The Laziness Paradox: Embrace Your Weaknesses to Accomplish More

I was recently having dinner with a friend who was telling me his plan to get in shape. He had always been on the skinny side and wanted to bulk up a bit. His plan was to gain ten pounds over the following two months. Being the good friend I am, I told him he’d probably fail.

My response may seem rude or pessimistic, but it was the truth. I’ve known this friend for a long time—long enough that we can give each other blunt feedback without taking offense—and setting fitness goals only to make zero progress was so common it was practically a ritual for him.

Instead I gave him a better plan. Why not focus on trying to just exercise regularly for one month? After that, it will be easier to keep working out even if you can’t hit a specific milestone.

The problem with my friend is a general one. Self-help books and our overly self-esteem obsessed culture tells people that they can do anything. That everyone is the smartest, strongest and most beautiful person. The only problem is, we’re not.

You’re Lazier, Weaker and Dumber Than You Think

I believe, on the whole, confidence is a good thing. It may even be the case that even being irrationally overconfident is a good thing. Narcissistic people do better in job interviews, and many of the worlds most productive people had egos bordering on megalomania.

The reason confidence works is that it is usually in the abstract. Genuine confidence is hard to fake consistently, so being overconfident in the abstract leads people to believe it’s justified.

This advantage of confidence may explain why people are so overconfident. Despite the media cries about low self-esteem, most people tend to believe they’re above average in everything. In fact, there’s some evidence that the more realistic self-estimate is associated with depression. Evolution may have hardwired us for our own self-deception.

The weakness of confidence is when you’re forming concrete, short-term plans. These occur on such small timescales that you’re unlikely to reap any of the benefit of your inadvertent boasting, so being too ambitious can actually hurt you.

My friend’s fitness goal is a clear example. He, like most people, was overconfident about his ability to make behavior changes in a short time. By trying to accomplish much less in the short-term, his chances for lasting long-term change goes up dramatically.

You’re Not Really in Control

Think of any recent action you took: reading this article, taking a shower, eating breakfast. Now ask yourself, who decided to take that action?

Obviously you did. The entire principle of consciousness is that we’re agents, aware of and responsible for our own actions. Aside from rare cases of extreme intoxication or psychological disturbance, we generally suggest people are the causes of their behavior.

But this grip of control over our actions may be more illusory than we’d like to admit. Cognitive scientists are just beginning to discover that many of the reasons why we take particular actions are simply made up. The conscious mind may be less of a causal force and more of a storyteller, fabricating explanations for behavior which is dictated at an unconscious level.

An interesting experiment provides insight into this frightening reality. A split-brain patient is someone who, usually as a treatment for extreme epileptic seizures, has had their corpus callosum severed. Those are the interconnections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

In the experiment, the patient was shown two images, one to the left hemisphere and one to the right hemisphere of the brain (each eye is wired to separate hemispheres). In this case, a picture of a snowy driveway and a picture of a chicken.

The patient was then asked to pick an image corresponding to the scene. The left hand (connected to the right hemisphere) pointed to a shovel, matching the snowy driveway. When asked about this choice, the more verbal left hemisphere said that it was because the shovel could be used to clean out the chicken shed. The left brain had no access to the picture of the driveway, so when asked what caused the right brain’s response it simply made something up.

This experiment suggests many of our conscious decisions are actually stories created after the fact. We make a decision, and then our conscious mind weaves a story to explain it, even if the true motives are unknown.

How Recognizing My Feebleness Changed My Life

This may sound depressing, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing that your conscious control is weak is actually tremendously helpful. It means that instead of constantly chastising yourself and making excuses when you fail, you can uncover and tweak the true generators of your behavior.

For me, the biggest change in my life happened when I stopped trying to accomplish everything at once. I realized that I’m actually incredibly lazy—most of what I do has to do with habits and trivial stimuli, rather than deep thoughts.

Instead of trying to change every behavior at once, I would pick something incredibly small and simple and focus on it for an entire month. Even that can be difficult, but it meant I could make a change almost habitual before I tried something else.

In my short-term to-do lists and projects I strive to be modest. My agenda is usually far less ambitious than my friends, even in cases where my track record is better than theirs.

What About Optimism and Ambition?

I believe optimism, hope, ambition and all that general self-help pabulum work best as far beliefs. That is, being overconfident works best when it is a generalized ideal you use to think about the long future, not when you’re planning your to-do list tomorrow.

The truth is, most people make two errors in their judgement. They are overly optimistic in the short-term, because inherent overconfidence and the illusion of control convince them they can achieve more than they can. But people are also too unimaginative about the future—we tend to imagine the future as mostly resembling the present.

I suggest two cures: first, acknowledge your short-term laziness more. If you know you’re lazy, you can work around it. Most people don’t because we like to think of ourselves as being industrious and in control, not easily manipulated automatons. Second, be more imaginative about the future, even small ripples can turn into big waves over time.

  • Ben

    I agree that it’s hard to consciously change big things, usually this is because your subconscious programming is going against that.

    If somebody wants to be confident but has so many negative emotions going against that, then it won’t work very well, so letting these go is beneficial.

    I also agree on making the small steps, it’s a good way to adjust. I think a combination of both, making these new habits and also working on your subconscious fears, resistance and whatever else to support your new habits and way of being is the best.


  • Corey McMahon

    Your mention of the way we make decisions as a result of unseen forces and then “explain back” why we did something reminded me of this passage from the Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, also referring to patients who have undergone corpus callosotomies (severing of the connection between left and right hemispheres of the brain) :

    “say that you induced such a person to perform an act – raise his finger, laugh, or grab a shovel – in order to ascertain how he ascribes a reason to his act (when in fact you know that there is no reason for it other than your inducing it). If you ask the right hemisphere, here isolated from the left side, to perform the action, then ask the other hemisphere for an explanation, the patient will invariably offer some interpretation: “I was pointing at the ceiling in order to…,” “I saw something interesting on the wall,”…”

    “Now, if you do the opposite, namely instruct the isolated left hemisphere of a right-handed person to perform an act and ask the right hemisphere for the reasons, you will plainly be told, “I don’t know””

  • Vinay Bhat

    I’m usually a massively optimistic person, and my continuous successes and failures have shown me the distinguishing variable in the dichotomy of success and failure (in the context of having extreme self-belief):

    1.) Clarity: This is perhaps the most important factor. You MUST do the research for what it takes to complete the goal you desire. As obvious as it sounds, to take the right steps and not the wrong ones, I’ve found that people either shy away from it, or are simply unaware that they are taking the wrong steps. This also explains why most of the times, success takes much less time (and perhaps, to a certain extent, effort) than failure.

    2.) Feedback: Immediate feedback is extremely important. Clarity is achieved by research and immediate feedback. You must constantly know that you’re on the right path.

    3.) Planning: Now, by planning I don’t mean you’re usual to-dos . You must plan by stating in precise and exact terms, where you intend to do the task, when you intend to do it. (Not in vague terms, specifically.)

    Of course, this is hardly the complete list! But all this results in low procrastination, much more time efficiency, and most importantly, all these things, along with energy management, and having consistent habits allows you to undertake every right step towards your goal.

    By the way, thanks so much, Scott! You indirectly answered a question I had asked on a previous post 😀

  • Jon

    Interesting post.

    This is sort of the whole psychological idea behind mindfulness. By recognizing and being consciously aware of our thought patterns, we can separate them from our core identity. Thus allowing us to act on pure intent alone, free of the mental noise from our own self abstractions.

  • Paula

    I read a related review article today that challenged the traditional model of neural processing as being linear input-processing-output, stimulus-cognition-action:

    “In principle, brain structures can be conceptualized as information processing entities, with an input, a local-processing capacity, and an output. Yet, although such a scheme may describe the function of subcortical nuclei, its implementation in different areas of cortex is anything but straightforward. In fact, we now know that the traditional cortical input–elaboration–output scheme, commonly presented as an instantiation of the tripartite perception–cognition–action model, is probably a misleading oversimplification16. Research shows that the subcortical input to cortex is weak; the feedback is massive, the local connectivity reveals strong excitatory and inhibitory recurrence, and the output reflects changes in the balance between excitation and inhibition, rather than simple feedforward integration of subcortical inputs17. In the context of this review, the properties of these excitation–inhibition networks (EIN) deserve special attention, and are briefly discussed below. Brain connectivity is mostly bidirectional. To the extent that different brain regions can be thought of as hierarchically organized processing steps, connections are often described as feedforward and feedback, forward and backward, ascending and descending, or bottom-up and top-down18.” (Logothetis 2008, Nature

    The review goes on to talk about how brain processing on a neural level is organized via microcircuits, little excitation-inhibition microunits. It’s not clear how this neural function directly translates into greater systems of cognition, and action/reaction inhibition or creation, but it’s interesting to speculate on how there are mysterious neural subtleties at work altering our self-perception and consciousness (whatever that is). Our brain processing is most likely bidirectional, although we only perceive it on the most superficial, cognitive level to be unidirectional.

    Maybe our brain state influences feedback/feedforward processing; we only notice the output of the processing, and therefore think we initiated the decision, whereas feedback/feedforward processes were in the background the whole while. I felt that this Nature review and your article were two very different applications of the same topic – your article related the cognitive, practical experience of bidirectional neural feedback (our problem with laziness), the Nature review related how neuroscience methods can study mechanisms of bidirecitonal neural feedback.

  • Riverstone

    We are in control of our actions, our writing, our behaviors, etc…it would be self-refuting to say that we do not have control as causative agents…If we were not causative agents, then what we do, say, or write, etc would simply be determined, but then why should we believe that type of conclusion if we are just determined to have done it, said it, or written about it?

    If our decisions are simply based on explained stories given after the fact, why should we believe such a premise? Such a premise, itself, would simply be a story without rational basis…

    We have a conscience, a mind that is immaterial apart from the brain…we can even prove this through science…an MRI may show parts of my cortex light up (aspects of the physical) but the MRI can not show what I am thinking (the immaterial)…

    …so we are definitely in control of what we think and how we decide, because even if we were to say that we are “nothing but” brains with predetermined storytelling scripts, we would still have to have “more than” knowledge to comprehend such a hypothesis…which would refute the “nothing but” hypothesis…

    Thus we make decisions based on rational and logical thinking…a reasonable process that does not need stories to lead the way…if the latter was the case, why should anyone even believe such a notion?…it would just be a story…

  • Keri

    I’d love to see a post on how to work around being lazy. God knows my mother’s accused me of it enough–although, when I think about it, I do get a lot done; it’s just not housekeeping, gardening, and remodeling–none of those outwards signs of a busy person. I spend most of my free time writing or researching for my writing.

  • Lasse

    Scott! I have a question for you.

    On one hand you seem to say that we should focus on small manageable consistent actions, yet you also write articles like “Do Hard Things” where you say that we should push our limits the fullest and risk burn outs.

    These ideas seems like they would conflict. One approach tells you to be realistic and know your limits, another approach tells you to break through the limits you’ve previously set on yourself.

    Any thoughts on this matter?

  • Andreas Kopp

    Yes I know!!! I read the same insight a couple of times at Leo Babautas blog but I still mess it up most of the time and want to do to much at once.

  • Prateek

    Hey Scott!

    Thank you for your insights on how most people behave.

    I believe that people are unique. Each person is an embodiment of Creation. Some people do like to believe that they are better than the average person. This is the opinion of Thomas Hobbes in his treatise on the “State of Nature” where he said that every man believes himself to be superior to everybody else.

    However, we must understand that Life is a dynamic phenomenon. We cannot just assume something rigid about it. Stray scientific experiments may be true for only a sample population or according to certain constants. By and large, human behavior is one of the most complicated phenomenon of Life, which is difficult to unravel.

    Thus, I would appreciate if you abstain from giving moral lessons to people. This is what all the preachers do! The problem with them is that they think their opinion about Life is the best and everyone should follow it.

    This is not to discourage you from sending tips about how to do things to us, but to just ask you to not generalize everything or assume anything outrightly for any person, even if you may have known him for years. The fact remains that each individual has his own thoughts and reasons…

  • lydia labat

    The difference between you and the short term thinkers is that you like to think.. They don’t.
    You are also seeking truth.
    People who are looking for quick self help are trying to veil their truth.

  • Marvin

    Lasse, hes trying to say to set huge goals and then take small steps to achieve those goals.

    I disagree that your friend can’t gain 10 pounds in 60 days. The 1st month he can def gain the first 5lbs, its the 2nd month that will be tough. If he takes in enough protein, he will make it. His goal is more about eating than lifting. If he at least tried it, even if he fails he would still gain more weight trying his way than just exercising regularly for one month. When its all said and done and he steps on the scale, our opinions dont matter. I’m sure a dietition will tell you that its possible to do. Now whether he has the discipline is a different story.

    We should always set goals where someone doubts our ability to achieve them. That way, you know you’re living on the outer edge of what you’re capable of, pushing your potential.

  • Johnny Mean

    Great post! Asking us to examine assumptions.

    Being lazy and conserving energy by nature as human beings, the post title rings true for me.

    If you want a person to change from behavior (A) to (B), into (A) to (C) make getting to (C) easier.
    Make it easier and more attractive to a person to get to (C) through creating passive barriers to (B) and eliminating active barriers to (C).

    The person will forget about (B) and no longer desire desire (B). -De Bono

    Sometimes mapping an easier route to the desired behavior is working with our laziness regardless of the perceived ambition level.

  • Joao Brito

    Very interesting. If we create justifications for what we already did, perhaps this draws to another conclusion.

    Trying try to persuade (justify) ourselves to do the things we want to do it’s useless. It just won’t work, because this persuasion will be easily superseded by other justifications or plain automatic behavior.

    Setting goals, setting a plan, that’s thinking and reasoning. Now, if you keep trying to reason yourself to work, you’ll probably change your mind. In other words, just do it. Work will mostly feel absurd.

    And we do it all the time, we say we need to feel “motivated” to work. Well, I know “motivation” is not a very common state; and, after reading your article, I perceive we can easily feel “motivated” in any direction to justify decisions we already made.

    Then, perhaps “motivation” is a trap. Because what seemed “motivation” was just afterwards reasoning.

  • Povilas

    Never thought about short or long term self-confidence. Good insight, worth having in mind.

    If you didn’t know your friend I would say that one point is missing here. The size/ambition of a goal is often the main driver for the short term (1-2 month) goal. To exercise 30 days may look easy for your friend, that way wouldn’t motivate. Meanwhile harder goal would give more enthusiasm and will.

    Also, agree with laziness aspect of us and Johnny Mean shows good way how to exploit it.

  • Nathan

    Holy crap, Scott! I loved this!! =D

    I’ve been studying up about these kind of psychological phenomena over this past semester, and you nailed it on every single one of them! In-credible!

    And yes, everything I learned in class has confirmed your arguments. How we’re overconfident in ourselves, but this overconfidence is (usually) beneficial for us, as it allows us to function and be “happy, care for others more, and engage in productive and creative work.” Here’s a slide from one of the lectures I attended:

    “Illusions & Well-being
    Most people have illusions about the self:
    1. Positively biased self evaluations
    2. Illusions of control
    3. Risk assessment
    – Unrealistic and overly optimistic”

    – With respect to the advice you gave to your friend, I would have him turn his specific + unrealistic goal into a specific + realistic goal, rather than a nonspecific + realistic one. In other words, I would advise him to plan to gain 5 pounds over the next two months, rather than to just exercise reguarily. This would align with the concepts of both S.M.A.R.T. and implementation intentions

    – As much as I cognitively “know” these theories, I admit I haven’t been practising what I preach. So THANK YOU for writing this, and for reminding me not to do all of those things you mentioned: trying to do everything at once, chastising myself and so forth.

  • rafael

    Splitting big tasks to small consumable to-do items is my key factor to stay productive even if I feel really lazy.
    When you have small task you will try to finish it. But if you have something big, you will keep postponing it for right mood and time 🙂

  • darth peski

    nothing really new here but nevertheless one of your better columns and I’m glad to have read it. I think you’re steadily doing better work. I like the conciseness, too, unlike some who ramble. This was a good reminder of important ideas that are all to easy to push to the side “temporarily”, but which warrant some serious consideration. A nice follow up might be the topic of how to make this an actionable insight (other than humility and perspective, which, perhaps, are enough?). We monkeys aren’t as clever as we like to tell ourselves…and that realization is the beginning of actual conscious behavior.

  • Adi rahman

    Thanks Scott..I guess I was one of them like your friend.I;ve been way too optimistic about how I’ll be able to change my self dramatically in short period of time. I’ve been spending almost 7 years about how to change my habits and I still didnt make it…
    I’ll try your advice..Little by little.I’ll start with my financil habits 🙂

  • Crazy Frog

    Your article was great. I’ve always been very interested in pride and confidence, I think it’s a topic that, by acknowledging it more, you change faster and learn to be more independant. This is by far one of the best posts I’ve read about it even if pride is an undirect subject. The idea that habits are more powerful than will (which is one advantage of extremely proud people) is a big discovery for me. Thank you Scott 🙂 .

  • Andi-Roo

    This thinking reminds me of one of my mantras: Recognize your flaws & act accordingly. For example, I have zero concept of time. No amount of hoping, wishing, & trying to change is going to change that fact. To recognize my flaw means to acknowledge that I suck in this area. To act accordingly means to take actions which reflect my intent to work around this flaw. I have obnoxious alarms go off every hour, on the hour, throughout the day, as well as reminders to alert me that it’s time to pick up my daughter from the bus stop, or that I need to take a break & drink some water, or that it’s time to feed the fish & water my plants. Some flaws are not ones which will ever go away. I still have zero concept of time. But setting alarms helps me actively address an area in which I am lacking. It also keeps my family from being pissed at me for running late as often as I used to. Win-Win.

  • Sandeep

    Hey the experiment with brain is awesome…
    and wonderful article…

    Thank you

  • Marton

    I used this method to quit sugar after being stuck with a serious addiction for years. There’s a spot around week 3 where the cravings come back but if you make it past the 30 day mark you are pretty much golden. Thanks Scott!

  • 田多多

    wow, I was really shocked, and it is cathartic release to me. I don’t need to blame me too much when I failed my short-term list, because of over-confidence.

    it is a vicious circle,because I failed I tend to image future I was almost the same as today.

    Thank you very much!