The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days. In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot.
Rainer Maria Rilke

Idleness is a lost art. That’s the message behind Andrew Smart’s book: Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. “Being idle,” he writes, “is one of the most important activities in life.”

But all over the world something else is happening. We’re asked to do more, work harder, and strive to make every moment efficient. The message behind this book is just the opposite. You should do less, not more.

Neuroscientific evidence argues that your brain needs to rest, right now. While our minds are exquisitely evolved for intense action, in order to function normally our brains also need to be idle— a lot of the time, it turns out.

Chronic busyness is not only bad for your brain but can have serious health consequences. “In the short term,” Smart writes, “busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social— and it can damage your cardiovascular health.”

Our brain, much like an airplane, has an autopilot, which we enter when resting and “relinquishing manual control.”

The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you. Just as pilots become dangerously fatigued while flying airplanes manually, all of us need to take a break and let our autopilots fly our planes more of the time.

Yet we hate idleness don’t we? Isn’t that just a waste?

Our contradictory fear of being idle, together with our preference for sloth , may be a vestige from our evolutionary history. For most of our evolution, conserving energy was our number one priority because simply getting enough to eat was a monumental physical challenge. Today, survival does not require much (if any ) physical exertion, so we have invented all kinds of futile busyness. Given the slightest or even a specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored.

Yet, Smart agues, boredom is the key to self-knowledge.

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason . Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

A brief history of idleness.

At least since Homer we’ve been ambivalent on the subject. In the Odyssey, the Lotus-eaters lolled around all day “munching lotus” and were both hospitable and seemingly quite content. But they were a threat to Odysseus and his crew. When he arrived at the land of the Lotus-eaters, the workaholic captain sent a couple of his men to investigate the locals. The Lotus-eaters “did them no hurt” but instead offered Odysseus’s men some of their brew, which was so overpowering that the Greeks gave up all thought of returning home. Odysseus, the personification of the heroic CEO, forced the affected men back to the ship and then tied them to the ship’s benches. He recognized that if the rest of the crew got a taste of the drug, they would never leave the island, and ordered the ship to cast off. In Samuel Butler’s translation, “they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Despite the Western cliché of China as a country where work, productivity, and industry are enshrined as the greatest of ideals, during Confucian times idleness wasn’t a sub-culture but an integral part of the culture. A Confucian gentleman grew long fingernails to prove that he did not have to work with his hands. Confucianism actually disdained hard work and instead idealized leisure and effortlessness. According to Lawrence E. Harrison, a senior research fellow at Tufts, “for the Chinese, Sisyphus is not a tragedy but a hilarious joke.” Harrison writes that the highest philosophical principle of Taoism is wu-wei, or non-effort, which means that a truly enlightened person either spiritually or intellectually goes about life with the minimum expenditure of energy. In military matters, the ancient Chinese held that a good general forces the enemy to exhaust himself and waits for the right opportunity to attack, using the circumstances to his advantage while doing as little as possible. This is in contrast to the Western idea of trying to achieve some predefined objective with overwhelming effort and force. It is thus paradoxical that in spite of China’s long history of embracing idleness, it’s currently thought of as the world’s factory. This might be because, as a Chinese physicist told me recently, China has only “overcome” Confucianism in the last half century or so.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in the West, as work became mechanized, bureaucratized, and de-humanized, philosophers fought back. At that point, as the capitalist world system started an unprecedented period of expansion, Western culture popularized the concept of the “the noble savage,” one of whose particular attributes was lounging around and eating the fruit that supposedly fell into his lap. The incomparable Samuel Johnson published a series of essays on the benefits of being idle in the periodical The Idler from 1758 to 1760. He wrote that, “Idleness … may be enjoyed without injury to others; and is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property, or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another’s inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore no body is busy to censure or detect it.”

But the capitalists could not be stopped. The 19th century saw the advent of the global industrial economy. As human beings came to function like cogs in the complex machine called the factory, Frederick Taylor, godfather of the efficient American work ethic, introduced “scientific management” to capitalist overseers in The Principles of Scientific Management. His goal was to integrate the life of the worker with the life of business, by the means of what was then considered scientific understanding of humans. Taylor sought to increase production efficiency by minutely measuring the time and motion of tasks. Anticipating modern productivity fads like Six Sigma, Taylor looked to replace each tradesman’s knowledge and experience with a standardized and “scientific” technique for doing work. While Taylorism was and still is hugely popular among the business class, humanists of all stripes were unenthusiastic. In 1920, perhaps in reaction to increasing Taylorization, the concept of the robot— a fully mechanized, soulless worker, physically as well as spiritually dehumanized— was introduced by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The very word “robot” means “worker” in Czech. The same year, American humorist Christopher Morley published his now-classic essay On Laziness. “The man who is really, thoroughly, and philosophically slothful,” he wrote, “is the only thoroughly happy man. It is the happy man who benefits the world. The conclusion is inescapable.”

With the advent of the 1980s and Ronald Reagan, the mantra that productivity was essential to self-esteem took hold. It was good for America, it was good for business. Laziness, on the other hand, was anti-American …

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing goes on to explore the benefits and history of idleness in more detail.