On the importance of doing nothing


When was the last time you did nothing? I mean literally, nothing. Not lying on the couch scrolling through your phone, not putting off work by blankly staring out the window, not even meditating. Nothing.

In a column in The Illustrated London News, G. K. Chesterton suggested that the ability to do nothing at all was the key to a happy life. And so he saw it at as an indispensable part of what leisure and our “free” time should be about.

He argued, though, that this was far from how people spent their free time today, as they would rather stuff it full of ordered and socially acceptable fun. It’s a fitting statement for the hyperconnected and hyperstimulating 21st century, but he was writing in the 1920’s, a time long before mobile phones, computers, TV, and many people even knew what a radio was.

According to Chesterton, where we are going wrong is in how we think about leisure. He explained the term is used to describe three things: “The first is being allowed to do something. The second is being allowed to do anything. And the third (and perhaps most rare and precious) is being allowed to do nothing.”

The first is what most of us consider leisure. You work the daily grind all week and come 5pm Friday, you feel like you’ve just been given a two-day pass out of prison. Expectedly, you’re just pleased to be in control of your time — but only for a few hours and don’t forget you have to be ready to work come Monday morning. So you fill it by slothing out in front of the tele or by engaging in some other frivolous and memory-dulling activities.

In Chesterton’s time, the second type of leisure was reserved for artists and aristocrats. Today, though, with this new thing called the internet and more people becoming their own bosses, it’s on the rise.

The problem is, if you’re in this camp, your number and level of responsibilities often also increases with your free time, along with the size of the domain of things you can do. As we know from decision fatigue and analysis paralysis, being able to do anything is sometimes more constraining than only being able to do a select few things.

The ever so precious and rare third meaning of leisure, as Chesterton called it, being able to do nothing at all, is all but non-existent — despite wealth and quality of living being higher than ever. Chesterton pointed out that the way we live makes it more and more easier to get things and do things, and so more and more difficult to just do nothing. Social pressure and an abundance of choice make it almost mandatory to always be doing something, especially something that’s productive, social, and/or competitive.

This lack of liberty in our leisure time is a disaster for idleness. Idleness, as Chesterton described, is “not, as is idly supposed, an empty thing. Idleness can be, and should be, a particularly full thing.” When you’re being idle, it’s not that you’re purposely putting off some other task, thinking about how lazy you are being, or feeling secretly guilty about the fact you should be attending to global warming and the dishes; you should be so completely immersed in being idle that you lose yourself in your idleness. In his essay on Lying In Bed, Chesterton recommended that “if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all.”

As well as lying in bed, if you’re looking for other ideas for doing nothing, you could try walking in the sunshine with no destination in mind, doodling on a scrap piece of paper, rocking back and forward on the balls of your feet, gazing up at the stars, twiddling your thumbs, kicking a can or stone down the pavement, tilting your head to one side and then the other, or sitting in a weird position on the floor.

To do nothing, with no reason or justification whatsoever other than simply doing it, is a skill that is drastically under threat.  The people who do it are seen as lazy, selfish, and even shunned as no-gooders who instead of leeching off society should be busy building the next Tesla or training for a marathon or giving up their time to feed the poor or creating a masterpiece or taking some other form of deliberate action.

But what such accusers fail to see is that idleness and doing nothing are the backdrop of every meaningful action and every memorable something in the world. As I’m sure Chesterton would agree, the failure to be able to stop doing stuff for long enough and pause the incessant thinking and knee-jerk reactioning is a much bigger crisis than any other humanity is facing today.

So for the sake of the whole world, if not just yourself, next time you have some free time, make sure you use it to its fullest and do absolutely diddly squat.