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'Idle' Shouldn't be a Bad Word

The value of down time and self-exploration.

"What are you up to?" my friend asked. "Not much at the moment," I reply. This answer or some variation was my response during April of 2020. The world stopped, and I suddenly became idle.


Before the pandemic, I found myself repeating the common refrain: "I'm super busy, but hopefully slower soon." Well my "soon" had arrived; I got to choose what I wanted to spend my time doing, and found myself with time for reflecting on goals and trajectory. The idleness was a gift.


Looking back on that time has me wondering: Are we too busy? Have we forgotten the value of being idle?


Has idleness become a scary word?

Yes, I think it has for generations of folks used to dealing with constant external stimuli. But we can use a few strategies to learn how to create idleness and enjoy life more deeply.


First let's begin to understand why we are always busy.


Busy-ness as an Anesthetic

Dr. Brené Brown describes being busy as a numbing strategy we use to avoid facing the truths of our lives. I, who also succumbs to the busy-ness fallacy, agree.


It's easy to coast through our days. There's enough to worry about in the bigger picture of our lives, so we decide it's easiest to worry about none of it and think about the next task. Especially in this period of transition, I find myself sitting in anxious moments as I think about the bigger picture. It's easy to think about my internal monologue: There are enough things to do, I don't have time to journal about my goals or reflect on my week. Stopping means not being 'productive.'


The consequences to this constant busy-ness are far-reaching. We suddenly find ourselves too busy to enjoy life, to spend time with those we love, to think about how our actions will affect our future, to offer our services to someone who needs them, or to embrace new values.


Being idle forces us to sit and be comfortable with ourselves. Our biggest memories and learnings come from setting goals and reflecting on our decisions, not coasting through our busy days.


We have the means to do endless thumb workouts scrolling through our phones and call it being idle. Sometimes our thumbs need a break!

Two paths
My first Circle Three doodle.

But scrolling helps us avoid the questions that matter. Without the pandemic, I "wouldn't have had the time" to reconsider whether engineering or my job at the time was something I truly wanted to do. It takes thought and consideration. Meaningful idleness brings more than a rest, it offers space, which to Dr. Brown's point can be intimidating.


Sitting in idleness meant having to consider what I wanted out of life and looking at what I currently have.


The gap between the two can feel insurmountable. Yikes, better get back to thumb-scrolling.

“The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how to behave when we don’t know what to do.” — John Holt (seen in Circle Three 29)

We opt for the hamster wheel, where busy-ness becomes a defense mechanism. We overload our senses, work long hours, or watch Netflix to avoid thinking about weighty things. But hey, sometimes Netflix is exactly what I need to rest after a busy day. And that's okay.


It's not lost on me that not everyone has the luxury of managing their time or creating space to have down time. We need to relax sometimes. Parents or students picking up multiple shifts to make ends meet don't have this flexibility. But many others do and continue through their busy days.


Alex Lieberman of the Morning Brew wrote, "We make 35,000 decisions every day. Yet most of us don't reflect on the decisions we make. That's like running a furniture business without checking for defects before shipping to customers. It's insane." Are we too busy to think about all these decisions? Absolutely. Can we purposefully create idle times to reflect? Certainly.


Creating Idleness

So how can we be purposefully idle? I've picked up a few ways and adopted successful strategies from others.


Define what "time well-spent" means for you. Make it specific to you when you are alone, then go seek it out. It could be your current project at work; maybe it's your passion for journaling; maybe it's playing music. For me, running is time well spent: it's exercise, it's alone time to reflect, process, and plan, and sometimes it's out-of-breath hill-climbs. An activity that you consider time well-spent is worth making time for.


Build in some "attention purges." Matthew McConaughey takes his strategy for purposeful idleness to the extreme. He takes a 21-day trip by himself to a remote place where he doesn't know the language and nobody knows his name. It takes 13 days to fully disconnect. "13 hellish days until I'm out of my own way." He has the luxury of long periods off, but says "whatever it is for you, schedule that time." Schedule a walk in a park or a tech-free weekend.


Take stock of your activities and time, make time for leisure. ' Leisure time' is a mix of active and passive time. It requires a mix of contemplation, mindfulness and active creation and doing. Look at your schedule, resist the lure of busy-ness, and create active and passive leisure that offers space: hanging with friends, FaceTiming someone, or trying a new activity.


Idleness is something to embrace. Being idle has helped me make better decisions and face some truths of life. I've grown to know myself and be comfortable without external stimuli. What would you do with 30 minutes of idleness?