Task Mentality

Has idleness still a space in a society of digital gadgets and vanashing boundaries between work and free time? In a recent Spiegel cover story, author Susanne Beyer tries to find leisure by spending two hours inside a luxury spa hotel in Berlin. As it turns out, she feels like a stranger in an artificial world of relaxation: While the whole procedure is quite pleasant, it also strikes her as being somewhat whimsical. Meanwhile, her thoughts are rushing, her Blackberry* is tempting.

Later on, she describes some of the challenges for the modern idler: We live in a world where busyness is expected and most people are even proud of it. Although many classical souls – from Aristotle to Petrarca and Goethe – were advocates of leisure, it looks as if we lost the art of integrating it into our lives. Beyer herself won’t be able to cure her gadget addiction and workaholism in the short term – even though she manages to switch off her cellphone after a day of reflection.

The Drawbacks of Task Mentality

Beyer’s main mistake when searching for leisure is that she approaches it like a task. We are so used to micro-managing our days and working towards measurable results, that it influences the way we relax: Leisure becomes just another box on our to-do list that has to be checked off. The problem is that leisure (or idleness, as I like to call it) doesn’t work like this. As much as to-do lists can help us getting things done, they can also prevent us from ever enjoying the pleasures of being idle.

Our only chance to attain leisure is to overcome our task mentality and approach it with an open mind. And while each person has different preferences when it comes to spending this time, I am not refering to mere “fun” and “entertainment” here. Entertainment can easily be scheduled: Two hours for a movie, a day at Disney World. Idleness, in contrast, cannot: While we may only be able to reserve a certain time frame for it, we cannot push or control it. As Schopenhauer puts it, quoted in the Spiegel article: To really be idle, the mind “must not follow any goal and thus must not be directed by the will”.

Trust in Idleness

The weirdest thing about idleness is that it’s so valuable, but it doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee: To tap its potential, we have to be willing to dedicate time to it, but we cannot be sure about the outcome. We just can’t know if we will really reach this state of mind that improves our “soul’s estate”, as Thoreau described it. But if we don’t give it a try, we will definitely lose it.

In a world crazy about measuring output and performance, it’s not surprising that leisure runs the risk of being abolished. When we go shopping for mirrors and necklaces, we get something tangible in return – but the benefits of leisure are harder to grasp.** That said, in my own experience leisure will always give you back more than you put into it. Many writers, philosophers, thinkers, scientists, and artists agree with this: It’s worth your time, it just defies human control.

Openness, it turns out, is an important trait for any idler. Together with a certain humility it allows us to reach these moments of pure relaxation, that in turn fuel our creativity and help us to develop ideas and reflect on life as a whole. We could also say that real leisure demands trust: The trust that our time spent will be worth it, even though we don’t know exactly what we will get out of it.

*) Btw., Tom Hodgkinson is right that it’s insulting to see how computer and communication companies are kidnapping the names of the viands of nature: Apples, Blackberries, Oranges, …

**) This is also one of the reasons why it’s harder to build a successful blog around idleness than, say, dog breeding. The benefits for the reader take a little more time to communicate.

Comments 11

  1. supernalsteve November 20, 2010

    Idleness is valuable – I agree – however it’s hard to be truely idle without feeling guilty or without thinking of all the things we could, or should, be doing. We are taught from an early age that idleness is bad – that it’s for lazy people – who will amount to nothing – that hard work and constant industriousness are the only ways to succeed and be happy. Truth is I need my ‘idle time’ – I need that space in what is a very busy and jam-packed world today. I enjoy being idle for periods of time – helps recharge my batteries – and allows me to be creative – open. I’m afraid though that I do tend to plan my idle time – if I didn’t I don’t think it would happen – maybe it would…? Idle time is not a guilty pleasure or a trait of the lazy – it is an essential part of a balanced life.

    • Fabian November 20, 2010

      Steve, thanks for your perspective on idleness! :)
      I think we really have to break this belief of idleness being bad opposed to (even undirected) industriousness being good.
      As for planning idle time: Of course most people will have to plan it in the sense of opening a time window in an otherwiese busy and fully scheduled day. When it comes to filling that time, though, I would recommend to “just be” once in a while, without scheduling meeting people or other activities. Why? Your idle brain can work really well during this time, and it’s often after some hours of undirected idleness that mental breakthroughs are made. Definitely worth a try!

  2. Jonathan Ziemba November 20, 2010

    Idleness is risky. Let’s look at one of the opposites of idleness, business, any business (if there is a true idleness business existing in some ally I am not aware of it). We can take any business and place it in a centrifuge separating the probability of failure times the cost of failure. Nice and safe, I have defined my business risks and can make my decisions based on mathematical certainty, corner office here I come.

    And along comes idleness, as you pointed out it defies measurements. I think it smiles at us laughing loud with that unencumbered freedom that eludes our ruler. Idleness lives in that classification collectively called the leap. With time being our only resource that matters, idleness appears to be a waste, a guilty pleasure that burns time from both ends. The beautiful thing is our measurements are wrong. Idleness does something amazing, it illuminates our compass, so we can chart our course better through time. Idleness then paradoxically adds to time, making time stop and smile in our direction.

    Idleness is risky. For when one is idle your compass get’s placed back into your hand. It gives you a strong vision with a wide horizon. Do you chart your course with it or put it back into that time void. After all road maps are less risky than just relying on that compass. And we all want quantitate roads do we not?

    • Fabian November 20, 2010

      Idea for an idle business: Sell the fruits that fall from your garden trees. Still requires some movement when you have to cash, but that’s about as idle as it gets. (Online “passive” income doesn’t count, as you always have to do lots of work yourself upfront, or pay someone else to do it…)

      As for the rest of your comment, that’s a perfect form to describe it. The road maps give us the safety we strive for, but they come at the cost of boredom, probably even mediocrity.

      Thanks as always for joining in, Jonathan!

  3. Ruben Berenguel November 20, 2010

    I agree with the problems of idleness. But as I pointed before here as a guest post (Luck favours the procrastinator, in case some reader missed it ;)) having time for being idle (because for me being idle is doing something for the sake of doing it now, not because a long term plan) pays off in the long run… And even if it didn’t pay, the “mental cleansing” that results does wonders for just being yourself.

    Cheers,
    Ruben

    PS: Btw, although I didn’t comment in your previous two posts, they are fantastic Fabian!

    • Fabian November 22, 2010

      Thank you Ruben, and good link to your guest post! Hope everybody will read it, because it’s so true! :)

  4. Greg November 21, 2010

    When seen from a very great height, the ocean and everything upon it–islands, icebergs, and clusters of flotsam–appear two dimensional. The popular culture of time management and productivity seems to have as one of its goals the ability to fill our oceans of time and energy with more and more tasks. However, as you mentioned, there is a problem with categorizing relaxation as another task. It and idleness, in general, are something else. Some of the things in our oceans, like family and health, are fundamental and rooted to the core. Other things are like icebergs in that they descend into the depths of our being. We only see what lies above the surface, but in the depths are our underlying principles and values. These are important tasks and projects. However, many tasks are like flotsam, only floating on the surface with very little connection to the core or important aspects of our lives. If we dump more flotsam into our lives, then our oceans will become clogged. So what is idleness? It’s the ocean itself. It’s the time and rest between important points in our lives that allow us to reflect, contemplate, and recharge ourselves.

    • Fabian November 22, 2010

      Greg, I love the image you create. Seeing idleness as the ocean of time itself that should not be filled entirely with tasks is a powerful way of seeing it. I have to maintain this metapohor in my head and think a little more about it, but I like it very much! Thanks for this inspiration!

  5. Ryan November 26, 2010

    Hey Fabian,
    Great thoughts! Perhaps there can be made a parallel between what is considered “idleness” here and “solitude.” The idea with solitude is to remove not only stimuli but also the panting feverishness which characterizes busyness– not “business”. It’s a spiritual discipline, in fact, to obtain space to attend more fully to ourselves and the world around us. And I think much busyness results from an impoverished, pressured view of oneself and the world as one big machine, and misses the spiritual aspect of the person and the need to be idle.

    • Fabian November 27, 2010

      Hey Ryan, thanks for your comment! I never heard of this concept of solitude before, but it appears to be related, indeed. Of course, not all all idlers have a spiritual approach to life, but the idea certainly chimes with me. I always liked the “holon” concept in this context, thinking of the human being as both a whole and a part. If we focus on only one of these two sides, we will always miss something.

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