This fantastic piece in the New York Times by Tim Kreider re-affirms my theory on the complete insanity of the 24 hour work culture we now live in, where people are ‘too busy’ to do anything fun or interesting:
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
I’ve always found that my best ideas come when I’m not technically doing anything. I often space out for hours at a time where I simply try to absorb the massive amount of information I’ve been subjected to by living with the internet, television, newspapers etc etc in a big and bustling city. I’m now trying to not feel guilty about it because I honestly believe that’s what helps me perform the most. Kreider agrees:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.
I can directly relate this to my practice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – an art that is probably the most mentally demanding that I’ve ever practiced. The moves are so intricate and precise, and the combinations of attack and defense maneuvers so complex and never ending, that it literally blows my mind when I sit down to think about it. I’ve found if I practice more than three times a week, my performance actually gets worse because I don’t have time to properly absorb what I’m learning. I took a week off last month and came back better. I think the same can be said for work – the more I sit in an office, the more my brain switches off. I write and think better in spurts, and much of the improvement comes from being what is commonly regarded as ‘lazy’.
Actually, I’m not – I’m just busy thinking.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.