10 Ways to Enjoy Doing Nothing
Advice on how to switch off―no thoughts of your to-do list―from a man who has devoted his career to the idyllic art of idling.
One morning, nearly 20 years ago, I was lying in bed. It was late. I was supposed to be working, but I seemed glued to the
mattress. I hated myself for my laziness. And then, by chance, I picked up a collection of writings by Dr. Samuel Johnson,
the 18th-century wit and the compiler of the first comprehensive English dictionary. In the book were excerpts from a weekly
column he had written called The Idler, in which the great man celebrated idleness as an aspiration, writing in 1758, “Every
man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.”
This was an epiphany for me. Idleness, it seemed, was not bad. It was noble. It was excessive busyness that caused all the problems!
So I got out of bed and started a magazine called The Idler, in order to remind people of the forgotten, simple pleasures of doing nothing. I even wrote books about it. And, yes, you could say that idleness became my life’s work. So, based on all those years of tough-going research, here are my top tips for people who find it difficult to just be.
1. Banish the guilt. We are all told that we should be terribly busy, so we can’t laze around without that nagging feeling that we need to be getting stuff done. I rejected my guilt upon learning that Europeans in the Middle Ages felt no shame for lolling about. Their favorite philosopher, Aristotle, had praised the contemplative life, and the monks spent a lot of time just praying and chanting. Guilt for doing nothing is artificially imposed on us by a Calvinistic and Puritanical culture that wants us to work hard. When you understand that it hasn’t always been this way, it becomes easier to shake it off.
2. Choose the right role models. Most of the great musicians and poets were idlers. So feed yourself a diet of John Lennon, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and the like. Carrying a slim volume of verse in your purse or pocket can be therapeutic―something from Keats, who wrote of “evenings steep’d in honied indolence,” or Wordsworth, of course. (What could be more idle than wandering lonely as a cloud?) It’s delightful to read a few lines while you’re on a bus or a train, then stare out the window and ponder their meaning.
3. Sketch a flower. If you are new to idling and feel compelled to be purposefully occupied, sketching a flower at the kitchen table can be an excellent way to bring some divine contemplation into your life. The act of drawing makes you observe the bloom in a way you never have before. All anxieties fly away as you lose yourself in close study. And at the end of it you have a pretty little sketch.
4. Go bumbling. Bumbling is a nice word that means “wandering around without purpose.” It was indulged in by the poets of 19th-century Paris. They called themselves flâneurs and were said to have taken tortoises around on leads, which gives you an idea of the tempo of their rambles. Children are good bumblers. Try making a deliberate effort to slow down your walking pace. You’ll find yourself coming alive, and you’ll enjoy simply soaking in the day.
5. Play the ukulele. The ukulele is the sound of not working. My wife hates it for that very reason: The twang of those strings means that I am not doing something useful around the house. I keep my ukulele in the kitchen and play it at odd moments, like while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil.