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The art of doing nothing – Arthur C. Brooks

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The art of doing nothing – Arthur C. Brooks

At a time marked by financial news that seems more and more negative with each passing day, my attention was drawn to the story of a man who wanted to drop everything. Andrew Formica, 51, CEO of a $ 68 billion investment firm, suddenly quit his job. Formica didn’t have another job waiting for him. He had nothing, apparently. When asked insistently what his plans were, he replied: “I just want to go to the beach, sit down and do nothing.”

Easy, right? Well, not for many of us. In addition to the fact that you need some financial strength to stop working, “doing nothing is terribly hard work”, as Algernon says in The importance of being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. I can empathize with this perspective without problems. I work many hours a day and sometimes I have thought about disconnecting for a couple of weeks and just sitting around doing nothing. But when I tried, I found I was totally incapable of it. The futile chatter annoys me. After half an hour of watching a movie, my legs are tingling. Sitting on the beach is a form of torture. Whenever I make an effort to rest, my mind goes back to the job I gave up.

Yet, as difficult as it may be to put it into practice, Formica had the right idea. In the name of happiness, workaholics from all over the world and from every income should learn to stop. If you’re in this category, being able to rest should be at the top of your to-do list.

Lazing around without guilt
Aristotle defined work as a useful activity. Leisure, in his view, was something the man 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 different, an end in itself, the pinnacle of human life. Almost a divine element. Josef Pieper, a philosopher of the twentieth century, agreed with Aristotle, and defined free time as “the basis of culture”.

For many years, idleness was considered the golden promise of prosperity. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would work just 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 was a natural tendency, achievable without any preliminary exercise or effort, and did not require any experience. But, as I can personally confirm, for many people this assumption is not valid. Perhaps this is why Keynes admitted that despite the world‘s growing prosperity, there was “no country or people” who could “imagine the age of idleness and abundance without feeling terror. This is because we have been trained for too long to struggle without having fun ”.

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Even when, in 2020, many of us had a golden opportunity to reduce the number of hours dedicated to work and travel, few took it. In the first months of the pandemic, the average working time of culture workers increased by 48.5 minutes. In my case, the increase did not come only from taking up the time previously spent getting to work. I also found myself taking time away from my evenings and weekends, as if work were an unstoppable weed. When my home turned into my office, the boundaries between work and private life vanished and I was no longer able to escape work. I wanted more free time and I had it in front of me, close at hand. Yet it seemed strangely inaccessible to me.

Part of the reason 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 can also work with a view to having some free time, but actually “spending” this capital makes us feel like we are losing money. No wonder we are constantly tempted to get back to work.

Putting free time before work, even when we have already worked extensively in our life, makes us feel guilty. In 1932 the philosopher Bertrand Russell, a well-known workaholic, spoke of “a conscience that forced me to work hard”. Russell recognized that this conscience was harmful and proposed a campaign to “induce 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 doesn’t make us feel guilty, it often risks boring us. Our brain chemistry is tuned to constant entertainment and consequently indolence is extremely annoying. In a 2014 study, researchers left a group of people alone in a room for between 6 and 15 minutes, with nothing to do. Participants undertook every possible activity, including self-inflicting an electric shock. Even pain (and even Twitter) is better than being alone with your thoughts.

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Despite the difficulties, learning to do nothing would do us good. Letting our thoughts wander freely while performing simple, unstructured tasks can improve our creativity and problem-solving ability. Unconscious thoughts during resting phases can produce more original ideas. Descartes is said to have invented his revolutionary coordinate system while lying in bed and observing a fly on the roof, while Einstein allegedly formulated his general theory of relativity while “daydreaming”. Getting a little bored can be invigorating. In 2014, a researcher wrote in Frontiers in Psychology that boredom can lead us to consider our daily activities more meaningful. Although there are no precise studies on this, I suspect that “doing nothing”, if done well, makes us happier.

Perhaps for some of you, idleness is a natural activity. If so, I offer you my envious congratulations. If you’re like me, here are three steps you can take to improve your indolence skills.

Most of us have absorbed from childhood the idea that idleness is a habit to be avoided. In fact, the opposite is true: we should all develop this habit. But habits take a lot of practice to take root. Before you try to sit on a beach and do nothing for a whole week, start by taking a few minutes each day. Sit in a peaceful place for five minutes, preferably with the chance to observe something beautiful. Avoid any technological device in order to allow your mind to enter what scientists refer to as the “default-mode network”, which is the state in which the regions of the brain used for concentration work can rest. When five minutes begins to seem like an easy task, increase your idle time by another five minutes. Keep going until you are able to laze for twenty minutes a day.

University of Virginia engineering professor Leidy Klotz argues that one of the most underrated techniques for improving our lives is to eliminate complications. Klotz led an experiment in which subjects were given an intensive itinerary for a vacation but had the option of eliminating some activities. Despite the busy schedule, few have chosen to do so, perhaps because they were afraid of missing out on something important. Klotz argues that it is the wrong choice, and I agree with him.

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When you have perfected the art of daily idleness, follow this principle to the extreme by organizing a vacation where you can enjoy unlimited idleness. You will probably not spend all your days looking at a wall, but you will still have the opportunity to benefit from true rest, something that only idleness can offer. You certainly won’t turn your vacation into another form of work.

During your unstructured vacation, I advise you to choose activities that can kindly attract your attention while leaving you the opportunity to wander with your thoughts. It’s what the University of Michigan psychologists call soft fascination, a state that can be reached by walking in nature or observing the waves. On the contrary, the hard fascination (the state that is reached, for example, by watching TV), monopolizes attention and excludes relaxed thinking. The researchers found that the soft fascination it is more invigorating than the hard one. For example, in a 2018 study, participants stated that walking in nature was 15 percent more useful for “getting away” than watching TV.

Of course, there is always the risk of overdoing this defense of idleness and becoming lazy people who ask the question “what are you doing?” they reply “I do as little as possible”. The trick is to avoid becoming a work handle but also a lazy one. It is about finding a balance between work and idleness in which neither activity is neglected or overshadowed by the other. Both should be practiced with seriousness and determination in the right places and times.

If scheduling idleness seems unnatural to you, think about the fact that to maintain good health you need to plan meals and physical activity every day. Plan “white space” in your day and stay away from the tyrannical needs of work (but also from food and exercise). If you feel guilty or have the sensation of “wasting” time and money with it, remember the words of the Welsh poet William Henry Davies: “This is a poor life, if, full of worries, we do not have time to stop. and observe “.

(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)

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