Procrastination and Laziness: Why They’re Different and How They’re Connected

People often wrongly assume that procrastination is the same thing as laziness, or that procrastination is always caused by laziness. This can lead to various issues, such as unnecessary guilt for procrastinators, and difficulty in overcoming procrastination due to a failure to understand its causes.

The following article clarifies the misunderstandings about the association between procrastination and laziness, by explaining what these phenomena are, what are the differences between them, how they are connected, and what are the practical implications of all this.

 

What is procrastination

Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone delays working on an assignment until right before its deadline for no reason, despite intending to work on it, that person is procrastinating.

Procrastination is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students. It’s associated with various issues, such as worse academic performance, worse employment and financial status, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, worse physical health, and delay in getting treatment for one’s issues.

There are many different types of procrastination, which can occur for different reasons and lead to different outcomes. Nevertheless, the following are the key defining features of procrastination, which characterize most of its types:

  • It involves unnecessary delay.
  • The delay generally leads to negative outcomes, in terms of factors such as the procrastinator’s performance or emotional wellbeing, and these negative outcomes can generally be expected in advance. As such, procrastination is generally considered to be a maladaptive behavior, rather than an adaptive one.
  • The delay is often—but not always—unintentional, meaning that it occurs despite the procrastinator’s intent to do things on time.

 

What is laziness

Laziness can be defined as voluntary unwillingness to exert necessary effort. For example, if someone never does their homework just because they don’t want to make an effort, even though they know that doing so will prevent them from achieving their goals, that person is being lazy.

Laziness can involve any type of effort (e.g., mental or physical), and people who display laziness generally do so despite being able to predict that their behavior will lead to negative outcomes, such as worse performance or missed opportunities.

There is no universally accepted definition of laziness as a psychological construct. As such, its definition here is based on the ways it has been defined in the limited previous research that was conducted on this concept. Furthermore, its definition here also takes into account the relation of laziness to some well-established psychological concepts, such as conscientiousness, self-control, impulsivity, and motivation, as well as related concepts, such as idleness, inertia, and acedia.

Of these concepts, laziness is most notably strongly associated with lower conscientiousness, where conscientiousness is the trait of being disciplined, achievement-oriented, hardworking, focused, and organized. It is especially associated with the industriousness facet of conscientiousness, which is sometimes explicitly characterized as the tendency to work hard, as opposed to being lazy, and which is often assessed using statements that have to do with the effort that people put into their work, reflecting either laziness (e.g., “I invest little effort into my work”) or the lack of it (e.g., “I make an effort”).

Overall, there is no universal definition for laziness as a psychological construct. Nevertheless, based on past research on this and related constructs, laziness can be reasonably defined as voluntary unwillingness to exert necessary effort, a conceptualization that is useful in understanding laziness in relation to procrastination.

 

What laziness is not

Laziness is distinct from similar concepts, such as:

  • Lack of motivation. For example, a lazy individual can be highly motivated to achieve a certain goal, but fail to do anything to pursue it, since they don’t want to exert any effort. Alternatively, someone who is unmotivated to achieve a goal may not do anything to pursue it, even if they aren’t lazy, since they don’t see a reason to do so.
  • Lack of self-control. For example, a lazy individual can have strong self-control, so they may be able to easily avoid engaging with distracting temptations, but still not actively pursue their goals due to unwillingness to exert effort. Alternatively, someone who has low self-control may struggle to pursue their goals due to distracting temptations, even if they aren’t lazy.
  • Perceived effort. For example, a lazy individual might perceive a goal as requiring little effort, but still choose not to pursue it, because they don’t want to exert themself at all. Alternatively, someone may irrationally perceive a goal as requiring much more effort than it actually does, and therefore choose not to pursue it, even if they aren’t lazy.

However, it’s also possible for laziness to co-occur with these concepts. For example, someone who is lazy may also lack motivation and self-control, and perceive goals as requiring more effort than they really do.

 

Different conceptualizations of laziness

Laziness is generally conceptualized as a personality trait, where it characterizes a person’s chronic and relatively stable disposition over time, in which case it can also be referred to as long-term or chronic laziness. However, it can also be conceptualized as a state, when it characterizes a person’s disposition at a particular point in time, in which case it can also be referred to as short-term, passing, or acute laziness.

In addition, although laziness generally carries negative connotations, especially when used to describe someone’s personality, it’s sometimes used with positive connotations. For example, some people may characterize themselves as lazy with pride, to express that they use resources, such as their time and effort, in an efficient way. Furthermore, a distinction is sometimes drawn between laziness that is generally negative in the outcomes that it leads to (which may also be referred to as destructive or counterproductive laziness), and laziness that is generally positive in its outcomes (which may also be referred to as creative or productive laziness).

The more positive connotations of laziness reflect a conceptualization of it as unwillingness to exert effort, regardless of the reasons for this and the outcomes that it leads to. However, this conceptualization is problematic, since when not exerting effort is expected to lead to a positive outcome, it would be more accurate to view it as strategic use of resources, rather than laziness. For example, if someone doesn’t want to exert effort toward working on a certain task, because they know that the task is guaranteed to fail and there’s no advantage to working on it, that wouldn’t generally be considered laziness. Similarly, if someone doesn’t want to exert effort at the moment, because it’s more important that they take a break and recharge mentally after previous hard work, that wouldn’t generally be considered laziness either. This ties in to criticism of the concept of active procrastination, which bears similarity to this form of laziness.

Finally, unwillingness to exert necessary effort wouldn’t generally be considered laziness if it’s not entirely voluntary, for example if it’s driven by an underlying issue, such as exhaustion, burnout, or depression. However, there may be cases where behavior that’s driven by such issues is still considered laziness, particularly informally, for example when someone is tired after a long day of work, so they say that they’re too lazy to wash the dishes.

 

The difference between procrastination and laziness

Procrastination and laziness are two different concepts: procrastination involves delaying unnecessarily, whereas laziness involves being voluntarily unwilling to exert necessary effort. Accordingly, procrastination is not laziness, and it’s possible to procrastinate even if you aren’t lazy, or to be lazy but not procrastinate.

For example, someone who wants to work on a project may delay doing so (i.e., procrastinate) because they don’t know where to start, even though they aren’t lazy. Alternatively, someone who doesn’t want to work hard on a project because they don’t want to exert any effort (i.e., because they’re lazy) may get started on the project without any delay (i.e., without procrastinating), because of some appropriate incentive.

As such, it’s wrong to broadly assume that procrastination is just a form of laziness, that procrastinators are just lazy, or that procrastinators don’t care about their tendency to procrastinate. In fact, procrastinators can be industrious people, who are highly motivated to take action and overcome their procrastination. As such, they often intend to work as hard or harder than non-procrastinators, and may even work harder in practice. One person describes their experience with this issue as follows:

“Let’s clear something up: I am not lazy. I have no shortage of energy, I have no interest in lounging on the couch, I don’t have TV service, I never wear pyjamas all day. Waking up after 7:30 is sleeping in for me, even on a Saturday. I actually like working.

Yet I exhibit a consistent failure to work through my day-to-day tasks, errands and projects in any manner than could be considered timely. Nearly everything must reach some sort of ‘scary point’ for me to finally move on it. Like when I waited till the last possible day to submit my lease renewal, having had three months of lead time. In the end it took about fifteen minutes, but evidently I needed to be a day away from losing my home in order to do it.”

— From “Procrastination is Not Laziness” (by David Cain, 2011)

 

The connection between procrastination and laziness

Though procrastination and laziness are two different concepts, which can occur separately from one another, they can also be connected, primarily in cases where people procrastinate, at least in part, due to laziness. For example, if someone repeatedly delays working on tasks simply because they don’t want to exert necessary effort, even though they know that this will lead to negative outcomes for them (e.g., low-quality work), then that person is procrastinating out of laziness, and could be characterized as a lazy procrastinator.

The association between laziness and procrastination is in line with the strong association found between procrastination and related concepts, such as low conscientiousness, low self-control, and high impulsivity. Furthermore, this association also aligns with the tendency to procrastinate due to the prioritization of short-term mood regulation over long-term achievement, in the sense that people procrastinate because they want to feel comfortable in the short term, even if this means that they fail to achieve their long-term goals.

In this regard, a type of procrastination that laziness is particularly associated with is hedonistic procrastination, which involves postponing things voluntarily due to prioritization of enjoyable activities or due to lack of caring. This type of procrastination is contrasted primarily with anxious procrastination, which involves postponing things despite an intention to work on them and despite the awareness that the delay is self-defeating and irrational.

Crucially, this connection doesn’t mean that procrastination is always caused by laziness. Rather, it means that procrastination can sometimes be caused—possibly partially—by laziness.

 

Other causes of procrastination

When people need to get something done, they rely primarily on their self-control in order to bring themselves to do it. Furthermore, their self-control is often supported by their motivation, which helps them act in a timely manner.

Procrastination occurs when factors such as anxiety and fear of failure outweigh people’s self-control and motivation, which may also be weakened by issues such as exhaustion or far-future outcomes.

Under this psychological framework, laziness is a factor that plays an opposing role to self-control and motivation, similarly to factors such as anxiety. Specifically, the more unwilling someone is to exert effort, the more likely they are to unnecessarily delay exerting it.

However, under the same framework, procrastination has many other causes beyond laziness, such as task aversion, perfectionism, anxiety, fear of failure, exhaustion, abstract goals, and far-future outcomes. This means that not everyone who procrastinates does so out of laziness, and even people who procrastinate due to laziness to some degree, are likely pushed to procrastinate by other causes too.

 

Attributing procrastination to laziness

People often attribute procrastination, including their own, to laziness.

This attribution is wrong when it involves the assumption that all procrastination is always caused by laziness, since procrastination can also be caused by other issues. However, this attribution can be correct in cases where it involves a specific instance where someone is indeed procrastination due to laziness. Nevertheless, there are some important caveats to keep in mind with regard to such attribution:

  • People often misunderstand what procrastination and laziness are, or they may define these concepts in different ways.
  • People may mistakenly assume that someone, including them, is procrastinating due to laziness, when in fact their behavior is driven by other issues, such as exhaustion, apathy, or depression.
  • Even in cases where people procrastinate to some degree due to laziness, that doesn’t mean that laziness is the only—or main—cause of their procrastination.

On the other hand, it’s also important to keep in mind that people sometimes mistakenly assume that laziness does not play any role in procrastination, either in general or in specific instances where it does in fact play a role. This can happen due to various reasons, such as that they’re unaware of the association between the two concepts, that they engage in self-enhancement by attributing procrastination to causes that they feel will reflect better on their personality, or that they prefer to attribute procrastination to causes that will confirm their pre-existing beliefs.

 

How to overcome procrastination

To stop procrastinating right now, identify the smallest possible step you can take to make progress toward your goals, and try to start with just that tiny step, while giving yourself permission to make mistakes during the attempt. For example, if you need to write an essay, you can decide to start by writing just a single sentence, while accepting that it won’t be perfect, and might even be quite bad at first.

In addition, you can also make it easier to get started, for example by preparing everything that you need for your work without yet trying to start the work itself, and also make it harder to procrastinate, for example by eliminating potential distractions from your environment.

To overcome procrastination in the long term, do the following:

  1. Set specific and realistic goals. For example, if you want to start exercising, a good goal might be “manage to run for 1 mile straight by the end of the month”, while bad goals might be “do some running” (unspecific) and “run a marathon by the end of the month” (unrealistic).
  2. Assess your procrastination. First, identify situations where you delay unnecessarily, to figure out how you procrastinate (e.g., by browsing social media). Then, think about those situations to also figure out where and when you procrastinate (e.g., on starting or finishing tasks, in the morning or evening, at home or the library). Finally, figure out why you procrastinate (e.g., due to perfectionism, fear, anxiety, depression, ADHD, sensation seeking, or abstract goals), potentially after reading why people procrastinate.
  3. Create an action plan based on relevant anti-procrastination techniques, while accounting for the goals that you set and the nature of your procrastination problem.
  4. Implement your plan, and then monitor your progress and refine your approach, primarily by figuring out which techniques work for you and how you can implement them most effectively.

The following are key anti-procrastination techniques you can use:

  • Break tasks into manageable steps (e.g., sub-tasks you can easily complete).
  • Commit to a tiny first step (e.g., working for just 2 minutes).
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes (e.g., by accepting that your work will be imperfect).
  • Make it easier to do things (e.g., by preparing everything you need in advance).
  • Make tasks more enjoyable (e.g., by listening to music).
  • Make it harder to procrastinate (e.g., by eliminating potential distractions).
  • Delay before indulging the impulse to procrastinate (e.g., by counting to 10 first).
  • Set deadlines (e.g., by deciding that you’ll complete a certain task by tomorrow evening).
  • Plan how you will deal with obstacles (e.g., by deciding that if X happens, then you’ll do Y).
  • Identify and address your fears (e.g., by considering what advice you would give to a friend).
  • Increase your motivation (e.g., by marking streaks of days on which you achieve your goals).
  • Increase your energy (e.g., by taking necessary breaks).
  • Improve your environment (e.g., by adding reminders of your goals).
  • Use social techniques (e.g., emulating a role model).
  • Use time-management techniques (e.g., alternating consistently between work and rest).
  • Create starting rituals (e.g., counting down from five to zero).
  • Start with your best or worst task (e.g., your easiest or hardest one).
  • Develop self-efficacy (e.g., by reflecting on your successes).
  • Develop self-compassion (e.g., by reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes).
  • Treat underlying conditions (e.g., ADHD).

For more information about these techniques and how to use them effectively, see the guide on how to stop procrastinating.

You can use any combination of techniques that you want, but should start by focusing on a few that seem most relevant to your situation.

You will likely benefit from writing things down, such as your goals and plan. This can have various benefits, such as helping you think more clearly and making your decisions feel more concrete.

You can use a similar approach as an intervention to help someone else stop procrastinating, by doing the above on their behalf, doing it together with them, or encouraging them to do it themselves.

Finally, remember that imperfect action is generally better than no action, so you’ll benefit more from trying to do just some of the above, than from getting stuck doing nothing at all. Furthermore, the longer you delay, the more likely you are to do nothing, so you should start right now, while understanding that you’ll probably get some things wrong at first, but that you’ll be able to improve your approach over time.

If you feel overwhelmed, just start with the first technique in this section (committing to a tiny step), until you feel ready to do more.