I once took a Personal Development class in college. This was before one out of ten Instagram accounts belonged to a life coach and Personal-Dev was a fully formed way of life. The first assignment was to spend a week meticulously documenting how we spend our time.
“Don’t change what you do,” said the teacher, “just write down how you spent your time, hour by hour, every day.”
It sounded simple and painless — two virtues I looked for when choosing all my classes. Little did I know, however, that by completing the assignment I was creating a paper-trail of evidence that would soon prove my guilt in the court of Laziness and Sloth. But that was the whole point: The teacher wanted us to realize what wasteful lives we’ve been leading and repent.
The next assignment was to pre-plan each hour of each day and stick to the schedule. Then, and only then, could we feel the sweet salvation of our patron saint, Productivity.
Despite what the chronically busy will tell you, no one actually wants to be lazy. Our brains are wired to prove our worth to the tribe. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t all be such naturals at generating excuses for our laziness. We all want — to varying degrees — to be someone who can seize the day and make things happen.
But anyone who has slain the head off of a monster to-do task only to watch two more appear knows that Movement isn’t always meaningful. And that, while staying busy might keep us warm during business hours, constant structure, focus, and task execution don’t always lead to real accomplishment.
Chronic busyness is just laziness in a collared shirt. It’s a nice disguise that helps us look in the mirror after a long week of emotional avoidance, but much of our busyness, we know deep down, is a sacrificial lamb; a safety rail keeping us in our lane and in our comfort zone.
It’s also true, however, that things still need to get done. Our to-do lists, while often steeped in avoidance, aren’t total fabrications of necessity. So, what’s a 21st-century sentient being with a chip on their shoulder to do?
How do we cut the fat on movement in order to find more meaning?
Well, as it turns out, a little bit of laziness can go a long way…
And what might look like laziness with a capital L in a community college Personal Dev class might just be the most productive time we can spend.
“In dreams, the truth is learned that all great works happen in the absence of caress.” -Leonard Cohen
Mental idleness or “downtime” has been shown again and again to aid in learning and comprehension. Thinking long and hard about a problem and then forgetting it, let’s our subconscious smooth the edges of understanding. But beyond comprehension, idle-time helps the brain attach meaning into the things we do.
Most of what we spend our time on is pretty trivial to survival. Once you have food, water, and shelter covered, creating that second stream of passive income doesn’t exactly register as imperative to your evolutionary hard-wiring (even if you did write it down ten times in your manifestation journal.)
When the brain stays locked and loaded on task execution, day after day, it can’t properly attach meaning and narrative to the things we do. Movement without meaning attached to it leaves us feeling burnt out and aimless. But when we allow our minds to roam freely, our subconscious has a chance to get on the same page as our heart and soul and create urgency around self-actualization.
Creative epiphanies also happen during moments of mental wandering. Ah-ha! moments in the shower are commonplace because that tends to be a venue where our imaginations can finally run off-leash through the grassy pastures of mental aimlessness. But when we live in a constant state of expectation, heavy-handed focus, and tunnel-vision goal-chasing that we limit these chance encounters of creative brilliance.
Idleness breeds insight because creativity is a result of digestion. Laziness, by way of unfocused attention, aids that digestion. Doing nothing creates space for important unconscious work to be done, and helps us answer the questions, What are we doing? And Why are we doing it?
“I’m too busy,” rolls off the tongue smoother than, “I’m scared. I don’t know where to start. I need help.”
This prescription for what sounds like laziness might be music to overworked ears, but doing nothing — and feeling ok with it — is harder than ever. The guilt that comes with lack of movement is at an all-time high. Social Media — the backstage pass to success — is a conveyor belt of movement. It’s a one-way mirror with a front-row seat to an entire world that is always moving faster than you.
But guilt via idleness isn’t something the Lex Luthors of the internet invented. That urge to build, conquer, and add value is natural human wiring. The big difference is that idleness used to find us naturally. Today, however, true nothingness takes a perfect storm of free-time, solitude, and lack of wifi.
There’s an overwhelming abundance of low-hanging busy work to fill us up that doing Nothing is becoming a novelty of the past, like using a phone-book or in-person speed dating. The arms race of attention and endless entertainment for all has made it easy to go months without confronting the things that matter most.
“I’m too busy” is our generation’s Heisman block; a stiff arm at scary unknowns and meaningful work that, ironically, has the potential to set us free from the busyness we can’t wait to complain about. And it makes sense. “I’m too busy,” rolls off the tongue smoother than, “I’m scared. I don’t know where to start. I need help.”
But avoidance by way of busyness only works for so long. When we lie our over-tasked heads down at night and pray to the Gods of Output and Productivity, our hearts still ache. We know deep down that our chronic busyness is just a participation trophy. And that in the end, no one is going to care or be impressed by a lifetime of frenetic, meaningless movement.
“Never mistake movement for action.” -Ernest Hemingway
I’ve learned now that being a productive person isn’t about getting things done. It’s about being the kind of person who has a deep understanding of what they’re doing and why. To be truly productive, you need to see the difference between movement and action and act accordingly.
And while you may not see it on the social media highlight reel, most successful people understand that what might look like laziness on paper is a vital form of productivity. Idle-time is time well spent. It leads to creative insights and problem-solving. It creates space for us to attach meaning to the things we should do and identify the things we shouldn’t.
Don’t let plans be the only thing you make. Let your mind run off-leash through unstructured, unscheduled, and unfocused time. And then, please for the love of Productivity, sit down and do the meaningful work you’ve always wanted to do if you weren’t, “so damn busy…”