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.

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