in praise of idleness

Someone’s got to pour this water, but leave time for daydreaming

I’ve had a few days where I just couldn’t do much of anything. Somehow my brain has rebelled and shut off. Certainly made it to my appointments, and fulfilled my responsibilities in my job…however, when I’ve sat down at my desk to write, I haven’t been able to focus. I’ve been eager to finish various tasks, but something in me has rebelled.

As I write that, I’m reminded of times I’ve felt overwhelmed and muscled through. Those times when I thought I just couldn’t do anymore, but I resolved to simply finish the task at hand. When I think about it, I realise I do that quite a lot. I’ve read a lot about how we, as humans, are able to do much more than we think we can. Because I’m a generally optimistic person, I regularly set goal just out of reach. For the most part, I’m able to do more than I could foresee.

There are certainly exceptions where I’ve failed miserably.

So here I’ve sat…not really finishing the task at hand, but feeling oddly uncomfortable with the whole state of affairs. Then, I read this:

What some people call idleness is often the best investment

Isn’t that great? Since I was a teenager, I’ve been convinced that the amount of time you spend on a task is not necessarily indicative of the quality of your work. If being creative were like making sausage, then anyone could do it. When I say making sausage, I mean cramming as much into a project without much concern for the quality of the work.

I knew people in music school who spent significantly fewer hours practising than the ones who seemed to live in their studios. The article’s author, Ed Smith, calls the work ethic of the latter category the cult of busyness. I really enjoyed how he wrote of idleness, which as you know is a particular past-time of mine. Here’s how he describes it:

‘The lesser players spread their work throughout the day, never escaping a sense of stress and anxiety. The elite players, in contrast, consolidated their work into two well-defined periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Either side of these peaks of concentration, the best players enjoyed life: they slept more during the daytime and spent more time having fun away from music. Their lives were simul­taneously more relaxed and more productive. What some people call idleness is often the best investment.’

Not bad, eh? I’m off to do a bit more idling before I get to work.


  1. Ugh, I’m terrible at idling. I just can’t do it. I try but then I feel SO GUILTY because there are a MILLION THINGS I should be doing that I just can’t. Which I know is stressy. Can’t help it. My brain won’t shut off.

    When are you starting those distance-learning-idling-classes? I need those.

    1. That’s part of the mission of this blog.

      To aid some of the more goal-oriented among you to ‘slow down you move to fast/you got to make the moment last…’

  2. I’m mostly terrible at idling too, but in some things I’ve definitely seen this to be true, even within the same example of playing music. I played clarinet from seventh grade all the way through my senior year in college, and I basically never practiced. However, I learned to play by ear more effectively and was first chair in both high school and college and picked to play solos. Sometimes I feel as if people need to just slow down and take a day or a few hours and just not worry about anything. Easier said than done, but it’s a nice thought. 🙂

  3. i’m pretty good at doing nothing. which is just as well for me.

    learning meditation was a good investment of time. there is a world of difference between seeming to do nothing and resting in pure awareness.

    1. I should write more about meditation, Elaine.

      When I was a teenager, I read a lot of Alan Watts and Buddhist philosophy. Although I’ve had periods of my life where I meditated less, I’m sure my life is better when I take a little time everyday to duck out of the hustle and bustle.

      Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I have reached an idling time of my lifebut still feel guilty practising it. Having said that, when I was acting, I found that, after having learned my lines, the rest of my time was just spent thinking about the role and winging itin rehearsals. Don’t know if that counts asidling.

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