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Unpicking the Laziness Lie

Samseng Zhabor
Some time back I started writing a piece for this newsletter that had to do with how I’m sick and tired of feeling ashamed and guilty all the time about my productivity. I was essentially ranting about how I was So Over feeling like I need more breaks than I have, but also unable to embrace that need because I can’t stop feeling bad about not working, or knocking X or Y off my to-do list. I never finished the issue, because it got to the point where I got tired of angsting over being tired.
It turned out to be just as well, because this past week I picked up a book, on this very issue, that I really needed to read at this point in my life.
Laziness Does Not Exist, written by Dr Devon Price, explores what they call “the Laziness Lie”:
Source: Laziness Does Not Exist by Dr Devon Price
Source: Laziness Does Not Exist by Dr Devon Price
The Laziness Lie festishises hard work and striving, while demonising desires for rest, relaxation, and fun. It tells us that we can always try harder, work longer, stretch ourselves further. It breeds in us a fear that we could so easily fall behind if we take even a brief time-out, an anxiety that everyone around us is achieving so much more while we’re floundering against our own laziness-induced uselessness.
In the Singaporean context, the Laziness Lie is the call for workers to be “cheaper, better, faster”. It’s the emphasis on “self-reliance” that underpins national policies. It’s being told by generations of political leaders that we need to have “spurs in our hide” and “steal other people’s lunches” if we want to thrive. It’s the claim that skills upgrading — and not labour rights like a living wage — is the answer to financial security and social mobility for the working class. It’s being found to be one of the world’s most overworked cities. It’s the way our education system is rife with (official/unofficial) rankings of students, classes, student groups, schools.
After three weeks of tension and anxiety over a proposed anti-foreign interference bill that many of us worried would be abused to target critics and activists was capped off with an intense fourth week in which the bill passed, a government minister engaged in character assassination under parliamentary privilege, and the Ministry of Home Affairs issued me a letter demanding I publish a correction and apology within an hour simply because I’d shared a screencap of another media outlet’s reporting on social media, my brain decided enough was enough and checked out.
Over the course of the week I struggled to focus not only on work, but on anything. The only thing I could really do for any stretch of time was cross-stitch. I posted cheerily on social media about how it was my latest hobby, assuring friends that I was doing fine. The reality was that anything more taxing than winding thread around cardboard bobbins and stitching Xs felt like far too much.
My beautiful box of new threads.
My beautiful box of new threads.
Day after day I’d think to myself, “Aiyah, I didn’t do the work I’d planned to do again” and feel bad — while also not mustering enough energy, motivation, and focus to do anything about it. It was perfect timing, then, for me to start reading Laziness Does Not Exist.
I’ve only just started this book and am only about 10–15% through (or so my ereader tells me), so this should by no means be treated as a review. But the early chapters have resonated deeply. Price reminds us that our feelings of “laziness”, or tiredness, or the desire to do nothing but just sit on the sofa and space out, are signals from our bodies that we have totally normal limits, and that we need rest. They point out that many of us are haunted by the fear of being “lazy”, even if we are anything but. We just think that way because we’ve been socialised to constantly feel like we’re not measuring up.
It was exactly what I needed to hear. I have a chronic problem of feeling like I’m not doing enough, and not acknowledging what I’ve already done. It’s even present in this piece: I just wrote, a few paragraphs up, about how my brain switched off for a week and I couldn’t do anything, but I’ve checked my calendar and to-do apps (of course I have productivity apps) and in this week I actually listened and live-tweeted, on and off, to a 10-hour parliamentary debate, wrote a response to the Minister for Home Affairs’ attack on my character and produced an 800-word op-ed on the same day, responded to emails, proofread a statement prepared for World Day Against the Death Penalty, wrote my regular weekly wrap of news from Singapore, did multiple interviews with other journalists, spoke on two panels and an Instagram Live session, and attended at least five virtual meetings. It’s probably quite telling of the amount of work and activism that I expect from myself on a regular basis, if this is parsed in my head as “wow, I really blanked and didn’t do anything but cross-stitch, huh”.
It’s little wonder that I so often feel like I might be teetering on the brink of burn-out, or that a few days’ worth of staycation isn’t enough to make me feel properly recharged.
I understand that the latter half of Laziness Does Not Exist is more like a self-help book on how to break out of the Laziness Lie, so hopefully I’ll gain some useful tips and insight. But I already know that it’s incredibly difficult to break out of a mode of thinking and behaving that has been ingrained in you from a young age.
It’s easy to use the language of mental health and self-care, to talk about preventing burn-out and being gentle with oneself. It’s much harder to actually be gentle and set boundaries that keep burn-out at bay. I know, because I’ve been saying things about being kind to myself and learning to take breaks for years, while inside a little voice goes, “But are you sure you’re not just being lazy and skiving off work and responsibilities?”
It’s not easy to shake off a habit of trying to make everything “productive”. As you might have seen from the last issue, I’ve been thinking about how to improve this newsletter, make it more focused, more like some sort of product, when the very point of me starting this newsletter was for it to be a hobby, an outlet to reconnect with my love of writing for writing’s sake, as opposed to writing for work. Why was I starting to worry that it didn’t have a clear pitch/focus, that I wasn’t producing issues to be sent out on a regular schedule? Why was I so eager to make this hobby as structured as work? It’s not supposed to be work!
Excuse me, I have a lot of deprogramming to do.
Let me end on my cross-stitching. I estimate that it’s been about 20 years since I’ve done this. I’m getting really into it. I find the mechanical repetition extremely soothing, especially in contrast to the past month of agonising over massive chunks of legalese. Since reading Laziness Does Not Exist, it feels nice to know that I’m finally listening to myself, and allowing the time and space to do this thing that’s solely for my own pleasure.
Also, this pattern cracks me up.
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

A random, whimsical newsletter on dramas, cats, and life. Written by a journalist in need of a break from the news.

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