the contextual life

thoughts without borders

The Importance of Being Idle

with 11 comments

If you’re anything like me and you ask someone to describe you, “idle” would not show up on their list. I’m the type of person who will walk 20 blocks instead of connecting to another subway; it’s rare that I see a movie in the theater because the thought of sitting still for two hours makes my skin crawl; hang out with me for more than 45 minutes and I’ll suggest we get up from wherever we are and wander the streets; and if I’m not out of bed by 7am on the weekends I’ve wasted my day.

I read Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and other “lifehack” type publications that promise lessons on super-human productivity. I aspire to “robot brain,” my shorthand for ultimate organizational skills. “Idle” is not in my vocabulary. So, it was an interesting choice in books when I decided, last minute, to buy How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson, co-founder and editor of The Idler magazine.

While at the bookstore register, attempting to finish off a gift card, the bright orange cover propped up on the counter caught my eye. “Indispensable,” the bookseller said when I picked it up. I was sold. Maybe, I thought, just as I hone my productivity skills, I need to learn to relax. After all, recharging is an important part of the equation as well — or so all those seasoned lifehackers tell me.

In blending social history, humor, and profiles of famous idlers from science, the arts, and politics, Hodgkinson makes a convincing case for slowing down. At times, nearly sounding like a conspiracy theorist, he points out how we became workaholics. He quotes radical philosopher Terence McKenna, “… institutions fear idle populations because an Idler is a thinker and thinkers are not a welcome addition to most social situations.” He continues with his own thoughts:

It is precisely to prevent us from thinking too much that society pressurizes us all to get out of bed. … Introspection could lead to that terrible thing: a vision of the truth, a clear image of the horror of our fractured, dissonant world.

At one point in the book, the extremity of our situation — our collective discouragement towards idling — is made clear. We’ve gotten to the point as a society that many of us take vacation seriously: what should be a time of leisure has become “over-organized.” Not only are we under pressure to fit in all there is to see and do at our destination of choice but we’re expected to be cheerful about it.

From the first chapter, Hodgkinson flips your brain, putting you in a space to trust whatever comes next.

Sleep is a powerful seducer, hence the terrifying machinery we have developed to fight it. I mean, the alarm clock. Heavens! What evil genius brought together those two enemies of the idle–clocks and alarms–into one unit? … Is it not absurd to spend our hard-earned cash on a device to make every day of our lives start as unpleasantly as possible, and which really just serves the employer to whom we sell our time?

The chapters in How to Be Idle are broken down into hours of the day. 8 a.m., entitled “Waking Up is Hard to Do,” offers the advice of laying in bed longer and enjoying the half-awake time. 9 a.m., “Toil and Trouble,” suggests working fewer days a week. “Sleeping In,” which is 10 a.m., explains how idling is actually productive, using Walter Benjamin, Sherlock Holmes, and Rene Descartes as examples.

Defining idler as a “student of the art of living,” Hodgkinson finds valuable lessons in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, pointing out that in playing hooky there is potential for a journey of self-exploration.

How to Be Idle asks us to be our better selves — noble flaneurs in today’s fast-paced climate — and urges us to step outside the daily pressures:

As with all aspects of idleness, we should resist the pressure to reject the elements of our lives which do not fit into the productive, rational, busy paradigm that society and our own selves impose upon us.

To make time for conversation:

Sharing is at the heart of conversation: sharing ideas, entertainment and stories. … As well as giving rise to ideas, conversation gives a way of expressing them.

And to look up from time to time:

Gazing at the stars opens our minds to another reality, a mysterious eternal world, beyond material struggle.

How to Be Idle — as compelling as it is humorous — is a celebration of idleness, a lesson in the importance of stepping back, slowing down, and taking a deep breath. By the end it becomes clear, Hodgkinson’s book should be kept on everyone’s nightstand and reread at least once a year.

Buy How to Be Idle from your local bookstore
Visit The Idler online
Read an interview with Tom Hodgkinson at 3:AM Magazine
Read an interview with Tom at Mother Jones

Written by Gabrielle

December 10, 2013 at 6:55 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , , ,

11 Responses

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  1. This appealed to me enough to read the first third or so of the article. I’m not really either just a loafer nor a workaholic. I learned while I was still young that being ‘too driven’ means that someone like myself would not even be able to enjoy my greatest achievements because they would not seem good enough to me. At the time I was ‘successful for my level’ a top notch undergraduate student with a rewarding personal life who had hobbies and worked part time. I wrote a novel length manuscript for the first time. Still, it was so easy to be self-critical that it detracted from the quality of my life. I did not want to live in misery for my entire life so I re-evaluated my outlook on life and re-learned that it is worth living in a way that allows me to at least let myself be happy and to enjoy what goes well. Constructive criticism is valuable but most people are not workaholics and a healthy work-play effort-relaxation is useful in life. People in their 20s often like to just see what they can do – how hard they can work how far they can go etc..People often finish up with at least some of that behavior – it is really just finding boundaries.


    December 10, 2013 at 7:36 am

  2. oh I have this book and I LOVE IT!!


    December 10, 2013 at 11:22 am

  3. LOVED this. Are you going to that event tonight in the Bowery?

    Sent from my iPad


    December 10, 2013 at 11:53 am

  4. Reblogged this on Blog of Love.


    December 11, 2013 at 4:51 pm

  5. I agree… time to think is the most important thing we need to learn again in our culture…taking the time to listen is also a lost art. I think cell phones are total mind control. I had one and gave it up. I like the days when I was young walking home from school. It was safe then, alone and time to dream… thank you…


    December 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm

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