The Importance of Being Idle

In our always-on culture, taking the time to retreat from the distractions of our lives can provide our souls with some much-needed nourishment.

by Tom Hodgkinson

Idling doesn’t get a good press. Idlers are routinely categorized as scrounging layabouts and no-good parasites. If you want to benefit from society’s offerings, then you had better get up early and spend most of your time suffering. If you’re good—if you work really, really hard—then you shall be rewarded with some money and a two-week holiday each year.

But idling as an approach to life has plenty of philosophers to recommend it. The original, inspirational do-nothing of them all must be Socrates. Here is a man so lazy that he never bothered to write anything down. He didn’t charge for his teaching because, we imagine, chasing his students for fees would be too much trouble.

Instead the bearded sage just sat around doing nothing, contemplating and asking questions in the marketplace. He would tilt his head quizzically and say, “really?” when in conversation. He also enjoyed drinking wine all night with his pals. And in so doing, he invented a new science of living called philosophy, meaning the “love of wisdom”. That was thanks to his pupil Plato, who was so entranced by this outstanding gentleman that he wrote down everything he said.

Elon Musk has said that no one changed the world on 40 hours a week. Well, Socrates changed it on zero hours a week. If one person exerted so much influence over the world in such a supine fashion, then perhaps we should follow his example. Is life really about suffering and 14-hour workdays? No. We must make time for philosophy, for thinking, for simply being.

Another philosophical idler was Lao Tzu, the great Chinese sage of ancient times. He was a contemporary of Confucius. And while Confucius went around telling everyone to polish their manners and behave well, Lao Tzu invented an opposing philosophy called Taoism. Tao means “the way”, and its main idea was “do nothing”, an idea expressed in the two words wu wei. Instead of forcing things in the wrong direction, you go with the flow.

The Industrial Revolution, for all the marvellous machinery it brought to England, led to a new emphasis on work for work’s sake. The working day grew longer, and the new factory hands would toil fourteen hours a day. Workers became disconnected from their produce: they became just factory hands, not creators.

Work became simply a means of earning money. In our spare time, if we had any, we were expected to spend this money on buying stuff. So we became workers by day and consumers at weekends. Our creative impulses were channelled into shopping.

So idling got somehow lost.

A simple way to escape the work-and-consumer cycle is simply to do nothing. Can you find the odd five or ten minutes during the day to just stare into space and let your mind wander? There is a lovely activity called “day dreaming”. When I was at school, I would get told off for staring out of the window and going off into a dream world. But daydreaming is perfectly natural and it is healing. We were not made just to work, like machines. We were made to think and to dream. After all, everything begins with an idea.

There are all sorts of ways to bring idling back into our lives. One simple strategy is to indulge in the siesta. An afternoon nap not only does wonders for your energy levels, it is a huge pleasure in itself. I love the moment where you drift out of consciousness (though the moment when you wake up and have to return to the “real world” is less fun). Dozing off after lunch is a wonderful way not only to catch up on lost sleep but to glimpse a rich inner world during the day.

And even better if you could find a partner to share your after-lunch retreat for some languid daytime coupling.

Cafés, pubs and bars are temples of idleness (or at least they used to be, before the phone and laptop invaded them). They are places for sitting and doing nothing, either alone or in merry company. Perhaps the greatest luxury known to man and women is to spend an entire afternoon in a picture-perfect watering hole. Armed with a steady supply of liquid libations, doing nothing in particular.

Mindfulness, which is such a thing right now, is a form of organised idling. But it seems like a lot of effort to me. Surely all you really have to do is sit in a chair, stare into space, listen to your breathing and set the timer on your phone to go off in five minutes?

Let me add here that the kind of idling I am recommending is not the same as mere laziness. In fact, idling can be very useful to your life. It is when we are relaxed that we get good ideas. Poets and philosophers need a lot of thinking time. Wordsworth and Coleridge used to go on epic long walks in the Lake District and around Exmoor to get their minds moving. Similarly, idling can encourage you to connect with your own inner artist or poet. Try going for a walk in a particular place that you enjoy and where you feel inspired. Take a sketch pad or a leather-bound notebook with you to collect any doodles, drawings, feelings or thoughts which you are moved to put down.

And if you can open a bottle of wine while recollecting your emotions, all the better.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler and author of How to be Idle (Penguin).

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