How to Embrace Doing Nothing
Absolute idleness is both harder and more rewarding than it seems.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
In the midst of financial news that seems to get grimmer by the day, one story of a man trying to escape caught my eye. Andrew Formica, the 51-year-old CEO of a $68 billion investment firm, abruptly quit his job. He did not have another job waiting—or anything else, it seems. When pressed about his plans, he said, “I just want to go sit at the beach and do nothing.”
Easy, right? Not for a lot of us, it isn’t. Besides the fact that you need to have a good deal of financial security to quit working, “it is awfully hard work doing nothing,” as Algernon said in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I can relate to this. I work long hours and have sometimes planned to go away and do nothing just for a week or two. But when I try, I find I am utterly incompetent: Idle chitchat drives me crazy; I get the jimmy legs 30 minutes into a movie; sitting on a beach is a form of torture. Whenever I make an effort to rest, my mind always wanders back to the work I am fleeing.
As difficult as it may be, Formica has the right idea. For the sake of happiness, strivers and hard-driving work machines of any income level need to learn to stop. If you are in this category, nothing should be high on your to-do list.
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Aristotle defined work as useful activity. Recreation, in his view, was something we did merely to take a break from work—so we could get back to work afterward. Leisure, for him, was different still: an end in itself, the pinnacle of human life—almost divine. The 20th-century philosopher Josef Pieper agreed, calling leisure the “basis of culture.”
For many years, leisure was thought to be the golden promise of prosperity. The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that his grandchildren would be able to work about three hours a day. For Keynes, hard work was not an end in itself, but a means to something more enjoyable: peace and relaxation, free from worldly cares. His prediction assumes that leisure comes naturally, without practice, effort, or experience. But as I can attest, this assumption fails for many people. Perhaps that’s why Keynes conceded that despite the world’s growing prosperity, “there is no country and no people … who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”
Even when, in 2020, many of us were handed a golden opportunity to decrease the number of hours we spend working or commuting, most of us didn’t take it. In fact, among knowledge workers, the average workday increased by 48.5 minutes during the early months of the pandemic. For me, the increase didn’t just come from repurposing my commute: I found my work seeping into my evenings and weekends, like radon gas. When my home became my office, the boundaries separating my job from my life evaporated, and I could not escape from work. I wanted more leisure, and it was right in front of me for the taking, but it still felt weirdly inaccessible.
Listen as Arthur Brooks and business professor Ashley Whillans explore the gap between how we want to use our time and how we actually do.
Part of the reason many people resist leisure, no doubt, is that we have been taught to monetize our time. As Americans have heard throughout our lives, time is money. We may work to have leisure time, but actually spending that earned time feels like forgoing wages. No wonder we’re so tempted to turn back to work: We are simultaneously Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge.
Choosing leisure over work, even when you’ve already worked plenty, might make you feel guilty. In 1932, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, a notorious workaholic, described “a conscience which has kept me working hard.” He acknowledged that this conscience was faulty, however, and proposed a campaign “to induce good young men to do nothing.” (There was no evidence that he ever followed this campaign himself; nor, to my knowledge, did anyone else.)
If you’re not too busy feeling guilty, leisure might leave you downright bored. Our brain chemistry is tuned for constant entertainment, and as a result, idleness is extremely uncomfortable. In a 2014 study, researchers left people in a room alone for six to 15 minutes with nothing to do and found that the participants turned to almost any available activity, including administering painful electric shocks to themselves. Even pain—even, gasp, Twitter—is better than being alone with your thoughts.
Despite the difficulties, learning to do nothing is good for us. Letting the mind roam free during unstructured and undemanding tasks can make us better at creative problem-solving. Unconscious thought during idleness can produce ideas that are more original: Descartes reportedly invented his revolutionary coordinate system in bed, watching a fly on the ceiling; Einstein formulated his general theory of relativity while daydreaming. Being a little bored might also refresh us: A researcher writing in Frontiers in Psychology in 2014 argued that boredom can induce us to see our ordinary activities as meaningful and significant. And although no studies specifically show this, I strongly suspect that doing nothing, if we can do it well, makes us happier too.
Maybe idle leisure comes naturally to you; if so, I resentfully wish you congratulations. If you are like me, however, here are three steps you can take to improve your slothful skills.
1. Start small.
Most of us have absorbed since childhood the idea that idleness is a habit to avoid; in truth, it’s a habit we all need to adopt. Habits require conscious practice to take hold. Before trying to go sit on a beach doing nothing for a whole week, start with a few minutes each day. Sit quietly in a peaceful place for five minutes, ideally with a view of something pleasant. Banish all technology during this time—doing so will let your mind enter what neuroscientists call the “default network,” in which brain regions used for concentrated work can rest. When five minutes starts to feel easy and natural, increase your idle time by another five minutes; repeat until you can comfortably sit this way for 20 minutes each day.
2. Go on an unstructured vacation.
The University of Virginia engineer Leidy Klotz has argued that one of the most overlooked techniques for improving our lives is subtracting complication. He once led an experiment in which people were given a packed vacation itinerary but allowed to take activities out of it. Very few did so (perhaps because of a fear of missing out), despite the rushed schedule. Klotz has argued that this was the wrong choice, and I agree.
Once you have mastered the art of daily leisure, follow this principle to its extreme by taking a vacation where you can enjoy effectively unlimited idleness. You probably won’t just stare at the wall all day. But you will have the opportunity to get the deep refreshment that only true leisure can provide, and not turn your vacation into its own kind of work.
3. Choose soft fascination.
During your unstructured vacation, choose activities that can gently hold your attention while also leaving you plenty of bandwidth to mentally meander. This is what three University of Michigan psychologists call “soft fascination,” and you might find it by walking in nature, or watching the waves. In contrast, “hard fascination” (found by, say, watching television) occupies attention and rules out mind-wandering. Research has found that soft fascination is more restorative than hard fascination. For example, in a 2018 study, survey respondents said that walking in nature was 15 percent more effective at helping them “get away from it all” than watching television.
One can always take this defense of idleness too far and risk becoming like the lazy man who, when asked “What do you do?” answers, “As little as possible.” The trick is to avoid becoming either a workaholic or a layabout. It’s a question of finding balance between work and leisure, where neither is neglected or crowding the other out. Both should be on your to-do list, undertaken with purpose and seriousness in designated places and times.
If scheduling leisure seems unnatural to you, consider the way good health requires you to schedule your meals and exercise at more or less a certain time each day for a particular amount of time. Schedule “white space” in your day, and keep it off-limits from the tyrannical urgencies of your work (as well as from eating and exercise). If your guilt creeps in, or if you’re worried that “wasting” this time will somehow make you poorer, try to remember the words of the Welsh poet William Henry Davies: “A poor life this if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.”