Busy. But good busy.
This was my go-to response to the “How’s life?” question. For the vast majority of my life, I wore busy as a status symbol. The word lazy reminded me of my pot-smoking, Halo-playing college friends who would cut class and lounge around for hours on end. In my own life, I bounced to the other extreme, priding myself on my discipline and my choice to fill—no stuff—every moment of my day with activity.
I know I’m not alone here. Think about it: Have you ever told anyone, “I’m loving my work, but I also have plenty of time to play and relax”? Laziness—which I define as unstructured chunks of time free of distractions—has become a major shame trigger. In a 2017 survey, roughly 80% of Americans reported that they spent no time whatsoever “relaxing or thinking.”
If you have any doubts about our obsession with productivity, look no further than this viral article about a computer scientist’s productivity system. One of his many hacks involves walking in the woods with a laptop strapped around his neck so he can keep typing while getting fresh air (see the photo here).
You may be thinking you’d never do that, but if you’re like the average American, you check your phone every 12 minutes during waking hours, which adds up to 80 times a day (if you’re a millennial, that number is 150). It’s the smartphone equivalent of having a laptop strapped around your neck.
This is a recipe for cognitive burnout. Overtraining your mind—just like overtraining your body—without adequate recovery time is a surefire path to injury and poor performance.
As the saying goes, it’s the silence between the notes that makes the music.
During that silence, it appears nothing is happening, but appearances deceive. Even when it’s idling, the brain is still active. “[W]hen you’re staring into space,” Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes in his book Rest, “your brain consumes only slightly less energy than it does when you’re solving differential equations.”
So where does all that energy go?
Your mind may seem to be drifting from one irrelevant topic to the next, but your subconscious is hard at work, consolidating memories, making associations, and marrying the new with the old to create new combinations. The phrase unconscious mind is an insult to a part of our brain that does so much work behind the scenes.
There’s a TV commercial where business executives squeeze themselves into a shower at work. One person asks, “Why are we meeting in the shower?” The boss replies, “Well, ideas always hit me in my shower at home.”
The idea-in-the-shower moment is cliche—because it works. When we sit or stand still, we turn into a magnetized rod that attracts ideas. This is why phrases like epiphany, flash of light, or stroke of genius are often used to describe the Eureka moment—Greek for “I’ve found it.”
Ideas explode into life during times of slack, not hard labor. Niels Bohr literally dreamed up the structure of an atom when he envisioned himself “sitting on the sun with all the planets hissing around on tiny cords.” Archimedes’ famous Eureka moment arrived when he was easing himself into a bath (he then reportedly ran naked through the streets of Syracuse to celebrate).
Laziness landed a woman named Joanne her first publishing deal. In 1990, her train from Manchester to London was delayed for four hours. This was way before the smartphone age, so Joanne just sat there doing nothing while she waited. Out of nowhere, a story “came fully formed” into her mind—about a young boy who attends a wizardry school. That four-hour delay ended up being a blessing for Joanne Kathleen Rowling—better known as J.K. Rowling—who wrote the Harry Potter series that captivated millions around the world.
These pauses can’t be reserved for your twice-a-year vacation in the sun. They need to be built into the day. Give yourself permission to lounge in bed for too long. To put your body and mind in airplane mode. To sit and stare at the ceiling. To wander aimlessly through a park (without your laptop!). To blow a Tuesday off.
It sounds so simple, but there’s no magic here—at least not in the Hogwarts sense. The magic is the intention of a designated time to pause and reflect—a moment for interior silence to oppose contemporary chaos.
The next time you’re tempted to fill your time with “something productive,” just remember: Laziness might be the most productive thing you can do.