Productivity requires Idleness

3 min readDec 18, 2019
all work and no play

“Idleness, we are accustomed to say, is the root of all evil. To prevent this evil, work is recommended…. Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is truly a divine life, if one is not bored….”
Soren Kierkegaard

There’s too much productivity in the world — we were promised visions of increased efficiency and automation that would lead the modern workforce towards indolence. What we have instead is #workhard culture that has mostly forgotten the second phrase of its own line: play.

Not every moment needs to lead to some immediate economic outcome! Time spent idle is not time wasted that could have been used to do/make/produce something!

As I get older, I am starting to find that not only ideas, but the emotional state to produce interesting thoughts, cannot be obtained while doing any kind of productive work. I’ll spend the day working (email, coding, project management, support requests, tickets, conference calls, meetings, presentations, administrivia), and then when I come home, I often think “OK, now let me relax.” So I put on a bath (good!) and some complicated music (less good), and pick up my kindle to read something interesting (bad!).

That’s the problem — reading something interesting is not good. A really good book requires a really active reader, so after a day of mental work, I’m now making my brain do a double shift under the guise of “relaxing.” No wonder I don’t feel a deep sense of peace the next morning, or wonder why I feel vaguely anxious, or toss in bed with strange dreams.

No, better to do nothing.

One technique that’s showing promise is to still do things that require some amount of concentration or effort (like a game of Overwatch) but without any goal or pressure in mind — just play to have fun, and stop when you feel like it. If you can decouple any kind of objective — except to laze around — from the gameplay, you won’t stress yourself out after stressing yourself out all day.

Afterall, games were meant to be fun right?

It’s not much that you shouldn’t do anything at all, it’s that you shouldn’t do anything too intensely, or with too much care. Feel free to cook something you know how to cook and like to eat, that’s quick and nutritious for dinner — or just be lazy and seamless it.

Being idle gives you the luxury of choice and cuts the knot of the paradox of choice, because you mostly shouldn’t care which way you decide.

How often should you be in this mood? I’d say if it were everyday, that would be too much, and if it were never — or less than once a week — far too little. I only have experiential evidence, and Aristotle’s belief in moderation, to guide me, but I find an idle evening on Wednesday and afternoon on Sunday to be just about right for me.

Is there any scientific evidence to buoy these claims? Am I suggesting that humanity give up its productivity in vain? I don’t know, but I’ll leave you to read this 1932 essay from Bertrand Russel, In Praise of Idleness:

A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.


Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.

Activities or endeavours that I heartily do not recommend for engaging in periodic, refreshing bouts of idleness include:

  • Competitive sports / fitness training
  • Listening to new, complicated pieces of music
  • Playing “ranked” mode in video games with voice chat on
  • Reading Umberto Eco or Faulkner or really any book written more than fifty years ago
  • Planning your future, your family, or your tending your personal finances
  • Applying for immigration documents, like a passport renewal, or permanent residency/citizenship. Don’t do your taxes either!
  • Discussing over the counter FX derivatives pricing models and quoting conventions (is it pips? bps?) with your significant other
  • Trolling people on the internet and then really digging in waiting for the next comment to drop

Anything that causes you to invest, to want to feel like you are “winning,” to focus intensely, should be avoided at all costs while you try to indulge in a little active idleness.




Personal interests in literature, SF, and whisky/whiskey/scotch, Software Engineer by Trade