolutely nothing, I feel like that sometimes: not as entirely a victim of the latest TikTok diagnosis but the willing captive of my own lassitude, waiting for the world I’ve neglected to come crashing in. Perhaps I should think about what that means a little more, but it's rainy and I would rather lie down.

James Greig writes about culture and society.