Dr. Devon Price argues that what seems like laziness is often a sign of overwork, trauma, or mental health struggle. Credit: colin quinn rice

Dr. Devon Price had always been an overachiever. They sacrificed social events to get top grades (aiming to fulfill a teenage dream of getting a PhD in psychology), mechanically ran through tasks on their to-do list, and still made time for activist work, live lit performances, and rewatching Mad Men. Daily life was exhausting but somewhat manageable.

Then they got sick. Two weeks before their dissertation defense in spring 2014, Price developed a nasty flu and had to present their research while fevered. The flu persisted into the summer, along with a newly diagnosed heart murmur and anemia. To fully heal from what had become a year-long illness, Price forwent all work and social obligations for two months. With this rest came a new realization. “No matter how much I set out to achieve . . . it was never going to be enough,” Price tells me.

This pressure to be constantly productive led Price, now a psychology professor with Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, to write a viral op-ed for the online publication Human Parts in 2018 entitled, “Laziness Does Not Exist.” In it they argued that what seemed like laziness was often a sign of overwork, trauma, or mental health struggles, and that educators needed to offer more empathy and accommodations in the classroom.

For the next year, Price would receive e-mails, comments, and messages every day from people who shared emotional stories of cruel parents, abusive bosses, and teachers who gave up on them. “If this many people were going through this problem, it’s because everybody’s being asked to do way too much and the way we define a person’s worth is totally distorted,” they say.

That article, originally written to blow off steam, became Price’s first book. Laziness Does Not Exist (Atria Books) is a science-based self-help manual for those run roughshod by capitalism. It’s an accessible read, blending the latest in psychological research with real-life stories from artists, activists, students, gig workers, white-collar employees, disabled people, and others buckling under the strain of impossible expectations. The chapters are arranged as affirmations: “Your Achievements Are Not Your Worth,” “You Deserve to Work Less,” “You Don’t Have to Be an Expert in Everything.”

Feelings of productivity-related guilt, shame, and exhaustion originate from what Price calls “The Laziness Lie”—the idea that “people who do more are worth more,” they write. Price traces the origin of this destructive worldview to Puritans settling in the U.S. in the 1600s, who believed hard workers were predestined for salvation, and anyone deemed lazy was damned. The conflation of hard work and moral worth was later used as justification for slavery and exploitative labor practices in the Industrial Revolution, says Price. Now the Laziness Lie manifests itself as burnout (“a public health issue”), information overload, and “achievement hunting.”

But this idea doesn’t just have consequences for the overworked white-collar employee. Price says the Laziness Lie has contributed to working-class infighting and a stigma against marginalized people who receive public assistance, like food stamps and disability benefits. “It has really created a cultural outlook where we don’t trust other people,” Price says. “We think other people are gaming the system, instead of realizing all of us are overextended.”

To help combat the Laziness Lie, each chapter offers actionable advice, from prioritizing meaningful tasks over busywork (e.g., maintaining inbox zero) to “consciously [finding] time to experience awe” in nature and new experiences. However, unlike other releases in the productivity and self-care genres, Price wanted to balance tips with structural analysis of why we would feel overworked (i.e., stagnant wages, discrimination, mental illness, workplace surveillance). “Me taking more bubble baths isn’t going to fix [huge social problems].”

Price also wants to clarify the goal isn’t to relax so you can get more work completed. Overconsuming news, for example, is a common pitfall disguised as a moral imperative. “It may feel productive, because it keeps our minds busy and engaged, but it actually saps us of the energy to put up a genuine fight,” writes Price, who organizes around trans rights, decarceration, and destigmatizing autism.

Instead, change comes about from making small life changes (being “gentler with yourself and others”) and pushing for structural change for those who can’t quit their jobs, take more breaks, or live off the grid. What inspired Price the most while writing their book wasn’t the success stories of people rebuilding their lives. It was the people who carved a path for themselves despite having to stay in a terrible job for the money or manage all-consuming disabilities.

“There’s a lot of work we need to do to stand up for people who are in those situations and get them what they need materially so they actually can set boundaries in their life,” Price says. “It just politically calls me to action over and over again.”   v