The Antidote to Languishing Isn’t Focus, It’s Idleness

best life better world time Jun 22, 2021

For the last month or so I’ve found it incredibly difficult to be productive.

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

It turns out, I’m not alone. Recently I read Adam Grant’s article in The New York Times, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”.

In it, Grant describes languishing as the “neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being.”

At first I thought to myself, “yes…languishing, that’s it!” But as I read the article I found that his solutions proposed counteracting languishing with focus in various forms.

I firmly believe that focus is crucial for thriving and doing deep work, but using focus as the antidote to languishing felt to me as if we’re asking people to just “get back to work” instead of actually giving themselves the rest they deserve after a long and grueling year and a half.

Grant hits the nail on the head with his description of why we’re languishing.

“In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, it’s likely that your brain’s threat detection system — called the amygdala — was on high alert for fight-or-flight. As you learned that masks helped protect us — but package-scrubbing didn’t — you probably developed routines that eased your sense of dread. But the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.”

As we (in the US at least) arise from the pandemic into the bright summer months, we have a sense of cognitive dissonance — we should be feeling optimistic, but instead we’re still feeling uncertain and dealing with the residual trauma from our collective and individual experiences.

Society is telling us that it’s time to “get back to normal” and by that, they really mean “get back to work.”

The time for recognizing you as a human with your toddler on your Zoom calls, giving you the flexibility to work where you want, when you want, and paying attention to your mental health is over.

Crisis is done folks. Let’s get back at it. Let’s get focused.

I disagree.

The antidote to languishing is not focus, it’s idleness.

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

i·dle·ness

noun

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 is completely contradictory to everything we’ve been taught to believe about work, especially in America.

As I said above, 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 felt myself “languishing,” my natural instincts told me to re-focus just as Grant outlines in his article — not for the joy of focusing, but because it would help me “succeed,” make money, and feel valuable.

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

I’ve been doing this for so long that it became normal — I actually didn’t know what real rest was. It took the collective mental trauma of a global pandemic and the sense of “languishing” it caused, to make me realize that half-assing my rest was no longer going to cut it.

If you’re languishing, 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 things 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.”

Society wants you to “go back to normal.” If, after you truly rest, that’s what you want to do, then you can do it with your cup a bit fuller than when you started.

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


PS: I’ve done a bunch of reading lately about rest. If you’re interested in going further here’s a few things I’ve found helpful:

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