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Provocative Self-Help in “Laziness Does Not Exist”

Provocative Self-Help in “Laziness Does Not Exist”

The self-help book never goes out of style because we always want more. The billion dollar market continues to grow each year, but the gist remains the same: make money, save time, be present, find joy. They promise that we all have the potential to self-actualize in the career of our dreams. But what if we don’t? Anne Helen Peterson’s viral piece on millennial burnout in 2019 and subsequent book suggest that working hard just isn’t working. Finding happiness in your job is starting to sound trite. And now, during a worldwide pandemic, finding happiness anywhere can seem like a tall order.

Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price—a social psychologist, activist, and professor—upends the self-help books on our nightstands as well as in our minds. Price insists that we stop trying to work harder. In fact, the millennial obsession with “productivity,” both in and out of the office, only makes us feel worse. “The Laziness Lie is the source of the guilty feeling that we are not ‘doing enough,’” Price writes. “When we feel unmotivated, directionless, or ‘lazy,’ it’s because our bodies and minds are screaming for some peace and quiet.” Instead of working, exercising or finding a new hobby, what’s wrong with taking a nap?

What Price describes as the Laziness Lie in fact predates self-help books. They note that in Colonial America, Puritans capitalized on a belief system connecting morality to work. “This form of Christianity taught that suffering was morally righteous and that slaves would be rewarded in Heaven for being docile, agreeable, and, most important, diligent,” they write. Americans still believe that self-worth depends on work, Price argues, and that careers can inform—or even create—identities. “We define people by their jobs—he’s an actor, she’s a mortician—categorizing them based on the labor they provide to others.” We also judge people on how they perform at their jobs; anyone who gets fired must have been lazy, regardless of the context.

And of course, race, class, and gender remain factors in the context of every workplace. Price describes the career of Andrew Tobias, a closeted gay investment banker in the 1960s and 1970s. Ashamed of his sexuality, Tobias felt he had to “make up” for being gay by excelling in every area of his life (his memoir is called The Best Little Boy in the World). As a queer person, Price relates to Tobias’ experience: “We must earn our right to be loved, or to even have a place in society, by putting our noses to the grindstone and doing a ton of hard work.” The pressure to “prove yourself,” Price notes, also takes a toll on communities of color and other marginalized groups. Rather than urging readers to adjust our working styles (remember Lean In?), Price suggests taking a step back, despite ever-increasing demands.

So how, exactly, do we do that? Start by setting boundaries on work, Price writes. Don’t hesitate to use sick time, for example, and try to avoid taking work home. Give yourself breaks whenever it feels necessary. But unfortunately, we always want to feel productive, even in our free time. iPhones provide countless ways to assess ourselves. Apps count the steps you take, the likes you get, the time you spend scrolling, texting, shopping. Similarly, the news has never been more accessible. 

Feeling guilty for not using your free time “productively” is also part of the Laziness Lie, Price writes. Instead, try cutting back on social media and turning off notifications. Practice “savoring” moments of happiness or awe without recording them. Enjoy “guilty pleasures” without guilt. Try something you’re bad at. Do nothing but feel your emotions. Price admits this last suggestion, from their therapist, was difficult: “It sounded like a completely fake, touchy-feely, ridiculous idea,” they write, only to find “inactivity” surprisingly helpful.

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Laziness Does Not Exist is as provocative as it is personal. Price shares vulnerable stories about themselves alongside cultural anecdotes, psychological research, and anecdotes from friends, students, and colleagues. And, like Jenny Odell in her best-seller How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Price takes a nuanced approach to topics like social media. They mention a study indicating that “cyberloafing,” or iPhone scrolling, actually increases productivity at work. 

Before reading Price’s book, I never questioned my addiction to multitasking. I also felt guilty when snacking, loafing, and binging on The Real Housewives, all of which seemed “unproductive.” But Price’s arguments have resonated with me, and lately, I’ve started taking more breaks with less guilt. Each one is a relief. I think that other readers, particularly millennials, will also appreciate Laziness Does Not Exist as an escape from the “fitter, happier, more productive” mentality. More and more, authors are recommending self-care as self-help, and replacing “improvement” with acceptance: “You’ll never be perfect, and that’s okay,” Price writes. “You’re fine exactly the way you are. So is everyone else.”

Laziness Does Not Exist
Devon Price, Ph.D
Atria Books
Published January 5th, 2021

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