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Issue Nine / Essay,Photo Essay
“Some of the most important scientific innovations and inventions were ‘happened upon,’ unplanned, after years of unproductive, leisurely puzzling”

THE IDLER: How to do nothing

Words by Nikaela Marie Peters Photograph by Maja Norrman

As people get older, they realize that time is more valuable than money. And finding more time to do absolutely nothing is perhaps exactly what we all need. 

It’s the stuff of gods and infants—the birthplace of great works of art, philosophy and science. The habit of doing nothing at all is super-important to our individual and cultural well-being, yet it seems to be dying in our digitized age.

Far from laziness, proper idleness is the soul’s home base. Before we plan or love or decide or act or storytell, we are idle. Before we learn, we watch. Before we do, we dream. Before we play, we imagine. The idle mind is awake but unconstrained, free to slip untethered from idea to idea or meander from potential theory to potential truth. Thomas Aquinas argued that “it is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation.”

Is true idleness a lost skill? How often do we sit, serenely unoccupied? How often do we walk, as Henry David Thoreau advised, with no agenda or destination, present and free? What an uncommon sight: a solitary individual, his head not buried in a newspaper or laptop or phone, simply sitting—his mind long wandered off.

Seven years ago, I lived in an apartment without an Internet connection. I had a flip cell phone that only worked to make calls and send 40-character texts. Without the distraction of the Internet or the option of watching a movie, I was certainly more productive, according to certain measures. A mind adrift in a sea of its own making is far more interesting than a mind following a trail of hyperlinks. But what strikes me as a greater loss—when I compare those years to now—is all the time I spent doing “nothing.” My bedroom had a third-story view of a busy downtown street. It was small, and the bed was pushed up against the window. I’m sure the hours I spent staring out that window would add up to weeks of time. I watched nothing and anything. I (occasionally) smoked cigarettes and drank coffee… two habits that, while unhealthy for the body, do—in certain circumstances have health benefits for the soul.

Productivity is not the only measure of time well spent. Some of the most important scientific innovations and inventions were “happened upon,” unplanned, after years of unproductive, leisurely puzzling. My five-month-old understands this intuitively. He will learn an entire language and how to sit, stand, crawl and walk all mostly by doing what, to an adult, would look like “nothing.”

I’m convinced that time spent idle makes for a healthier state of mind. We want less and are more at peace when we get it. We sleep better and work harder. Simpler things bring us joy. When we daily observe our immediate surroundings, we are more grounded in our context, more attuned to the rhythms of whatever season or place we are in.

Plus, the changing shapes of clouds need our attention.

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