Person buried under a doona and pillows, only their arm sticking out

Executive dysfunction – when laziness isn’t laziness

Let’s talk about laziness, and what it isn’t.

Recently a friend was telling me about how someone in his family – someone he by necessity has to live with – calls him lazy because he takes on too much and then doesn’t have the headspace to get it done. I told him, that sounds pretty toxic of them, and he responded, it’s understandable. It’s just me being a trash human.

“Lazy” is one of the biggest sticks that gets used to beat people who can’t achieve as much, or as regularly, as what’s considered “normal”. Other people use the “lazy” stick on us – and worse, we use it on ourselves.

It’s easy to think of ourselves as lazy, or useless, or trash humans, when we don’t live up to our own or others’ expectations of what we “should” be able to get done. Goodness knows I did, for many years.

I called myself lazy because my house is always a mess. Because there’s always another load of dishes waiting to be done. Because of the pile of clothes in limbo by the sewing machine, waiting eternally to be mended. Because even when I was doing a job I loved, many days I still had to drag myself, unwilling, out of bed and off to work.

It’s taken me many years to shed that way of thinking. But now I know: that’s not laziness.

Executive function – the brain’s secret superpower

There’s a powerful illusion around the human brain: the idea that those brain functions we can observe and (to some extent) control must be its only functions. Thought, imagination, decision-making – that’s what brains do, right?

Actually, no. That’s some of what brains do – but the human brain does a ton of other work for us, that we’re usually entirely unaware of.

For example: we have a whole frontal lobe dedicated to executive function. What’s executive function? Well, it covers a whole bunch of abilities that most people take for granted. Abilities like:

  • Figuring out what to pay attention to and what to ignore, and then paying attention to the right things
  • Controlling the impulse to do things we know we shouldn’t, like eating an entire cake or sticking our hand in boiling water
  • Recognising the rules of a situation and adjusting our behaviour to fit, like knowing it’s OK to swear in front of our friends but not our boss
  • Motivating ourselves to take action when no external stimulus exists to motivate us

All these abilities, and many more – they’re things neurotypical people can do literally without thinking about it. And because they take no conscious thought, people tend to assume they take no mental ability.

But when someone is neurodiverse or has a mental illness, when their brain is literally not functioning “normally” -then it becomes clear just how reliant we all are on that kilo-and-a-half of meat and electrical impulses in our head.

When our frontal lobe isn’t doing its job – as it doesn’t in people with ADHD or depression – then we experience executive dysfunction. What does that mean? It means those abilities we take for granted that everyone can do… just aren’t there.

When executive function fails

This morning, I woke up and couldn’t move. I spent a full hour lying in bed, fully awake, unable to even twitch a finger.

I wasn’t paralysed. There was nothing wrong with my body – except that there was, because my brain is a part of my body, just as physical and fallible and flawed as any other body part.

Time ticked by. Hunger gnawed at me. The need to pee grew painful. And still I lay there, doing nothing at all, while my thoughts ran in useless, hamster-wheel circles. Fruitlessly willing myself to move, raging over my failure, despairing over my ability to ever get better – around and around and back again, getting nowhere at all.

I’d love to tell you the reason I’m here now, up and about and functional, was because I thought positive or got over it or used some other mental magic trick. But no.

What actually happened was that eventually, after an hour of useless straining, I went back to sleep, and when I woke up again the episode had passed. I woke up, I wanted to get up – so I did.

As if it had been that easy all along.

Life with executive dysfunction

That’s the extreme end of how I experience executive dysfunction. It doesn’t happen often, thankfully. But it has the up-side, if you can call it that, of making it blindingly obvious that this isn’t laziness. You’d have to be pretty damn self-centred to look at someone lying in bed staring at the wall and not see that something is wrong.

Most of the time, though, this type of executive dysfunction – the inability to turn a desire for action into actual action, in the absence of an external motivator – shows up in far less obvious ways.

It can be piles of dishes by the sink or piles of stuff lying around wherever I put it down, because I don’t know how to motivate myself to wash up or tidy away even when the mess is driving me crazy.

It can be a “comfort” activity that never ends: scrolling through Facebook or rereading a favourite webcomic for the thousandth time, wanting to stop, even even needing to stop – to get to work, to feed myself, to go pee – but unable to make myself stop scrolling, stop clicking through. Feeling worse and worse as the minutes and hours tick by, the comfort of the activity long since drowned out by guilt and frustration.

It can even be a “productive” activity like writing this blog post – except that what I actually need to do is go shower and get ready for work, and yet I can’t tear myself away from endless writing and rewriting. It’s an inability to task-switch, a total incapacity to pull myself away from the thing I’m already doing and just go do something else, dammit.

And here’s the kicker – remember the second half of that executive function description? “Motivating ourselves to take action when no external stimulus exists to motivate us.

Because as soon as there is an external motivator – the phone ringing, someone arriving at the house, Ben coming to get me out of bed – something clicks over in my brain and I can do what needs to be done. As if I could have done it all along.

Which from the outside – and, let’s face it, from the inside too – makes it look like the only thing stopping me was laziness.

What even is laziness?

Here’s the conclusion I have reached, after many years of beating myself up for “laziness”: the defining feature of true laziness is that it’s deliberate.

Taking a lazy afternoon off? That’s a conscious decision to do nothing for a while.

Looking at a job that needs doing and thinking, “Meh, who cares?” That’s lazy. It’s not always a bad thing, mind you. But it’s a deliberate choice not to care about getting something done.

On the other hand, if you do care about the things you aren’t doing – if it stresses you out that the floor is messy and the dishes unwashed, that you’re always late for work, that you’ve been stuck on the couch for the last hour even though you are, in theory, perfectly capable of getting up – then YOU ARE NOT BEING LAZY.

Most likely, you’re experiencing executive dysfunction. And that sucks – but it’s not a conscious choice, and it’s not something is going to be fixed by calling yourself names, or letting other people do the same.

So put the “lazy” stick away.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Share this post:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *