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More idle than ever?


I have long been a fan of How to be Idle, Tom Hodgkinson’s essential guide to how to invest your time better. In line with recent psychological ideas, and with common wisdom, he suggests that there are better ways to spend one’s life than queuing in the supermarket for goods you don’t want, and spending the rest of your life working your socks off to pay for this nonsense.

So I was pleased when my colleague Will pointed me to this talk on NEF’s policy idea of a 21 hour working week – as the “norm” (instead of whatever it is today).

You can listen to the debate online and read the paper here (writte by Anna Coote, Andrew Simms and Jane Franklin) so I won’t bother to repeat all that.

But what struck me, from the point of view of doing business more consciously, is what might stop us making this move. I can listen to all the rational arguments, and come to the conclusion that working hours are not fixed, and probably are declining in any case in some parts of the world. And that a 21 hour norm is probably a good idea.

But at a more personal level, what would stop me actually making the change? The authors of the paper said, I think, that many people wondered how they would pay the mortgage, or the bills, or whatever? I think even that is fairly easily answered for many: add more value in less time. Ricardo Semler’s “Seven-Day Weekend” describes one way to do this – and what happens if you make a success of it.

But maybe this response also masks a deeper, more complex issue? Just why do so many highly intelligent, articulate and capable people spend so much time “working” – in whatever form – making money, doing charity work, running errands, or even doing crosswords or the gardening?

Is it possible that most of us find it incredibly hard to sit and be still? To do nothing?

And is that perhaps because doing nothing inevitably leads us to experience whatever there is to experience – externally and internally?

And that trained as we are – to keep busy, to detach from our feelings, to focus on achieving the perfect end-state – we can safely avoid just this experience. Of powerful emotion. Of being in process. Of really being alive?

The Sandpit by Sam O’Hare.

That’s what it seems like to me sometimes. I’d welcome your comments.

Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

13 thoughts on “More idle than ever?

  1. “All of man’s misfortune comes from a single cause, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” Pascal said that, and, to an extent, I agree with both of you, Pete. However…

    You’re talking about three things, I think – number of hours worked, what you do during those hours, and why you’re doing it. I’m not sure the hours matter, as long as the work produces “flow” – i.e. the sort of self-forgetting via absorption in a meaningful task which is so vital to mental well-being. It’s when people run about desperately filling up their time with inauthentic activities – i.e. tasks which are exclusively a means to an end rather than an end in themselves – that we become pathetic stress-bunnies, afraid to leave the office because of inner emptiness or fear of being shafted. And if you’ve basically got enough crap and you’re doing it to be able to buy more crap to justify doing something you don’t like, that’s tragic.

    Now, why can’t we sit quietly? Our society values action, not thinking – heroism, not wisdom. I’ve always suspected that Stephen Hawking is our one true intellectual hero, because he can’t move: in effect, he has a solid excuse for spending his days thinking. We’re never taught how to sit quietly, how to be reflective – we don’t know what it’s for. So we start to get antsy almost at once and look for something to do, no matter how pointless, just to be busy. In effect, we’re taught to be Marthas, not Marys: no matter how much lip-service we pay to the importance of families and friends and leisure pursuits, society relentlessly pushes us to become our jobs – and now we’re all going to be expected to work even longer! Personally, I feel far more respect for the people who are able to walk away than the ones who can’t give it up: I suspect they quite enjoy sitting alone with their thoughts.

  2. Thanks Scott.

    I agree with you – that society seems to value action not thinking. Or maybe we value doing stuff more than simply being – sitting, reflecting, just doing nothing.

    That begs the question “why do we care what society values?”

    I had to look up the Martha and Mary story – as I understand it Mary cares about others and wishes to engage with life’s “treasures”; Martha cares about what others might think – especially if the work isn’t done.

    But maybe both can be a little “self-indulgent”? Perhaps caring for others can become just as much a distraction as caring what others think?

    I suppose what I really wonder is what role does being truly alone, with one’s thoughts and feelings, with oneself, have in how one might run a business, or work in a business?

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  4. My take on the Mary and Martha story is that Jesus is implying that we shouldn’t dismiss reflective, contemplative people in favour of those who are more physical: in fact, there are times when we should pay more attention to the inner than the outer life. Which I thought echoed your thoughts. As a Christian – albeit a rubbish one – I get a bit depressed by the obsession with good deeds, as if social work – rather than the state of one’s soul – is what it’s all about.

  5. …or you could say, “we are human beings not human doings.” Not sure who said that, but I must have heard it somewhere, as I am far too busy to have come up with it myself.

  6. I remember being about 7 or 8 years old, lying on my back in the sun and trying to imagine time. What came first – God? Who made God? What did life look like before time? When would it all end. I felt excited. But eventually I felt a bit overwhelmed and even nauseous. I got up and started running around manically to loosen the trap that I had slipped into.

    That’s what its like for me as an adult too. I love to sit and reflect on (almost) anything. However, if I try to solve the insoluble I begin to fall into very dark places. In my twenties and thirties I would get up and run around – or possibly dance it away. It’s taken me decades to develop a process that I can fully engage in without becoming overwhelmed. I have learned that good reflective thinking is a skill. It takes practice, and when done well, it feels a bit like meditation. I have to pose questions that matter to me while also allowing myself to be unattached to the outcomes – or rather, to be curious about all the possible answers rather than too invested in one outcome.

    I grew up in the capitalist west. Unlike the East, there was nowhere to learn this skills from. Even Christian prayer had an agenda. As we migrated away from the nuclear family there were few old sages/grandparents to model a life with a different relationship to time than my very busy parents. Their generation were endlessly aiming for a ‘higher standard of living’ – that was the mantra.

    Now we have that standard of living but we don’t know how to turn off the meter. As a therapist, I see many adults all asking deep and meaningful questions, but none has the skills to sit with the unanswerable so they are like that child who was me, running around feeling overwhelmed and frightened.

    So where does this fit into business? My experience tells me that young entrepreneurs want to turn off the meter. They know there is more to life than what our parents were sold. The question is – how do they learn the skill of reflective thinking in a world that has lost its models and in a world that offers endless distractions.

    Personally, I trust that human nature will find its way back to what feels more nurturing. Concious business is just one way of tapping into that movement.

  7. “Simplicity”. I guess at the core lie our wants and needs (not to say greed) which we can overcome by more simplicity. Do we really need all the material things? What if we would look inside ourselves and feel more content just to ‘be’ rather to do or want? This way I have massively reduced anxiety, needs and work hours, without my career success.

    On a business level you could call it indeed Conscious Business which I am increasingly exploring on my blog ( Looking forward to more exchange…

  8. People live to work and I think this attitude can be traced back to, what Max Weber called ‘The Protestant work ethic’.

    This label is more relevant to the times in which this socioligist deemed it a phenomenon of industrial society (19th Century). But the idea of a ‘work ethic’ or a moral obligation to work oneself into the ground (in effect) with excessive
    hours of gainful employment dominates the culture of work.

    Ceridian – The Future of Work

    I work around 20hours a week and earn enough to get by. I like to have time to think. I have always been told that ‘time to think’ is a dangerous thing. I think this goes hand in hand with the notion that ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’.

  9. Love the other contributions.

    I was never taught to sit still or to reflect. I remember once an English teacher asking our class ‘don’t you ever climb up a hill and sit on an old tree and think?’ and remembering how ridiculous that sounded. By then we were teenagers.

    But I’m slowly – very slowly – getting there. An introduction to Buddhism and meditation; reading the Tao of Pooh; a very occasional cup of tea in the garden alone.

    I find it hard. It feels subversive and counter to the rhythm of ‘modern life’, whatever that is. When I have nothing to do I feel quite scared – how ridiculous! But increasingly taking the odd moment, and practicing being more reflective feels good too.

  10. Following a recent conversation with friends, I found myself talking about the fact (?) that the verb ‘to do’ does not exist in other languages. Think about it…the French, Spanish, Germans and Scandinavians all use the verb ‘to make’ to describe the action. For example, “what did you make today” rather than “what did you do today.”
    If a word does not exist in your language, perhaps the concept cannot exist. I have noticed that English language students often if not always struggle to conjugate the verb “to do.” Perhaps the very concept is alien?
    Try asking yourself, “What did I make today?” See if it changes how you feel about what you ‘did.’

  11. Richard, at least in German there is equivalent for to do (=”tun”) and for to make (=”machen”). Not sure about ‘hacer’ in Spanish…

    Isn’t it the key to feel our inner being first and the to do/act consciousbly? I guess the ‘idle’ of the titel refers to being.

    I remember a sentence from Eckhart Tolle saying “No doing can compensate a lack of being” (not a direct quote).


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