The Art of Doing Nothing – Arthur S. Brooks

At a time when financial news seems to be getting more and more negative every day, the story of a man who wanted to quit everything caught my attention. Andrew Formica, 51, the CEO of a $68 billion investment company, suddenly quit his job. Formica had no other job waiting for him. Apparently he didn’t have anything. When aggressively asked what his plans were, he replied, “I just want to go to the beach and sit and do nothing.”

Easy, right? Well, not for many of us. Aside from the fact that it takes financial strength to stop working, “doing nothing is terribly hard work,” as Algernon says in the importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde. I can relate to this perspective without any problems. I work many hours a day and sometimes I thought about taking a couple of weeks off and just sitting and doing nothing. But when I tried, I found that I was completely incapable of it. Useless chatter annoys me. After watching the movie for half an hour, I get goosebumps. Sitting on the beach is torture. Whenever I try to rest, my mind returns to the work I quit.

However, as difficult as it was to put into practice, Formica had the right idea. In the name of happiness, workaholics from all over the world and with any income must learn to stop. If you fall into this category, taking a break should be at the top of your to-do list.

Mess around without guilt
Aristotle defined labor as a useful activity. Leisure, in his view, was something that a person did only to take a break from work so that he could return to work at the end of the break. According to the philosopher, idleness was something else, an end in itself, the pinnacle of human life. Almost divine element. Josef Pieper, a 20th-century philosopher, agreed with Aristotle and defined free time as “the basis of culture.”

For a long time, idleness was considered the golden key to prosperity. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would only work three hours a day. For Keynes, hard work was not an end, but a means to achieve something more pleasant: peace, relaxation, freedom from everyday worries. His prediction was based on the assumption that idleness is a natural inclination, achievable without any preliminary exercises and efforts and requiring no experience. But as I can personally confirm to you, for many people this assumption does not work. Perhaps this is why Keynes acknowledged that, despite the growing prosperity of the world, there was “no country or people” that could “imagine an age of idleness and plenty without experiencing horror. This is because we have been taught to fight without pleasure for too long.”

Even when in 2020 many of us had a great opportunity to reduce the number of hours devoted to work and travel, few took advantage of it. In the first months of the pandemic, the average working time of cultural workers increased by 48.5 minutes. In my case, the increase was not only due to the reduction in time previously spent on work. I also found myself wasting my time on evenings and weekends as if work were an unstoppable weed.. When my house became my office, the boundaries between work and personal life disappeared and I could no longer run away from work. I wanted more free time, and I had it in front of me, at my fingertips. And yet he seemed strangely inaccessible to me.

One of the reasons many people avoid idleness is because we have learned to monetize our time. Americans have been told all their lives that time is money. We may also work to have some free time, but in fact, by “spending” this capital, we feel like we are losing money. No wonder we are constantly tempted to return to work.

Putting free time ahead of work, even if we’ve already worked hard in our lives, makes us feel guilty. In 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell, a well-known workaholic, spoke of “a conscience that makes me work hard.” Russell admitted that this conscience was harmful and proposed a campaign to “encourage young people to do nothing” (there is no evidence that the philosopher practiced his advice, and I don’t think anyone else ever did).

When idleness does not make us feel guilty, it can often become boring. Our brain chemistry is set up for constant entertainment, which is why idleness is extremely annoying. In a 2014 study, researchers left a group of people alone in a room for 6 to 15 minutes with nothing to do. The participants took every possible action, including electrocuting themselves. Even pain (and even twitter) is better than being alone with your thoughts.

Despite the difficulties, learning to do nothing would do us good. Allowing our minds to wander freely while performing simple, unstructured tasks will improve our creativity and ability to solve problems. Unconscious thoughts during rest phases can generate more original ideas. Descartes is said to have invented his revolutionary coordinate system while lying in bed watching a fly on a roof, while Einstein allegedly formulated his general theory of relativity while “dreaming.” A little bored can cheer up. In 2014, a researcher wrote in Frontiers in Psychology that boredom can cause us to view our daily activities as more meaningful. While there hasn’t been definitive research on this, I suspect that “doing nothing” when done well makes us happier.

Perhaps for some of you idleness comes naturally. If yes, then I offer you my envious congratulations. If you’re like me, here are three steps you can take to improve your idle skills.

Most of us have learned from childhood the idea that idleness is a habit to be avoided. In fact, the opposite is true: we all need to develop this habit. But habits take a lot of practice to take root. Before you try to sit on the beach and do nothing for a whole week, start with a few minutes every day. Sit in a quiet place for five minutes, preferably with the opportunity to observe something beautiful. Avoid any technological device to allow your mind to enter what scientists call the “default mode network,” a state in which areas of the brain used for concentration can rest. When five minutes starts to feel like a no-brainer, increase your downtime by another five minutes. Keep going until you can sit back for twenty minutes a day.

University of Virginia engineering professor Leidy Klotz argues that one of the most underrated ways to improve our lives is to eliminate complications. Klotz conducted an experiment in which subjects were given an intensive itinerary for the holidays, but they had the opportunity to exclude certain activities. Despite a very busy schedule, few people dared to do this, perhaps because they were afraid to miss something important. Klotz argues that this is the wrong choice, and I agree with him.

When you have perfected the art of daily idleness, follow this principle to the end by arranging a vacation where you can enjoy endless idleness. You probably won’t spend all your days staring at a wall, but you’ll still have the opportunity to benefit from the real relaxation that only idleness can offer. You definitely won’t turn your vacation into another form of work.

During your unstructured vacation, I advise you to choose activities that can grab your attention in a kind way, leaving you free to wander around with your thoughts. This is what psychologists at the University of Michigan call soft charm, a state that can be achieved by walking in nature or watching the waves. Against, strong passion (a state that is achieved, for example, when watching TV), monopolizes attention and excludes relaxed thinking. The researchers found that soft charm it is more invigorating than hard. For example, in a 2018 study, participants stated that walking in nature was 15% more beneficial for “distraction” than watching TV.

Of course, there is always the risk of overdoing this defense against idleness and becoming slackers wondering “what are you doing?” they answer, “I do as little as possible.” The trick is not to become not only a worker, but also a lazy one. It is about finding a balance between work and idleness, in which no activity is ignored or overshadowed by another. Both should be practiced seriously and decisively in the right place and at the right time.

If planning for idleness seems counterintuitive to you, consider that in order to maintain good health, you need to plan your meals and physical activity every day. Plan a “white space” in your day and stay away from the tyrannical needs of work (but also food and exercise). If you feel guilty or feel like you are “wasting” time and money on this, remember the words of the Welsh poet William Henry Davis: “It is a poor life if, full of worries, we do not have time to stop. and watch.”

(Translated by Andrea Sparacino)

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