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How to Praise Idleness

For the last month or so, I’ve found productivity incredibly difficult.  

This dynamic has totally thrown me off, and I’ve had a hard time bouncing back to my usual productive self.

This is not common for me - I love my job, my work, and “getting things done.”

This year continues to be a grueling reminder of the chaos, uncertainty, and cruelty that exist in the world. We’re all emotionally and physically exhausted with no end in sight.

As we (in the northern hemisphere at least) move into the bright summer months, we have a sense of cognitive dissonance - we should be feeling optimistic. However, we’re still feeling uncertain and dealing with the residual trauma from our collective and individual experiences.

For me, at least, I mostly try to push through feelings of uncertainty with my default coping mechanisms—planning and doing. As often happens, when I genuinely need rest, the universe forces me to rest by getting me sick.

After recovering physically, my mental state is still dying for a break.

I firmly believe that focus is crucial for thriving and doing deep work, but focus only works when you’re willing to give yourself the space to be idle and truly rest.  

The first definition and example in the dictionary for idleness demonstrate the stigma that society has placed on it.


the quality, state, or condition of being lazy, inactive, or idle:

His lack of interest in the larger world and his consummate idleness were the causes of their dreadful divorce.

We’ve been taught that work = virtue, worth, value.

And idleness = laziness, indolence, inadequacy.

Bertrand Russel flips this on its head in his 1932 piece for Harper’s Magazine, “In Praise of Idleness.”

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.”

Take a moment to let that sink in. It contradicts everything we’ve been taught to believe about work, especially in America.

Idleness is NOT my natural state. I coach people on how to get more done, focus, make better use of their time, and produce better work.

So when I feel myself craving idleness, my natural instincts societal programming told me to re-focus—not for the joy of focusing, but because it would help me “succeed,” make me more money, and make me feel valuable.

But it wasn’t working. My aversion to being productive was too powerful. I needed to rest for the sake of rest, which is a foreign concept for me and most of us.

I had to TAKE rest as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, describes it in Rest:

“Rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want to rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”

And this brings me back to Bertrand Russel and “In Praise of Idleness.”

“There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”

Even when I was resting (or doing anything for that matter), I wasn’t doing it for its own sake. I was multi-tasking, hoping that my “rest” would make me better at something else, using my downtime to plan out my work time. 

If you’re exhausted like I am, don’t fall prey to “refocusing,” “being productive,” or resting because it will make you better at what you “do.” Instead…

Rest for the sake of rest

  • Don’t rest for any other reason than you want to.

  • Don’t do anything “productive” while you rest (plan things, read anything that’s not purely for pleasure, check items off your mental to-do list).

Embrace the revolutionary act of praising idleness

  • Don’t justify to anyone why you “deserve” to rest.

  • When someone asks how you are, resist the urge to say “busy.”

If, after you genuinely rest, that’s what you want to do, you can do it with your cup a bit fuller than when you started.

But I venture to guess that if you take rest seriously, you’ll want a new normal that involves proper rest and idleness for its own sake.   

In true Type A fashion, I’ve done a bunch of reading lately about rest. If you’re interested in going further, here are a few things I’ve found helpful:

  • Bertrand Russel: “In Praise of Idleness” and The Conquest of Happiness
  • Cal Newport: Slow Productivity 
  • Oliver Burkman: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • Jenny Odell: How to Do Nothing
  • Celeste Headlee: Do Nothing
  • Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: Rest

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