On the way up: Idle or a question of motivation? - To the outside world, you appear sluggish and lazy. But it's the drive you lack, not energy. Read on to find ways out of your slump

On the way up: Idle or a question of motivation? - To the outside world, you appear sluggish and lazy. But it's the drive you lack, not energy. Read on to find ways out of your slump - A few years ago now I sacked a senior executive because he was, well,

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A few years ago now I sacked a senior executive because he was, well, bone idle. Naturally, I told him why he was being fired. And, equally naturally, he disputed my accusation. He was, he reminded me, a passionate golfer. On summer evenings he would rush home and play until dark; every morning he was up with the lark to practise before work; at weekends he played up to 11 or 12 hours a day. He was energetic, fit and active. How could I call him lazy?

He was right, he wasn't lazy. But I was right, too, he was lazy at work. In other words, laziness is rarely - as most people seem to believe - a problem of energy. It is instead a problem of motivation. There certainly are people who have very little energy, and that may well be a physical problem requiring medical attention even.

But such sluggishness is rare. At the other end of the spectrum there are people who appear to have far more vigour than others. But 999 times out of 1,000 it is their drive rather than their energy that makes them dynamic. The teenagers who display bored lassitude at work have no difficulty in summoning up the zest to go clubbing long into the night. Like my golfer, they are extremely happy to work hard at play. They just don't want to work hard at work.

Unless you literally spend most of your leisure time lying about or asleep, you are almost certainly as energetic as anyone else. You just don't unleash your energies in the office - and that simply means you are not motivated, and you would sooner be doing something else.

Often the problem is circular. You feel inefficient and indecisive, so you stop feeling involved, so you lose commitment, so you grow still more inefficient and indecisive. If that is a problem you have, you can probably cure it by forcing yourself to get back into the swim of things.

You can do this in many ways. Invite yourself to meetings, offer to write reports, tackle a few tedious tasks that others are trying to get out of. Don't worry whether your colleagues think you are becoming a goody two-shoes. Experience proves that once people force themselves to get into things, they generally become interested in them, and they overcome their apparent laziness without even realising it. (It helps, of course, if bosses notice their new-found willing commitment and reward it.)

But sometimes the problem lies deeper. Maybe it is your boss who is the real difficulty - and you've no hope of generous rewards from that source: generous criticism, more like.

Maybe you are in the wrong job, or in the right job in the wrong circumstances (the company may be going through a bad patch, or something else over which you have no control may be frustrating you). In that case, you need to analyse the situation thoroughly and clearly. Write down the things that are upsetting you, and think hard about whether or not you have the power to improve them. If they are only temporary they may well improve of their own accord. But if things are fundamentally amiss, and seem likely to stay that way, it may well be time to move on - it happens to most of us at some time during our career.

Of course, this is the extreme, because you should not change jobs too lightly or - above all - too often. More commonly, you will just be going through a listless phase. So as well as forcing yourself to dive back into the deep end, you should start to set yourself completion dates for the jobs you are working on. But don't just keep a work list. Put target dates next to every single job on the list, indicating when you intend to have it completed. Your own completion dates need not - indeed should not - be the same as the organisation's.

Make it your aim to get things done a couple of days before they are needed. This may sound ridiculously optimistic, given the pressure of work anyway, but if you are tough with yourself you'll manage it. After all, if the chairman ordered the report to be ready a couple of days earlier, somehow or other you would get it done. So, basically, you need to be your own chairman and take your own orders seriously. There's no point in cheating: in the end, you are only cheating yourself.

If you still suspect you haven't the self-discipline to stop yourself being slothful, as soon as you've fixed a private completion date, ask friendly colleagues if they would be willing to look at the work on the date you've agreed with yourself. You will then be forced to provide excuses to your colleagues as well as to your conscience if you don't deliver on time.

Even the most hardworking people - including workaholics - often feel they are a bit lazy. That is because we all feel we could be doing much more if we really tried. So stop worrying. You, too, can probably push yourself that little bit harder. But unless you've been told otherwise in an appraisal, in which case you had better start taking some of the actions above immediately, you are probably less of a lazybones than you think.

Winston Fletcher is FCB Europe's communications director.

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