The Laziness Lie and the Idleness Illusion

Devon Price uses the expression “Laziness Lie” a lot in the 2021 book Laziness Does Not Exist . As a teacher who used to tell parents “he is a bright student, but lazy”, I agree with the idea that idleness is an illusion.

From an evolutionary point of view, laziness is just a reaction to too much work. Obviously, there is a trade-off between work and work and relaxation and in our evolutionary past, most people were calibrated to their environments regarding the amount of work/relaxation, with only marginal variation. However, nowadays we often find overachievers and underperformers (aka “slackers”) frequently. Price was an overachiever from the start, graduating from both college and graduate school early, but that success came at a cost. After Price was diagnosed with a severe case of anemia and heart complications from overexertion, they were forced to examine the darker side of all this productivity.

In the book, Price claims that the Laziness Lie has three main tenets. They are:

  • Your worth is your productivity.
  • You cannot trust your own feelings and limits.
  • There is always more you could be doing.

Indeed productivity has become the main yardstick on which to measure success in life and we keep repeating this lie to teenagers in high school and even to children as young as elementary school. Self-help books are mostly about how to be more productive and how to procrastinate less. Why do self-help books constantly tell us to push ourselves harder, to cross our comfort zone all the time, to As Price writes schoolchildren who appear lazy get written off early on. However, there is often a lot behind laziness that remains hidden:

  • Depression
  • Demotivation
  • Procrastination due to ADHD and other neurodiverse conditions like ASD

Price traces the 40-hour workweek back to the Industrial Revolution and rather than reducing our work hours, there is a tendency to increase them. Americans work an average of 44 hours per week and it’s common for people in highly competitive industries like tech and finance to work 60 hours. It is little surprising therefore that health problems and burnout are becoming more and more common. Not everyone has the ability to work that much. Introverts and highly sensitive people like me are much more stressed in modern work environments involving many people. I often just get tired by spending eight hours in school not counting the work. It is therefore not surprising that introverts are often the first to burn out or go into early retirement.

However, there is even more to the laziness lie, the idleness illusion. Most people are hard workers if they have the right kind of work. Albert Einstein was considered very lazy in school and in his job as a patent clerk and yet he turned into a workaholic once he was allowed to work on his theories. So, laziness is not necessarily inherent in a person.

Typically conservatives are harder workers (and want more working hours) than liberals (who often want to reduce working hours). Where does this difference come from? If we look at our evolutionary history we find that our ancestors had different amounts of work depending on their mode of subsistence:

Farmers: 30 hours per week

Hunter-gatherers 20 hours per week

Apart from the fact that our ancestors used to work less than many people in the modern world, the difference between farmers and foragers was significant. In fact, modern hunter-gatherers consistently refuse to take up farming as they consider it too much trouble. In a gross simplification, we can identify conservatives as descendants of farmers and liberals as descendants of foragers, who never had to work many hours in succession without much rest. In fact, Thom Hartmann identified ADHD (inability to focus on long rote work) as an adaptation of hunter minds. I have been arguing that people with ADHD are only a small part of this hunter-gatherer neurotribe, who have inherited more hunter-gatherer genes (intuitives in the Jungian typology) than the majority of people (farmer-herder types/sensors in the Jungian typology).

There are many obstacles to long working hours for hunter-gatherer type people: they find it harder to focus on boring rote tasks (this is where farmer types shine) whereas they hyperfocus on tasks they are interested in, so they are unable to achieve a constant performance in the first place. The higher the work-load the higher the urge to procrastinate becomes.

Another huge difference between hunter-gatherer types and farmer-herder types: the inability to separate work and private life. Farmer types do their 8–10 hours of work, then relax and go to bed early. Hunter-gatherer types have a hard time to switch off after work and their minds continue to be busy with work-related problems. They generally find it hard to fall asleep and often suffer from insomnia. Having constantly not enough sleep aggravates problems with performance and procrastination. This vicious cycle often ends in burnout.

A third factor involves motivation. Hutner-gatherer types are much more intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation, such as money or grades often mean very little to them, if the task or job isn’t appealing. To a hunter-gatherer type of person, it doesn’t make sense to earn a lot of money just to be able to afford a Ferrari to show off as a status symbol. Productivity for the sake of productivity and status symbols are very much a farmer phenomenon. Early farmers were able to attract one (or more) desired mates by showing off that they were worthy husbands and able fathers to provide for the offspring. Hunters in hunter-gatherer bands typically don’t show off at all (least of all possessions), but of course, will try to impress with their competence.

There are few companies that are aware of these differences between farmer types and hunter-gatherer types. One rare exception is Google, whose founders are hunter-gatherer types themselves. They offer countless perks that are beneficial to all workers, ranging for free healthy food to 20% time (allowing engineers to spend 20% of their time on projects that really interest them).

Hunter-gatherer types are less able to work 40 hours on rote tasks, but these are the creative and innovative people with amazing pattern-seeking abilities many companies look for desperately. Ironically these people often already drop out from school due to too much rote work and even if they don’t they would often prefer to run their own hot-dog stall than labour away 60 hours per week for a company. Nobody wants to employ a lazy person after all, or do they? Perhaps one day newspaper adverts will read: “Wanted: lazy person for creative job”.

Originally published at on February 11, 2021.