Don’t Mistake Depression Symptoms for “Laziness”

Photo by Sam Solomon on Unsplash

I used to think of myself as a lazy person. This negative self-image started in high school but lasted through to my twenties.

It wasn’t a totally unfounded belief. Back then, I did a lot of things that looked like laziness. I put off starting homework and projects, and even after I began, I would only work on them for a little while at a time. I slept a ton and hated to get out of bed. I also often stayed in my dorm room (and later apartments) all day except when I needed to go to class.

Some years weren’t as bad though. Some years I worked hard, had a great social life, and even had a variety of hobbies.

During the bad years, I was always kicking myself for being “lazy.” I wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just switch back to my productive alter-ego.

I didn’t realize until my late twenties that my main issue wasn’t actually laziness — I was experiencing symptoms of my depression (later exacerbated by a drinking problem). Although I had been diagnosed with depression all the way back in high school, somehow I had never put two and two together until a new therapist explained it to me.

Depression vs. Laziness

One extremely common symptom of depression (and some other mental issues) is a lack of motivation to do many activities in your life. Not everyone with depression gets this, but many do.

Unfortunately, on the surface, this symptom looks a lot like laziness. It manifests itself in a lot of the same ways, such as putting off school work and avoiding social life.

In those years that I was struggling to start on homework, or even get out of my room, it was likely my depression playing a bigger role in my life than I realized.

In retrospect, I also think depression made my apparent “laziness” feel worse than it actually was. I had a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of my life and ignore the positive ones. Even when I was at my least motivated, I was managing to do well in school. I might have been working more than I realized, but only focusing on the times when I was procrastinating.

Why Does It Matter?

Am I just trying to create excuses for my bad behavior? If the symptoms are the same, why does it even matter whether they are caused by depression or laziness?

It matters because it changes how to approach improving my lack of motivation. When I thought laziness was the culprit, I tried reading all kinds of self-help books and websites that promised to overcome laziness. They never worked.

When your lack of motivation is caused by depression, you can try all the productivity hacks in the world and they still won’t fix it.

Once I discovered how much my lack of motivation was tied into my depression, I was able to start improving it in more effective ways. I’ve used therapy to address the root causes of my depression, and cognitive behavioral therapy to work on my motivation. I’m still not perfect, but they’ve helped tremendously.

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at

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