Laziness and Work
av Elia Alver
The boundary between what counts as work and what does not is quite hard to make out definitively. The knitting and drawing I do might not be work, but I "work" at it, and I work at my writing – and there might be a dream of sometime getting paid for it, but that is not why it feels like work to me. It is a struggle, it is doing, it is creation and recreation. So much work falls between the cracks if we define work as a "job": Studying is not a job, except that it is my job, it is work I need to do and am expected to do. Despite being unpaid, "women's work", the work of social recreation: feeding hungry loved ones, shopping and cleaning house, raising children, is most definitely work. In any definition, wider or narrower, I have an ambivalent relationship to the idea of work. A loved one once told me my main problem was my laziness and, as it was meant to, it stuck. I fear it's true, I guess. I am not particularly good at getting things done, at being productive. Sometimes I spend days or even weeks getting very little done in my studies, other times I feel like I am trying to do everything in the world in 24 hours. There is so much I want to do, but I feel like time slips through my hands like rain. Or I am engulfed in it, like some decaying leaf pulled along on a river of syrup. Either way time is against me. It's quite stressful.
Simultaneously, I think the student existence suits me very well and very poorly. As a student, you are so utterly free. There is no office, no colleagues, few obligatory activities – if you want, you can do all your work from bed or do nothing at all for days on end. The lack of rigid frames frees me to have high and low periods without my entire life going off the rails. I fall behind and then catch up. Do some Skippertak. On the other hand, such rigid frames might actually help me in my struggle to consistently get work done. My head likes routine, ritual and consistency, even though I am very bad at recreating those things for myself. At my worst, I sometimes think I should live in an institution of some kind, where other people would stand around and remind me to eat and sleep and work and rest. Because it feels so hopeless sometimes, living entirely within the confines of my lackluster will. Then, of course, I feel very silly, because I do value my freedom and I do not really envy life in such places as they exist today. Likewise, I know laboring for some boss is usually no dance on roses either. Maybe a typical 9–5 job would help me, or perhaps I would experience the same crash and burn cycles, only more publicly and more disastrously. Something needs to change for me, anyhow – So I tell myself again and again.
My head likes routine, ritual and consistency, even though I am very bad at recreating those things for myself. At my worst, I sometimes think I should live in an institution of some kind, where other people would stand around and remind me to eat and sleep and work and rest.
Part of the problem is that my field is one constantly devalued: English Literature. When distant relatives meet me, they tend to ask me, after asking me what it is I do again, "And what are you going to use that for then?". I don't think people would react to somebody studying business or marketing with the same skepticism, because it is assumed they are playing by the rules of our economic system and will fall neatly into a well-paid job. When we think of education as something you invest in and expect to see returns on, education which leads to high paying jobs is placed above other educations, but I've obviously chosen my studies based on interest rather than any idea of a future payday. I like my field, I even love it sometimes, but it's hard to value something few people see the value in. The future looks so vague and distant sometimes. One of my friends from my studies is now planning to study programming, giving up on the idea of getting a job relevant to our field.
Shortly after the economic crash of 2008 the CEO of Goldman Sachs defended himself from claims that the bailout money was going straight into unscrupulous banker pockets by saying that the workers at Goldman Sachs were among "the most productive in the world"1. This statement boggles the mind. It points to an ideology of value which is tautological: If somebody is highly paid, of course they must be productive, highly valuable employees doing important work, even if that work tanked the economy. Their pay itself justifies their power and claim to being hard working, while their position and power justifies their pay – hierarchy reinforcing hierarchy ad nauseum 2. With such logic, people are bound to confusion, revulsion, disengagement.
During the height of the pandemic, a new paradigm in thinking about work became popular – that of the essential worker. This idea challenged the idea that pay equals value: high pay does not mean high societal value, quite the contrary; the work deemed essential, which keeps society running, is quite often poorly paid. (Sadly, this hasn't yet led to widespread societal change). By this paradigm also, my field of study is devalued – it will not help me care for others, save lives or create socially valuable technologies. Teaching would be "essential", though and that is also my plan. It is supposedly very practical. However, I also have long wanted to become an author. Often, as I've experienced, culture workers – not usually authors, but often more visible types; actors and footballers, "influencers" or Banksies, can work as a neat scapegoat in discussions about inequality. Their work is not "essential" and it is ludicrous that we would pay them so much more than those who care for our children and grandparents, even if their work entails a bit more than "running after a ball" or "looking pretty". This line of conversation is a misdirection – People speak as if these celebrities are bugs in the system, but they are not. They only show the inherent flaw in the system, and for that I'm glad for their visibility. The one good thing about Elon Musk is that he decided to be an idiot rich boy in public – a celebrity capitalist. Most wealthy people roll around in their wealth privately, like dragons in their lairs.
I know, even if I do manage to write novels, it is unlikely I will ever become a George R. R. Martin; unlikely I will ever be widely published or paid well for my writing. Culture work is a hard industry after all – most singers do not become Beyonce; most athletes do not win Olympic medals or play for ManU. Still, I want to write. To create something for myself, for other people. But alas, I am quite lazy. My creative writing suffers from it the same way my studies do. Professor and social psychologist Devon Price argues that "Laziness does not exist"3 and that laziness is always caused by unseen barriers. When students don't hand in work on time, the reason is rarely as simple as "laziness" – instead it lies in issues like bad executive functioning and organization skills, trauma, disruptive circumstances, or any manner of other issues. I find something compelling in this idea. Not only because I want to refute the claim against me, as made by myself and others, but because I fundamentally disagree with the part of the "laziness" paradigm that assumes some people would be happy doing absolutely nothing. I think most people do want to work – in the looser definition of the word at least. To do something useful – to help others, to create, to touch the world around them. I believe that people long to do work which feels socially valuable and valued, but I think a lot of things get in the way – Most obviously an economic and social system, where pro-social work is largely devalued and antisocial work is valued highly.
I know, even if I do manage to write novels, it is unlikely I will ever become a George R. R. Martin; unlikely I will ever be widely published or paid well for my writing. Culture work is a hard industry after all – most singers do not become Beyonce; most athletes do not win Olympic medals or play for ManU. Still, I want to write.
And I think, besides the problems Price mentions in his essay, there are two things missing: Sometimes, "laziness" is rebellion, is sabotage or protest. For enslaved people who were so often called "lazy" by their tormentors, doing the bare minimum was one way of resisting the power of the ones who enslaved them. And I think something similar happens with the child shirking chores, the pupil shirking from tasks – The inaction can be a result of a conscious or subconscious rebellion against another's authority over them. Similarly, "laziness" can also be a way of announcing your own relative power, as it seems to be with many men's strategic laziness when it comes to household chores. "Laziness" is also often just another word for rest, as the video essayist Tiffany Ferg points out 4. Choosing rest and relaxation over work is so often maligned today, even though it is a necessary part of being a functioning human. And some people need more rest and have less capacity for doing than others, have fewer "spoons"5. Both neurodivergence and disability can often stand in the way of "productivity" because things tend to take more effort. We need not feel "lazy" for taking some time to do nothing but rest, but we so often do, because there is always so much to do, and we were raised to believe that sloth is evil and that hard work will be rewarded. As a result, we strive to have and be everything, and something is bound to fall between the cracks. Rest is the thing many want to cut down on but trying to do so only ends up with a crash. "Do you plan time for rest? And for fun?" asked a counselor I went to recently, and I had to admit I never did. I only ever planned for work, chores, or sometimes for social events (which are not really restful, for me). The rest that I ended up taking eventually in spades, was usually unplanned and tinged with anxiety and a feeling of shame and self-loathing, because I ended up disregarding my plans, my goals, my work, in favor of some restful, asocial, easy activities.
Devon Price's challenge of laziness is important, I think, not because the behaviors of avoidance and inaction that "laziness" is used to refer to really does not exist, but because it makes clear that "lazy" is and always was a moral charge and a simple insult. It is a paradigm that was created to shame people – supposedly with the purpose of getting them to change their behavior. But shame is not a good motivator and it does nothing to help a person deal with the underlying issues – whether they be executive dysfunction, bad planning, issues with authority, etc. which is needed if their "laziness" is really a problem for them and their loved ones. And it does nothing to confront us with the faults in our system, in our logics about value, productivity and labor. We live in a society where the dominant ideology assumes the powerful to be deserving, hardworking and good, while the disempowered – so often called lazy and stupid – are assumed to be undeserving of rest and comfort. That is what underlies it all, and it is deeply wrong.
I don't think using "laziness" and "productivity" to beat myself over the head with is helping me or anyone. And yet, it is difficult to give up on it. It's such a well-trod pathway. What I've been advised to do is to redirect it – toward whys, toward mindful awareness, solutions and compromises. Toward kindness. Yet, being kind to oneself ironically takes a lot of work.
2 Fix, Blair. "What Trait Affects Income the Most?" https://economicsfromthetopdown.com/2020/06/02/what-trait-affects-income-the-most/
3 Price, Devon. "Laziness Does Not Exist". https://humanparts.medium.com/laziness-does-not-exist-3af27e312d01
4 Ferg, Tiffaby. Laziness does not exist – Internet Analysis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRIM5ibxdK8
5 Miserandino, Christine. "The Spoon Theory". https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/
Elia Alver tar en master i engelsk litteratur ved UiO og er spesielt interessert i feminisme, økokritikk og spekulative genrer. Substack: ealver.substack.com