“We simply will never be able to do it all.”
“We won't even be able to do a fraction of the things that we might like to do in our lives.”
It seems so obvious… but it’s a painful fact that many of us still struggle with.
I absolutely hate thinking about the finite nature of my life generally, and that I won’t have the time to achieve all my ambitions. As a result, I often pack my work day to a bursting point, and wind up putting myself at risk of burnout.
It’s not hard to find self-help books and business gurus telling you that in order to be happy and successful you need to be fully committed to your goals and give 100% every waking second of the day.
But I’m more interested in the people who recommend a more moderate approach… even extolling the virtues of sometimes (shock! horror!) doing nothing.
One of my idols in doing less is writer Tom Hodgkinson - a self-proclaimed “idler”. Ironically, idling is something Tom works quite hard at. He’s founded a magazine about idling, written books on the subject, runs idleness festivals and even established an academy to promote the principle of doing less.
Tom created a one-page idling manifesto. It includes such exhortations as: Do Nothing. Stay in Bed. Be Idle!
“That doesn't mean to say you don't work or you don't enjoy working,” says Tom. “In fact, idlers would probably like to find something that they would like to do anyway and make it into their work.”
So it isn’t work or activity that Tom opposes, just the intensity and unrelenting tempo of many modern working lives. (I’m pretty certain he’d be horrified if he saw my calendar some days).
Tom thinks our ancestors had the balance right. The Greeks and Romans valued leisure and revered thinkers such as Socrates – who Tom says was critical of his fellow Athenians if they worked, schemed, and strived too fiercely.
“Socrates wandered around and said: ‘I don't do any of this. And I'm incredibly happy.’”
Tom thinks industrialisation and the development of the Protestant work ethic was the start of the death of idling. Artificial light meant work could continue into the night, and the dreaded alarm clock means the tyranny of time stalks us from the very moment we wake.
“Alarm clocks, what a horrible invention!” says Tom. “They’re a horrible way to start the day. People don't just lie in bed all day without an alarm clock. There is a natural urge to get up. I think an idler would wake up slowly and naturally with the light. A slower transition from sleep to wake, I think, is civilized.”
Tom worries that the constant drumbeat that pushes many of us to be active and productive at all times will end badly. When we chatted for a podcast episode, he reminded me that great literature often gives this same warning.
I don’t want to end up in the glue factory!!! But if I’m being really honest, I also have more trouble with idling than I should. And I’m guessing I’m not alone.
But the good news is that Tom has tips for aspiring idlers like me.
Go to bed early. “You’ll find you don't really need an alarm clock. You sort of wake naturally at the time you should be waking up.”
Take an hour off for lunch and talk to people. “And ideally have a short nap after lunch. Personally, I find that that between 2pm and 4pm I'm completely dead.”
End your working day on time. “You might not be very good at your job, if you can't get it done by 6pm. At the magazine, when it gets to 6 o'clock, I shut my laptop and we're out of the office.”
Think of your commute as time to idle away. “Travel time is a gift. Planes, trains, automobiles, sit in the back, stare out the window, unplug for that period, read a book, or doze.”
Don’t automatically pick up your smartphone when you have a spare moment. Instead, just sit and think. Or better yet - mediate. “What's seven minutes out of the 24 hours? Nothing. And it's going to put you in a much better mood.”
Tom promises that making time for mind-wandering, for chatting, for dozing or simply doing nothing at all is a recipe for a rich life. But he also thinks reining in our instincts to work all hours improves the quality of our output.
“One hour of work between 9:00 and 10:00, or between 10:00 and 11:00, is worth about four hours of slow, plodding work.”
Stay safe and stay happy (and be a little bit idle),
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