In 1993, I had an idea, or what may be more grandly called an epiphany. It was that doing nothing – far from signalling inertia or laziness – was actually a very good thing. There are many benefits to sitting around with no particular place to go. I started a magazine based on this concept and called it the Idler. And over the years I have written a number of books, which show that idling is good for you.
For one thing, idling is creatively fertile. It is when we are half asleep in bed or rambling around the woods or chatting in the pub that we get ideas. It is when the idler looks most inactive that he or she may in fact be most deeply immersed in thinking.
Idling is also good for the soul. Socrates and the ancient Greek philosophical schools which followed him taught that we should all make time for what they called schole, or leisure. Plato, Epicurus and Aristotle set up retreats outside the city centre, places for thinking and idling. This idea evolved into the monastery movement. We could also call idling meditation, prayer, contemplation, study.
Further, idling is also good for the health. When you spend too much time worrying about work and money-earning, you neglect your own wellbeing. In the US, work caused people so much physical pain that they went to the doctor and were prescribed opioids, which kept them working but destroyed their health.
Ensuring that you maintain a 30-ish hour working week has a fantastic effect not only on your own happiness but on the happiness of those around you. People tell me that they feel guilty for not working. But they should feel guilty for overworking because that leads to neglect of the soul and neglect of the people close to you.
But perhaps even more importantly, idling is good for the planet. It is activity and interference that exhaust our energy supplies. Overwork drains ourselves and it drains oil. Commuting, maintaining offices, computer use, phone use, social media all use vast amounts of electricity and fossil fuels, as do going on holiday, travelling to climate change conferences and not having the good sense to stay at home, and lie on your back on the grass.
In 2006, we published a piece by Gaia scientist Stephan Harding that warned of the dire consequences of both fossil fuel burning, and our dominant worldview, which sees the earth as a resource to be plundered.
He made a plea for less activity, saying: “The most important thing we can do is to develop the Gaian art of doing nothing.” He adds: “We can begin [the healing process] by working less, consuming less and spending more time outdoors.”
So don’t feel guilty if you feel you are not doing enough to heal the planet. You may in fact be doing too much. So start now. Switch everything off and go and have a lie down. This could be the most revolutionary act of all.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler and author How to be Idle. Join his mailing list at idler.co.uk.