The importance of being idle
Spending time doing nothing gives us space to make sense of our lives
ANEW study on the so-called ‘survival of the sluggish’ caught my attention last week. Researchers from the University of Kansas looked at 300 million species of mollusc and concluded that “low maintenance” species that use less energy are more likely to survive.
It didn’t take long for the study to gain traction on the internet. What was interesting, however, was the language that was used. While the scientists described these species as ‘sluggish’ and ‘lassitudinous’, the writers breaking down the study for the layman went for ‘lazybones’, ‘couch potato’ and ‘slacker’.
It was proof, if any was needed, that idleness gets a very bad rap indeed.
Caught in the busyness trap, we tend to think of idleness as shameful and self-indulgent. Why lie on the couch when you could be doing meaningful, life enhancing things like checking Facebook and getting to inbox zero? Why lie awake in bed for half an hour when you could be on the treadmill in the gym?
The minute we get a spare moment, we rush to fill it up. Must not waste time — even if it means cramming it with the inconsequential.
In the age of maximum productivity, we measure our self-worth by how much we can do in one day, just as we consider desk-bound work the only real means of progress.
Even holidays are linked to work these days. We go away to recharge the batteries so that we can operate on full power when we arrive home.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote about the glorification of work in his essay In Praise of Idleness. “I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work,” he wrote.
Our own Brian O’Connor, a professor of philosophy at University College Dublin, gave the subject a fresh take in Idleness: A Philosophical Essay, which was published earlier this year.
“From the age of Enlightenment onward, philosophers, political leaders and moral authorities of many kinds have tried to convince us that work is one of the most important opportunities for freedom,” he wrote in Time magazine.
“We come to believe that being idle at all is, somehow, the antithesis of freedom,” he added. “But we would do well to think about idleness more, and rather differently from how we do.”
The good news is that people are thinking about it more — well, authors at least. As a counterpoint to the productivity craze, a raft of new books that celebrate idleness have arrived on bookshelves.
In Praise of Wasting Time by MIT physicist, Professor Alan Lightman, looks at the influential thinkers who allowed themselves time to do absolutely nothing; The Art of the Wasted Day by unashamed daydreamer Patricia Hampl invites us to get lost in thought, while artist Roman Muradov’s On Doing Nothing is an illustrated book of musings on why idleness is essential to the creative process.
There’s even something for younger readers: Beatrice Alemagna’s picture book, On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, was named the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year 2017.
These books don’t give directions on how to be idle — because frankly we don’t need much guidance on how to lie in a park and stare at the sky or sit outside a cafe just to watch people go by. They do, however, offer robust evidence on the benefits of doing nothing from time to time, just as they make a clear distinction between quiet contemplation and mindless absorption in daytime TV.
There is a difference between leisure time and idle time: they’re both beneficial but we need the inner silence to truly join the dots.
In this newspaper last week, psychotherapist Joanna Fortune spoke about the pitfalls of overburdening children with after-school activities. “If children don’t experience boredom,” she said, “they don’t have time to assimilate everything that’s happened in their day, they don’t get to process their emotions through play and they don’t get to discover what it is they like to do and what gives them pleasure”
She’s right. Young or old, we need periods of idleness to consolidate information, make connections and solidify memories. Paradoxically, it can boost productivity too.
So what’s stopping us? Well, quite a lot actually. We are socially conditioned to believe that work is its own reward (shout out to the Puritans); the dizzying pace of modern technology means there is always an email to be answered or a text to be sent, and the rising cost of living makes idleness seem like a luxury we can’t afford. The truth is that it’s not as easy as just downing tools and taking to the sofa. We have to examine our underlying beliefs around busyness and idleness first.
First, ask yourself honestly if you are proving your worth through being busy (the giveaway is that you feel redundant when you’re not).
If you’re the type of person who clears out a cupboard the moment you get a spare second, remember that it would be more worthwhile to make a cup of tea and stare out the window. The cupboard will still be there later on, and you’ll probably have more energy for it too.
Finally, it’s worth looking at the curious dichotomy of time and money. We do everything in our power not to waste time but we have no issue with wasting money if it saves a few extra minutes. Yet money, for the vast majority of people, is a token representation of the time they put into earning it.
When we look at it this way, we realise that less really can be more, especially where idleness is concerned.