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The Case For Idleness


We answer work emails on Sunday night. We read endless articles about how to hack our brains to achieve more productivity. We crop our photos and use filters before we post them on social media to earn approval. We read only the first couple paragraphs of the articles we find interesting because we don’t have time to read them in their entirety. We’re overworked, and overstressed, constantly dissatisfied, and reaching for a bar that keeps rising higher and higher. We’re members of the cult of efficiency, and we’re killing ourselves with productivity.

For the past 500 years or so, we’ve searched for external solutions to our internal problem. We’ve been deluded by the forces of economics and religion to believe that the purpose of life is hard work. So every time we feel empty, dissatisfied, or unfulfilled, we work harder and put in more hours. This trend can be traced to Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, Christopher Columbus, and the Age of Discovery. With Luther, laziness became a sin, and with Columbus and the Age of Discovery, the developed world’s eyes turned to new and unfamiliar places, to novelty as an end goal.

These obsessions became widespread during the industrial age and they’ve only strengthened in the more than two centuries since. Our time periods are not named for human development anymore, like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. We’re currently in the jet age, the information age, the nuclear age, and the Digital Revolution. We measure our years in work products, not personal development.

Ultimately, the solution is not digital. It’s as analog as the human body. Technology can do many things for us—extend our lives, keep us safe, expand our entertainment options—but it cannot make us happy. The key to well-being is shared humanity, even though we’re pushing further and further toward separation.

We don’t seem to trust our human instincts. When we’re faced with a difficult problem, we search for the right tech, the right tool, and the right system that will solve the issue: bulletproof coffee, punishing exercise, paleo diets, goal-tracking journals, productivity apps. We think our carefully designed strategies and gadgets will make us better, but it’s an illusion.

I know it feels as though we don’t have a choice in the matter, that we would work less if we could, but that’s not entirely true. Here in the States, we’re particularly bad about taking time off. We chose not to take 705 million vacation days in 2017, and more than 200 million of those were lost forever because they couldn’t be carried over to the next year. That means Americans donated $62 billion to their employers in one year. The number of vacation days we use has declined over the past three decades, even though those who use all of their time off report being 20% happier in their relationships and 56% happier in general.

Since the 19th century at least, we’ve learned this behavior from the previous generation and then added to it before passing on the lessons to the next generation. We’re teaching this mind-set to our kids and inculcating them into the cult. When asked, most parents say they just want their kids to be happy. And yet, research reveals that what most parents actually want is high GPAs, because they think success in school will make their kids happy.

Let’s consider what we know all humans can learn to do well without training: play, think, connect socially, react emotionally, count, and think about ourselves. Perhaps we take them for granted, since we don’t often invest much energy in those activities. Perhaps, because they are inherent to most of us, we assume our ability to fit into a community is a given. So over the past decade, we’ve found “better” things to do with our time.

Few of our daily activities are focused on helping us become more naturally playful or thoughtful or, god forbid, social. Our social networks are no substitute for the intimate connections we’ve made for 200,000 years, and our work schedules don’t allow for play.

Essentially, we’re working our way out of happiness and well-being. We’ve lost the balance between striving to improve and feeling gratitude for what we have. We’ve lost touch with the things that really enrich our lives and make us feel content. We’ve spent billions of dollars in the past decade or so finding replacements for what we as human beings already do well.

We can and must stop treating ourselves like machines that can be driven and pumped and amped and hacked. Instead of limiting and constraining our essential natures, we can celebrate our humanness at work and in idleness. We can better understand our own natures and abilities. We can lean in not to our work but to our inherent gifts. And we need to stop trading time for money. The simple act of placing a value on an hour has made us loath to waste even a minute, and the more money you have, the more expensive your time is and the more you feel you don’t have enough time to spare. Our perception of time is now horribly warped.

Leisure becomes stressful when you subconsciously believe you’re wasting money by not being productive. However, if one of your end goals is to be happy, then pursuing a bigger income is not necessarily going to get you where you want to. Allow yourself to consider other options.

It’s time to stop viewing your off-hours as potential money-making time. It’s not worth it. You can’t put a monetary value on your free time, because you’re paying for it in mental and physical health.

Don’t let corporate values determine how you spend your days and what your priorities are. You’re a big-brained, social animal who’s currently constrained by unrealistic demands and expectations. Your vision has been narrowly focused for too long on your work and your marketability, but your intrinsic value as a human is more related to your position in your community than to your earning power as a laborer.

It’s past time to let go of the idea that we deserve stability and comfort only if we spend most of our waking hours at work. Stop trying to prove something to others. Reclaim your time and reclaim your humanity.

Adapted from DO NOTHING copyright © 2020 by Celeste Headlee. Used by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This excerpt was featured in the April 12th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.





Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter and the upcoming Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving being released in March 2020.

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