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How Can an Idle Person be Motivated to Work Hard?

This blog is still “a little bit of everything” – but apparently, I’m on a self-help/personal development kick at the start of 2021. That’s okay, right? Many people have goals and self-help in mind right now with this fresh start, so it’s a great time to explore this question: how can an idle person be motivated to work hard?

What does it mean to be idle?

As usual, it’s helpful to start with some definitions. But idleness is a tricky one to nail down. To the workaholic who spends 16 hours a day engrossed in four different projects, the typical 9-5 worker who chills out after work may seem idle, while to others getting an hour or two of work done each day is a major accomplishment.

Growing up, I had a tendency to be idle. I’d listen to music for three to four hours per day and just ruminate by myself. I think I see this now for what it likely was – a way of coping with anxiety or stress in my life. But there were many times as a teen where I’d wonder what was wrong with me. Why did I want to withdraw and daydream? Why couldn’t I be more productive? I don’t think I was a maladaptive daydreamer; I was outgoing, had close friends, and stayed pretty involved in the real world. However, I was a pretty idle person outside of school, church activities, and occasional outings with friends and family.

That changed significantly once I went to college. I got involved with new friends who introduced me to the outdoors and travel, and I started filling my free time with meaningful activities. I’ll admit that the transition was painful; I felt devastated about the literally thousands of hours I’d lost as a teenager. But I also realized that there was nothing I could do to get that time back. All I could do was move forward and be grateful that my habits and mindset were changing.

Is idleness a bad thing?

Many of us have heard the quote “an idle mind is the devil’s playground”, or some variation of it. Religions often warn against idleness, and in general, living a life of idleness is looked down upon. Physically and mentally, idleness can negatively impact your life – without meaningful things to focus on, we’re more likely to withdraw into ourselves, develop fears and dwell on concerns, and toss out time that we’ll never get back.

However, the opposite of idleness – working at a frenzied pace and filling every last minute with activity – can be equally damaging. Stress, burnout, depression, and even fatal diseases are linked to excessive work.

It’s worth noting that idleness and relaxation aren’t the same things. If you’re relaxing after a long day of work, you’re still doing something – even if it’s staring into space or scrolling through silly memes – with intentionality. Idleness implies a lack of direction, little interaction with others, and an excessive amount of time-wasting. It’s safe to say that a lifestyle of idleness should be avoided.

I’m pretty sure that cats are the only creature that can get away with constant idleness!

How can an idle person be motivated to work hard?

As a recovering idler, I’m happy to say that yes – it’s possible to shift from a lazy lifestyle to a path with purpose and drive. If you or a loved one struggles with idleness, these are some recommendations (from my own experience) that may help:

Acknowledge that idleness may be a symptom of something else. I’m fairly certain that my idle tendencies stemmed from anxiety and stress. As someone who struggles with being avoidant, I preferred withdrawing to talking out my problems with others. I’m not a psychologist, but it is helpful to think about your own life – do certain events or conditions trigger you to be idle? Is depression, anxiety, fear, stress, or trauma present in your life? What are your feelings toward your current lifestyle; are you satisfied with your level of activity? If outside forces push you toward idleness, it may be time to seek professional help so that you can reclaim your time.

Figure out your “why(s)”. Figuring out your why is essential for establishing direction in life. Your why is the driving force behind what you do. You might have one why or multiple whys depending on what you hope to accomplish. My family is a major why – they motivate me to work hard and to be my best so that I can leave a positive legacy. But my other major why is “just because I can”. Why shouldn’t I start a business, write a blog, develop a new hobby, or challenge myself to learn something new? I can, so what’s stopping me?

Some people are intensely self-motivated – I think of YouTubers or bloggers who produce content for years with no pay and little recognition, or entrepreneurs who pour their hearts into businesses with no guarantee of success. People like that have to have compelling whys. But even if your goals aren’t grand, whys provide you with motivation to abandon an idle lifestyle.

Take small steps. My time-wasting routine became a habit that was incredibly hard to change. I had to get out of my environment. By sitting at home, I was bound to end up glued to my headphones. Moving away to attend school forced me to change since I was in a completely new setting, but I still had to fight old tendencies since I could have easily replaced one form of idling with another. Little things, like interacting with new friends and testing out hobbies, made a big difference.

Moving isn’t the only way to get out of your current environment. If you’re prone to waste time inside your house, start with a simple goal of spending 15-30 minutes outside each day. Set a schedule for yourself with simple activities that you enjoy. Even if you offset a bit of idle time with productive activity, that’s a great start!

Experiment with different activities. It might seem obvious – but forcing yourself to do something you don’t like simply so that you can say you did “something” isn’t a sustainable plan. Certain things in life like housekeeping and work have to get done, even if they’re unpleasant at times. If you’re already doing those things, though, and fighting idleness during your off-hours, focus on activities that you enjoy. In time, you can mix in other productive activities during those hours if you want or need to. 

Socialize with others (in real life). As I write this we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, so socializing is easier said than done – and not particularly safe. However, in normal circumstances, spending time with others can force you out of idle habits. Unless your friends only like to sit around and shoot the breeze, you’ll probably end up doing something engaging and exciting. It’s much easier for me to get out and do fun things when friends are involved. 

If idleness is a struggle for you or someone you love, don’t lose hope. How can an idle person be motivated to work hard? With strong whys, simple changes, continual effort, and lots of support along the way. If you were once an idler and changed your habits, I’d love to know what worked for you – share your story in the comments! 


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