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5 Reasons You Might Be Avoiding Work

And how curiosity can help.

Key points

  • You're not avoiding the work at work because you're lazy.
  • There are five less judgmental reasons you may be avoiding doing the work at work.
  • Curiosity about why you're avoiding the work can be helpful.

In my practice, I often hear people in prestigious, demanding careers lament the fact that they’re not working hard enough. They avoid doing work and they feel guilty about it. The guilt leaks into their downtime. They fear that they’re not good enough employees, that they’re imposters on the verge of getting caught. They come to therapy asking how they can get themselves to be less lazy. I often observe that people struggling to do the work at work are so consumed with feeling not good enough that they don’t allow themselves the space to ask with curiosity: "What’s going on that I’m struggling to do the work?"

In my experience, there are a few factors that may lead to avoiding doing the work at work.

1. You’ve hit the point of diminishing returns

It doesn’t take a clinical degree to know that people in prestigious, demanding careers feel a great deal of pressure to perform. It’s necessary for the career to be amongst your top priorities in life. To keep up, you have to be relentlessly hardworking and available at almost any hour, often at the expense of other desires and interests. A genuine desire for a specific outcome of your hard work, like greater responsibility or a specific job title, can be a reliable and continuously self-sustaining motivator.

A patient in corporate law recently told me, “I spend most of my time at work but it’s really important to me to make partner. And I’m almost there. There’s something about getting that role that will make me feel such a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

For those who aren’t interested in advancing further in their career, the demands of your job may feel less survivable. When the demands outstrip what the job supplies to you, the stress and sacrifice are more likely to reach a point of diminishing returns.

2. You’re not enjoying the work

Simply put, if you enjoy what you’re asking yourself to do for 70 or so hours a week, it’s easier to ask yourself to do it. For people who aren’t motivated by interest, work is more likely to be associated with guilt or obligation—two feelings that, in my experience, never motivate you to do anything well.

Let me use an example outside the realm of work to demonstrate this point. People who enjoy talking to their grandmother, and genuinely feel that the relationship is a two-way street, are more likely to call her on a regular basis. They want to call her, so they do. People who don’t particularly like their grandmothers, who find their relationship with her to be nothing beyond obligatory, are motivated by guilt and tend not to call her very frequently. That’s because obligation and guilt aren’t good motivators. Therefore, if you’re avoiding your work, it’s important to be curious about your experience and ask, "Do I actually like my job?"

3. You’re steeped in the culture of hard work

To further complicate the issue, people in prestigious, demanding careers have often grown up in a family or educational culture that normalizes life being monopolized by your career. So if you find yourself wanting to deprioritize your career in favor of other things, it can feel like something is wrong with you. You feel ashamed of yourself for not being able to measure up to the set standard, rather than being curious about and attuned to your genuine priorities.

A patient who has spent the last 15 years working unhappily at a hedge fund recently told me, “In my family it was assumed that my siblings and I would all go to Ivy League schools and get prestigious jobs in the top firms and make a lot of money. That was normal. That’s what my mom and dad did. It was what our classmates did. There was never another option. Or more accurately, other options were basically unacceptable. We were never encouraged to think outside that box.”

What my patient discovered is that she had never allowed herself to ask if this work-focused lifestyle was the one she actually wanted for herself. Instead, she spent years feeling ashamed of being unable to work as hard as the job demanded. When something is normalized by your family or by your close circle, it can be difficult to allow yourself to be different. But if you’re struggling to work as hard as the prestigious job demands, it’s important to be curious about your relationship with your career.

4. You’re afraid of making mistakes

The culture in some demanding, prestigious careers can sometimes be an unfortunate combination of unrealistically high expectations and emotional miss-attunement. Mistakes can be viewed as failures and treated in a way that invokes shame and fear. A young man in the early days of his career recently told me.

“The guys in my office are not nice to their employees. I got yelled at the first time I made a mistake at work. Like, actually yelled at. It was really degrading. After that I got so nervous about making mistakes that sometimes my hands would shake on the keyboard. And now I second guess everything I do. Everything takes me longer than it should because I doubt myself. Work makes me so anxious that it takes me a long time to sit down and get started.”

Mistakes are an inevitable part of being human. They are not a reflection of how competent or capable you are. As such, it’s important that mistakes be responded to with compassion so that you have the space to learn from them. Equating mistakes with failure, either through the expectation of perfection, or through mean or aggressive responses, will only make you want to avoid work out of fear. Avoidance can ultimately lead to you making more mistakes, and thus an unproductive cycle is born.

5. The problem is the job

If you’re constantly struggling to feel like you’re working hard enough at work, allow yourself to consider the possibility that you are working very hard—it’s just that the expectations set for you are unrealistic. This is another way of saying, the problem may not be you. The problem may be the job.

The next time you label yourself as lazy at work, try to make some space for curiosity rather than accusation. In my clinical opinion, self-accusations only lead to an oversimplification of a problem as well as a judgment of character. They shut down curiosity in favor of making you feel like you’re the problem, or like you’re not good enough. And if that’s the only conclusion you draw when you’re struggling to do the work at work, you’ll miss out on some very important information.

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