Lack of motivation can sometimes be confused with laziness, particularly if you live with depression. But they aren’t the same, and using these labels doesn’t help.
Lately, you haven’t been wanting to do anything. Zero. Except, maybe, lay on the couch and scroll social media.
Or, maybe you’ve been begrudgingly getting up for work, feeling like the motivation and energy have been sapped out of you. Performing other chores might feel just as tough.
So, you find yourself wondering, “Am I lazy or depressed? What’s going on with me?”
You’re not alone in asking these questions. It’s natural to wonder why you’re having a hard time completing any tasks.
But learning the difference between what some people call laziness and the signs of depression is important and may help you get the support you need.
Laziness isn’t a formal symptom of any type of depression.
“There are many symptoms of depression that can mirror what we have come to believe is laziness,” says Ernesto N. Lira de la Rosa, PhD, a psychologist on the Media Advisory Group at Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
According to Lira de la Rosa, some of these symptoms are:
- lack of interest in things you used to enjoy
- low energy and motivation
- changes in sleeping habits
- difficulty concentrating
- difficulty starting and completing tasks
In fact, over 90% of people with depression experience fatigue, a symptom that can also be mistaken for laziness.
In child psychologist Jennifer Weber’s experience, it’s not uncommon for kids and teens to be mislabeled as lazy before receiving a diagnosis of depression. Weber is the director of behavioral health for PM Pediatrics Behavioral Health, a teletherapy and consultation program in New Hyde Park, New York.
Misconceptions about the signs of depression can especially happen if you have difficulty with:
- getting out of bed or off the couch
- performing household chores, like cooking, cleaning, washing dishes
- taking a shower and other personal hygiene habits
- completing work or academic assignments
These challenges may make you feel you’re being lazy, but there’s more to it than a personal choice.
According to Lira de la Rosa, some people can also “overwork themselves to the degree of exhaustion and can experience depression as a result.”
Apparent laziness can also be a sign of avolition. This is a severe lack of motivation that makes completing any type of task challenging or almost impossible. It’s sometimes a sign of depression and other conditions such as schizophrenia.
In sum, specific symptoms of depression may seem to you like laziness, but they could be manifestations of a mood disorder you’re living with. Only a mental health professional can provide an accurate diagnosis, though.
Depression comes in several forms, each of which has its own diagnostic criteria and symptoms.
Even within those types, depression looks different for everyone, says Lira de la Rosa.
For example, some people living with depression have a difficult time getting out of bed at all. Others may be able to actively work and socialize, but present other symptoms like hopelessness and irritability.
Major depressive disorder
Major or clinical depression is the most common kind of depression.
Symptoms typically last more than 2 weeks and may include:
- profound sadness
- diminished interest in activities
- bone-deep exhaustion
- eating too little or too much
- sleeping too little or too much
- shattered self-worth
- inability to focus or make decisions
- thoughts of suicide
Persistent depressive disorder
In this chronic form of depression, formerly called dysthymia, symptoms persist for more than 2 years and are usually not as severe as in major depression.
You might not even realize that you live with depression, because it’s common for people with this condition to assume this is just part of their personality.
You may believe you’ve been this way as long as you can remember.
Persistent depressive disorder symptoms are similar to major depression but they’re less intense and severe. Still, symptoms may greatly impact how you see yourself, others, and the world in general.
Sometimes, it may be challenging to distinguish between symptoms of mental health disorders and just a personality trait.
Only a health professional has the tools to provide you with an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. This is why it’s highly advisable to seek their help.
According to Weber, some signs you may be dealing with more than just procrastination include:
- Significant change. For example, a once energetic and driven person now finds it challenging to perform the simplest tasks.
- Unmet responsibilities. An important sign is when someone has difficulty caring for themselves or their kids, keeping their job, and performing daily tasks, such as maintaining their home.
In the “Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences,” laziness is defined as “a person’s reluctance to perform a chore or an exercise despite having the ability to do it.” It involves willpower and intention.
Yet laziness is a more complex, nuanced concept than we realize. For starters, laziness may very well be a cultural construct and one that often comes with tints of stigma and prejudice.
From an early age, we’re surrounded by messages that equate success and self-worth with never-ceasing productivity.
So, when we’re not productive, we judge ourselves or others as lazy, notes Lira de la Rosa.
In fact, he often works with people who are deeply drained because they’re unable to sustain the pace and keep up with daily demands — and fear that this means they’re defective.
Labeling yourself as lazy — or labeling someone else — can lead you to miss the underlying, critical reasons why you’re unable to perform a task or navigate the day-to-day.
Using the term “lazy” can gloss over a variety of plausible, important explanations that can be effectively resolved.
In short, assuming you’re lazy (or someone else is) stops you from solving the underlying reasons for your current state.
In reality, laziness may be many things. You may procrastinate or lack motivation because of:
- exhaustion from overpacking your schedule or experiencing pandemic-related burnout
- having a hard time completing a difficult task, such as a school project, which might also be a sign of a learning disorder or nutritional deficiencies
- a medical condition that causes chronic fatigue or lethargy, such as fibromyalgia, an autoimmune disorder, or chronic fatigue syndrome
- another mental health condition, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, or schizophrenia
- chronic stress
- an existential crisis or existential depression
One more thing: Lazy isn’t really a personality trait. It’s more of a behavior.
However, some people are naturally more focused, driven, and goal-oriented than others, points out Weber. “It is not necessarily a good or bad thing, especially if it is not getting in the way of day-to-day functioning,” she says.
Still, some individuals who are more motivated may negatively judge others who have opposite characteristics, Weber adds.
For some people, apparent laziness may actually be a sign of clinical depression, avolition, or other health conditions.
Procrastination and lack of motivation may also be related to stress or burnout — something so many of us are feeling in the midst of the pandemic.
If you’ve found yourself experiencing a significant lack of motivation or additional symptoms that align more with depression (or another condition), consider seeking professional help.
And if you think you’re just experiencing true-blue laziness, “reflect on what this means to you and what messages you’ve received about laziness,” says Lira de la Rosa.
It may be a good idea to remind yourself that you’re a human being who needs to rest and recharge — and this goes beyond tagging yourself with labels such as “lazy.”
Consider taking care of yourself, instead, says Lira de la Rosa.