The Importance of Being Idle

When you hear the word ‘idle’, you would be forgiven for mentally translating it into the word ‘lazy’. However, in lockdown, time and anxiety are both suddenly abundant and changing how we spend our downtime is crucial. Learning to sit comfortably and merely exist is one of the hardest things to master in a world where we are perpetually stimulated and entertained.

Whilst many equate the idea of idleness with sloth and cringe at the idea of sitting on Tik Tok all day, changing the very nature of what it means to be idle can be incredibly restorative and beneficial for our mental health. Consequently, our productivity and creativity improve, as does our work ethic.

Alone time can be terrifying, especially for those who are usually able to occupy themselves with work. The idea of being left vulnerable to anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and just genuine boredom is often a bleak prospect. However, idleness does not need to create this kind of incubator for discomfort. Rather than sitting on your phone for hours mindlessly scrolling, try to form your own brand of active passivity (bear with me; it’s less of a contradiction than it sounds). Taking control of your idleness by turning it into something active and positive, something that stimulates your mind without exhausting it is a necessity nowadays. This can be easily achieved by substituting certain activities for similar, yet more productive alternatives. Rather than listening to music, listen to a podcast. Rather than doing nothing in bed, do nothing in the garden. Changing your setting is actually one of the easiest ways to supercharge your idleness and prevent it from sapping you of energy.

Things we should get into the habit of during lockdown:

  • Going on a walk, just a wander, no rush, no agenda (bonus points if you don’t listen to music; you’ll be surprised how much you notice even in the most familiar settings)
  • Reading for the sake of reading
  • Cooking something new, then eating it slowly, without looking at a screen

Idleness doesn’t need to mean inactivity. Idleness can be the act of producing or creating for no reason. There is so much pressure to consistently maintain a purpose or direct drive in life and we often forget the importance of taking a step back and enjoying the simplicity of the present. Refusing to assign importance to hobbies can provide a new-found clarity and self-acceptance. One of the first questions we are asked as children is ‘what do you want to be when you’re older?’ Ambition is written into our society and even our DNA. We are told that practice makes perfect, ambition is key for a happy future, and that to be bad at something is to not enjoy it. But what we’re not told is practice doesn’t need to make perfect; being able to enjoy pursuits such as art or music whilst being objectively bad at them can be highly beneficial for our egos. Forcing ourselves to excel in whatever challenges we undertake is not only unrealistic but can be incredibly damaging. Rather than accepting failure as a part of life, we end up ridiculing ourselves for not fitting into the image of ourselves we have created in our heads. Some of the most content people I know are those who dedicate a portion of their free time to seemingly trivial activities that they will never profit off or be praised for. Recognising our own imperfection removes the pressure to overachieve and consequentially our work becomes more creative and interesting. Pick up a new hobby like gardening and take your time to sit back and smell your roses; even if only one grows and you forget to water them ever again. Knit a scarf full of holes, bake bread that doesn’t rise, or paint a hideous portrait of your best friend. They’ll love it. Do something just for the sake of doing it. There is an incredible amount of joy to be found in this kind of idleness.

Activities you probably won’t be good at but should give a go anyway:

  • Baking sourdough
  • Making and painting clay mugs
  • Gardening (talking to your basil plant in the kitchen counts)
  • Drawing or painting; doodling on the models in magazines is a personal favourite when the creative juices aren’t flowing
  • Knitting or crocheting (lumpy scarves make incredibly thoughtful presents)

One of the best ways to alleviate anxiety is by recognising the sensory reality of the present. Many of us will be familiar with the grounding technique of taking time to notice five things we can see, four we can touch, three we can hear, two we can smell, and one we can taste. Trying to weave this idea into our lives is one of the easiest ways to enjoy your own company and idleness more. Just take time to notice things. Take time to accept exactly where you are in this very moment, and try to find beauty in the very smallest mundane aspects of your life. So stop cringing when you’re told to live in the moment. Accepting that you don’t need a single drive or purpose can completely change your worldview. Sometimes brick walls aren’t a dead end, they’re there for you to lean against whilst you choose a new direction.