Idleness and Action: A How-To

This article was written after my good friend Philipp wrote me the following lines about The Friendly Anarchist: “At first, I found [your posts to be] contradictory. You’re writing about the benefits of idleness on the one hand, and then about how good it feels to do something at all. So what is your point? Do nothing or do something? I don’t know, but I suppose you mean exactly the TWO of them.”
Philipp is absolutely right with the points he makes: My writings may look paradoxical. Yet it’s exactly that paradox and the combination of idleness and action that I’m after.

Idleness in a World on Speed

Idleness is evil. At least, that’s the impression you get when talking to most people nowadays. We are living in a world of speed: Full-time productivity and ever-continuing growth are our central objectives to thrive and make a living. Thus, we have to avoid idleness, and by all means we have to avoid its sinister cousin, procrastination.
At first, this sounds like a typical big boss invention: Doing nothing and putting things off is a bad thing. Hell, who doesn’t enjoy some water cooler talk in the office or twittering a bit instead of doing whatever your employer wants you to do? The problem is, we hear this depreciation of idleness and procrastination way too often – so we internalize it to the point that it becomes something we earnestly believe in. And of course, this perception is fomented by 21st century witch doctors telling us everything will be fine if we pay attention to their magic spells and buy their productivity books.

But there are some people challenging this mindset. What I call idleness can be found under a lot of different names and labels, and is even related to areas one wouldn’t think of at first: Take the slow food movement or, as a reader told me, permaculture and its “laziness principle” in optimizing agriculture.

Idlers may be underrepresentated in the public, but not in the populace. The reason for this is probably that we don’t care too much about putting ourselves up on a stage. On the one hand, in the actual climate public support for idleness might put our jobs in danger; on the other, for many idlers, it’s just… well, too much work. As I recently reblogged over at the Friendlyanarchistumblr: “20% of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. That number would be higher, except that most procrastinators can’t get around to participating in the poll.”

The thing is, idlers are not generally doing nothing. While I strongly advocate lying in bed til noon or celebrating mondays with a bunch of friends on the beach instead of sitting in an office, I wouldn’t want to do that every day, every hour, for all my life. Most idlers wouldn’t.

The Active Idler

While idlers don’t feel bad relaxing, looking at clouds, daydreaming and generally doing nothing, we don’t do nothing all the time – we also know when to start doing stuff, and how to do it efficiently. We won’t probably get moving on Monday mornings at 8am just to please the system. But then, maybe we would. Or we would prefer a Thursday afternoon or a nightshift on the weekend. We’ll find the appropriate moment.

The core of idleness, at least for me, is not doing nothing, but avoiding stupid work. While your mileage may vary, stupid work for me has a lot to do with filling out forms, storing documents in large manila folders and sitting in neon-lit meeting rooms with a bunch of badly-dressed office clerks. I just don’t enjoy that stuff and generally don’t consider it a good use of my time.
But I know I cannot fight the system always. So when bureaucracy turns its ugly head towards me, I better fill out that form or they’ll lock me away as an enemy of the state. So yeah, I’ll get active. I’ll do it. But I won’t care any more than necessary. I do the ugly stuff I have to do, but I avoid it where I can.

It’s completely different when it’s about stuff I like. I have no problem to sit down and write a blogpost or paint a picture or do a portrait photo session or sit down to explain the history of Colombia or the philosophy of myth to interested people. I can spend hours analyzing and discussing what’s happening in international politics or writing a decent paper. I won’t do that all the time either, but it’s certainly nothing I would ever escape from. While useless tasks suck energy from me, taking action in my passions gives me this energy back. While there is a time for idleness, there’s also a time to get moving!

Idleness and Action in Real Life

Now, how can we integrate both sides of the coin into our lifes?
In my opinion, there are five basic steps to become an active idler.

1) Begin with being idle. We are moving way too fast nowadays. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, just like Idler Mouse deep down in the bucket of cream, first take some time to evaluate your situation. Don’t just start doing tasks that are thrown at you. Better, use the idle approach to get clear about what you want to do, what you have to do, and what stupid tasks you can avoid.

2) After that, enjoy the Magic of Getting Started. Don’t think about it anymore, but enter “Do Mode” and enjoy the adrenaline rush that will be released into your body. Whatever there is to be done, do it right and do it now.

3) Avoid perfectionism and finish things. Especially with stupid but unavoidable tasks, nothing will prevent you more from attaining the peace of mind of an active idler than being a perfectionist. (I struggle with this a lot, so I know what I’m talking about.) If you strive for perfection, you will never get your things done and you won’t be able to relax at the beach, neither. So just finish whatever you have or want to do – or at least reach a milestone – and then enter “Idle Mode” again.

4) Limit your action time. Parkinson was right: The more time you have for finishing a task, the longer you’ll need. One of the best ways to avoid the problems of perfectionism mentioned above, is to consciously limit your time for any given duty. If you have an appointment to meet a friend for lunch and go swimming afterwards, you will be able to finish the task at hand in the morning, just to be able to get out with peace of mind.

5) End with being idle. The task is done. You may think about the next thing to do, but don’t forget to relax. Meet that friend, read that novel, visit that park, play with that dog. After all, nobody wants you to get a stroke, so don’t forget this part!

Following this strategy has turned out pretty useful for me. Stress gets reduced, focussing becomes easier, sitting at the beach without remorse feels great. What about you? Ready to become an active idler by finishing the stuff at hand and then just relax for the rest of the day? Go for it!

Comments 11

  1. Nate December 20, 2009

    Fabian –

    Good comments here. I think we all could use a bit of slowing down. #4 is right on, which is why sometimes it’s better to just set a time limit and do it. If you say you need to get something down in two weeks it will likely take you the entire two weeks to do it. If you give yourself two days, you’ll probably find that you can get it done in two days. This is not to say that needs to happen, but sometimes it’s better to set specific goals so you can get things done.

  2. Fabian December 21, 2009

    Absolutely, Nate! The most important thing for me is to make the limitation real. It works best if I have some commitment with another person at a specific time, so I know I have to get done with my stuff by that hour.

  3. Eric Okah May 29, 2010

    You would have given us simple antidote of idleness, try and simplified the topic. thank you free given me the previlege to comment on this topic.

  4. Eric Okah May 29, 2010

    A youth can only make a mark on the sand of time and write his name in the book of achievers if he shuns idleness.

    • Fabian May 29, 2010

      Sure. But anti-idlers often enough will achieve a stressed-out life that doesn’t benefit anyone – not even themselves. What’s worth, they may even get too active and promote wars and hatred. There’s always two sides of the coin.

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