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Laziness and Productivity: The Science Behind Them

Earlier this week, I read an article claiming that self-control is exhaustible. In an experiment with two sets of students, one set was offered cookies and the other set was given radishes to eat. After that, they were given a puzzle to solve. The group which had been given radishes was recorded to have given up earlier in solving the puzzle than the other group. The idea behind the experiment was that if people spend their energies on doing smaller unpleasant tasks, their commitment for bigger difficult tasks is significantly reduced. 

Although debatable, it brings up an important question on willpower and the science behind laziness. Some researchers claim that giving ourselves idle time is one of the best ways to boost productivity, as the brain subconsciously prepares itself for tasks better during relaxation time. Others claim that the secret behind being more productive is to focus on one task at a time, and devoting all your energies to it. The 80-20 rule in economics can be extrapolated to everyday productivity too, as it implies that only 20 percent of our tasks will account for 80 percent of our results. In simpler words, one out of five tasks will be more important than the other four combined. So in a world with limited time and resources, we should focus on those tasks first. 

But all of the hypotheses present behind productivity fail to take the reasons for laziness into account. For most people, laziness seems black and white. You don’t want to do a certain task because you don’t feel like it, and procrastination is normal human behavior. But scientists have found that there can be a genetic reason you’re more inclined towards laziness as well; the couch potato gene. Simply put, if your ancestors weren’t that active and didn’t enjoy certain activities, you would be more inclined towards not enjoying them either. Experiments on mice proved that if the parent mice were active and ran on wheels more often, they had larger dopamine (the happy hormone) systems and regions to deal with motivation and reward. Mice with ‘lazier’ parents had less dopamine receptors.

Professor Wei Li, part of the team that conducted another study based on the initial 2005 one said:  “We discovered that mice with this gene mutation were typical couch potatoes. They walked only about a third as much as a normal mouse, and when they did move they walked more slowly. The mice became fat and they also developed other symptoms similar to a condition in people called ‘metabolic syndrome’ – a medical term for those with a combination of risk factors related to diabetes,  and obesity.”

This isn’t a surprising revelation, considering that we know that trauma can be transmitted via genetics too. So a large part of why we are the way we are, even in traits that we might not even consider is because of ancestry.

But does that mean that laziness cannot be overcome and the gene is entirely to blame? No. Professor Wei Li also noted that when a drug intended to improve the dopamine signalling system was given to the mice, the genetic defect was overcome and they became more active. The initial study on mice was carried out in 2005, but by 2014 this professor’s team had drawn an important link between this dopamine inhibitor gene and metabolic syndrome. 1 out of 200 people with metabolic syndrome had this genetic mutation. 

But since the odds of having the gene are relatively quite less, other factors like depression, anxiety, ADHD and other problems may be a far bigger influence on your tendency to put off tasks than the biological factor. Thus the secret to better productivity isn’t a one-shoe-fits-all approach. This discovery of the couch potato gene will help with treatments that target a person’s individual gene make-up as well. 

For a lot of us, our self worth is tied around productivity and we never know where to draw the line between overworking ourselves and just meeting our targets, self care and being lazy. Planning out your day may work for some people and become a greater cause for anxiety for others. Putting excess pressure on yourself for reaching your goals may boost short term productivity but worsen your long term mental health. There is also evidence showing that talk therapy (such as BetterHelp) can help strengthen productivity and overall mental health. Finding out what works for you may not be simple, but the key is identifying the variables that affect your physical and mental health and pacing your work accordingly.

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