Jon Sutton – my Sloth

Dr Jon Sutton is editor of The Psychologist

Straight out of my PhD, I arrived at Glasgow Caledonian University in 1998 to take up a research lectureship. I had a few publications under my belt, and in my first meeting with the Head of Department he said: ‘Well you’ve already fulfilled your quota for the next Research Assessment Exercise – you can relax.’ That was all it took: I opened the door to sloth, and it crawled in.

I loosened that belt a notch, and although I did all that was expected of me in my 18 months north of the border I couldn’t fool myself. I knew I had succumbed to sin. And I think there’s pretty high co-morbidity when it comes to sin: ‘Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do’, and lust, gluttony, pride, greed and envy were all shoe-horned into my one-bedroomed flat in Govanhill. I left wrath outside though, that seemed too much like hard work. As did grant proposals, original thinking and learning how to do something beyond a t-test.

During the PhD, I felt immersed in an individual pursuit with an end, a thesis, in sight. Now this was a ‘proper’ job, and perhaps the extrinsic motivators – the RAE, salary, advancement – served to undermine the intrinsic drive (an idea explored in some classic psychological studies, e.g. Deci, 1971; Lepper et al., 1973). Perhaps the drive to specialise in research and carve out a niche didn’t suit my eclectic (i.e. easily distracted) mind. Perhaps it was actually the variety of routes available to me that led to ‘choice paralysis’ and the failure to choose any of them. Whatever the reality, the narrow path to becoming ‘the bullying guy’ stretched wearily into the horizon of my mind, and my soul grew sluggish and torpid at the thought of the journey.

Operating in a comfort zone, it became too easy to crawl out of bed that little bit later, to slope off to the pub a touch early, to only go to ground to urinate and defecate once a week. (That last one is actual sloths, but you get the idea.) Sloths sometimes remain clinging to the branch after death, and I feared the same fate: in place but inactive. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of sloth as ‘sluggishness of the mind’, and I could feel my brain atrophy through lack of use (and sambuca).

So when I heard about the job editing The Psychologist, it appealed in part because I saw a new road, creative possibility, and no hiding place. And so it has proved: a 9-5 daily, weekly, monthly, annual grind, deadline after deadline, constant pressure to produce and develop. Heaven. Because without that, I’m on the highway to hell. At one mile an hour.

This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.