Are you one of the millions of people who think they are closet lazy devils? You may well recognise the thought: ‘If I allow myself to stop when I feel like it, I may never get anything done, because I’m naturally a lazy person.’ It is amazing how powerfully this message has been inserted into our consciousness!
So where does this thought come from? My belief is that it is built into western culture as part of maintaining what is called the Protestant work ethic. Remember those little children we once were? Not only did we have too much energy some of the time, we also inconveniently wanted to just stop and rest or sleep sometimes. Whilst this is accepted as part of being a baby, we work hard to train children into only sleeping at night-time, and being active physically and/or mentally when it suits. We teach them how to counteract their natural tendency to balance activity with rest, and fit in with the way things work: school, workplaces, family life.
Now children, who are still aware of their natural tendency, are likely to object to the training, which is when they learn that those who don’t fit in are called ‘lazy’ and this is a bad thing, and no child likes to be classified as something unacceptable, so we adopt the habits we see around us.
I know that I lived with the fear of being a closet lazy person for many years, and still find it reappears sometimes. Yet a part of me felt that it was a false message. If I really were lazy, why did I find it boring after a while when I had enforced ‘laziness’, like being ill in bed? And I began to notice the evidence that suggested we aren’t lazy creatures at all.
When you step back from it for a moment, you begin to realise that it makes no sense. No child is born lazy – in fact we frequently complain that they have more energy than we can handle! So it is not an inherent part of our nature. And when we do allow ourselves to stop for long enough – maybe only if we take a holiday! – we discover that there comes a point when we are ready and wanting to do something. So as a grown-up, maybe it’s time to remember that we are actually designed biologically to ebb and flow, to have energy and to have time to rebuild that energy. If we want to be at our best, then we need to cater for our natural design and stop forcing ourselves past it.
This is radical, but doesn’t have to be dramatic: we can start gently. I remember I began to experiment when my son was young and I was working full-time. The normal routine was: busy at work, dash to the child-minder’s, pick him up, take him home, and immediately launch into tea, homework, getting things ready for the next day. I knew I wasn’t the most pleasant of mums, but I dutifully got everything done! I asked Jo if it was OK with him if we experimented for a week with me having 15 minutes to myself when we got home – time for a coffee and a cigarette and a sit-down – before starting on everything else. He agreed somewhat reluctantly, and I felt guilty, but decided to try it anyway. At the end of the week, I felt better – less exhausted, less snappy – but I still felt guilty about making him wait his turn for my attention, so I thanked him for letting me do it, and said we could revert to normal now. His response surprised me: he suggested I took 5 minutes longer from now on! When I asked him why, he pointed out that I was much nicer during that week, and he preferred that, so maybe 5 minutes more would make me nicer still!
Since that time, I have gradually got better at finding ways to stop for a while, and allow myself to recover my energy. In the process, I have gathered more and more evidence that it is not only a more natural way for us to live our lives, but also a more effective one. It is astonishing how a little stopping now and then allows us to be more pleasant, more creative, less exhausted and generally more our real selves.
So how do you introduce stopping into your life more often?
Breathspaces: begin simply! Remember to take a breathspace, before you respond to someone, send that email, get into the car, answer the phone. Just a breathspace can make a difference.
Five minutes: take five minutes before you launch into your day, start on those home duties when you get back from work, start the next task.
Fifteen minutes: allow yourself 4 or 5 fifteen-minute gaps in your busy week. Call them admin time and write them in your diary as part of your schedule. And do nothing: stare out of the window, go for a stroll, relax into a comfy chair.
When these become habitual, you can start to expand on your experiment with stopping. A half-hour or hour at the weekend that is just for you, an evening where you just read a good book or watch a good movie and leave the chores until the next day, a whole day with no list of things you have to do.
And notice how, after a while, your energy starts to lift again and, if you relax into it enough, you start having thoughts like:’ Oh, I know what I can do about that thing that’s been bugging me,’ or ‘I haven’t seen so-and-so for ages – it would be fun to catch up with her,’ – the healthy and positive thoughts that often aren’t allowed in because our minds are so full of what we have to do next.
You’re not lazy, you’re just over-stretched! Don’t worry: if you stopped for days on end, you would come to a point where you said to yourself: ‘ I want to do ….. now.’ What an improvement that would be over: ‘I’d better get on with …..’ – wouldn’t it!
It’s a simple change I’m suggesting in our thinking process. It replaces: ‘I’ll just do …. and then I’ll stop’ with ‘ I’ll just have a little rest and then I’ll do ….’. It seemed like common sense when you were a little child – maybe it will again now!