The Joys of Being Idle

It takes a lot of work to be idle. If you're doing it right, you'll get a lot done but without ever being productive. I have plenty of days where I'm super busy and do many things, but I never actually get my real work done. That's what it means to be idle.

Being idle is not the same thing as being lazy.

Being lazy means doing whatever you can to get out of work, and there are two types of lazy people. There are those who refuse to do absolutely anything but lay around, shirking their responsibilities.

And some work extra hard to avoid working hard. Like lugging 27 plastic grocery sacks from the car in one trip, nearly severing your fingers, because you didn't want to make a second trip.

Or the time I spent four years developing a database to help me write sales quotes because I hated rewriting the same information over and over. It calculated the order and shipping costs and emailed that information to customers so I wouldn't have to do it by hand. It saved me five minutes per customer, and I had over 500 customers, which means it saved 2500 minutes or 42 total hours.

It took four years to develop, and it saved one week of total time. Now that's peak laziness.

Being idle is more like the second form of laziness: You do a lot of work to avoid doing the things you should be doing.

I have a rich history of doing the things I'm not supposed to do, especially when I was a kid. But it's not because I was idle, it's because I was a pig-headed little mischief. The best way to get me to do something was to tell me not to do it, and the best way to get me to not do something was to tell me to do it.

I've told the story about how my father made a laboratory rat bite my finger when I was four years old. He was a psychology professor at Ball State University and took me to the rat lab one day. He very clearly said to me, "Do NOT stick your finger in the rat cage."

So I stuck my finger in the rat cage. And the rat bit me.

As I've gotten older, that sense of contrariness has evolved into my love of idleness. But I can only do it when I'm not supposed to be idling. If I'm supposed to be doing it, I hate it.

When I have time to sit and read a book, I don't enjoy it. I look for things I should be doing until I find a task requiring my attention. Only then can I enjoy my book and will spend hours reading and basking in the glory of not doing anything.

Today, I had to finish writing a report for a client and write this column. 

If I had been a productive person — one of those annoying Type-A, "I get up at 4 a.m." overachievers — I would have sat at my desk at 8:00 a.m. and started working. That way, my evening would have been free to read and watch a little television. But did I do that?

We both know I did not.

Instead, I got up at 9:30, cleaned the kitchen, emptied the dishwasher, and reloaded it with the breakfast dishes. Then I scrubbed the counters and put away the morning's breakfast things.

This is usually my son's job, and I'm happy to let him do it. But I had a deadline hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles, which meant it was important that I clean the kitchen.

Next, I tidied up the living room and did some light dusting. I was about to start alphabetizing my sock drawer when I realized my report was due in a few hours. So I enjoyed a nice breakfast, sat with my grandson for a half hour, and then made myself a sandwich.

I arrived at my desk in plenty of time to read through my emails and re-read the Jerome K. Jerome chapter "On Being Idle" before I finally got the report finished with moments to spare.

Having important deadlines is a great way to get work done around the house. In fact, the busier I get, the cleaner my house gets.

If you want to be a true idler, pursue a new hobby or interest. One that you can throw yourself into at the first sign of an impending deadline. But don't take it too seriously, or it will also become important. You'll need a second hobby just to distract you from that one.

Remember, a true idler's work is never done. But, more importantly, it never actually starts, either.

Photo credit: Evgeni Tcherkasski (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.