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The Case for Doing Nothing (nytimes.com)
120 points by grzm 33 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments

My guilty pleasure is to binge play a day-long game of Civ or Minecraft every 2 months or so. Really helps to switch gears in the brain away from business / social obligations / continuing education / exercise / outdoors / etc. Extremely non-productive waste of time from a societal point of view, but I feel like it helps me recover.

Just one more turn ;)

Productivity is a Protestant value (labour is the way to a good life and thus God). I find that, even though you and I are probably no longer religious, such values have huge staying power.

I for one accept that this value deserves a bunch of footnotes. You are very right: Labour amd our society is something to recover from. We (from this cultural zone at least) should start to accept we don't have to be temporarily embarrased hard workers anymore. Hard work is outdated and overrated, it's time we stop seeing this life as a means to get into heaven, or at least have values that boil down to that, but as a goal in its own right.

Working hard is a shared value across all religious and ethnic backgrounds. People, generally, really seem to value effort and productivity. Go figure.

It made sense in the past. But, it's not actually focused on productivity, it focuses specifically on suffering and the effort. When productivity is possible without strenuous effort, something which wasn't very common in the past (it was possible in things like art, which was consequently never valued as highly as dogged physical labor), it is viewed with suspicion and derision. Society is structured around placing high value on sacrifice and suffering as a consequence of the Protestant Work Ethic in the west. Productivity is beside the point. I believe this is one of the main reasons why the introduction of computers has resulted in skyrocketing productivity paired with frozen wages, and it will get worse. As everything was built around the idea of rewarding physical exhaustion, discomfort, strenuous effort, etc, when the majority of work is mental work which has no real outward signs of strain, it won't be rewarded. As a result, longer and longer hours will be expected, wages will not rise, and any cries for understanding by workers will be met with derision by the public at large. "It's not like you're working hard."

Working hard is valued, and should be pursued for its own value. Asking for compensation is crass and devalues your effort. Being productive without suffering or straining is not valued. It is seen as "cheating" and whatever is produced is seen as inherently less valuable. These are problematic perspectives that are causing us social problems and will continue to do so until there is a social re-evaluation of things. Until then... burnout for everybody!

"knowledge workers" generally enjoy the highest compensation of any working class in history.

Athletes and (famous) actors beat them, but they barely constitute a class.

And how does society view those people? Deserving of their compensation, and the general overall view is that they earned that money?

Well, it depends on if you want to measure based on loud critics or the compensation they are receiving.

That is, getting paid a certain salary is some sort of statement that you deserve it.

>Working hard is a shared value across all religious and ethnic backgrounds.

You'd be surprised.

And let's not even go into the ancient Greeks, and Romans, where "working hard" was for the lesser classes (not necessarily slaves), and it was not considered a great virtue. As Nietchze noted, nobility and honor were attached solely to "otium and bellum" (leisure and war).

You can work hard at war too.

"Work" in this context is not about spending effort or not, it's about the object of work and the motivation for it...

It's not exclusive to protestantism, ofcourse. But they're special in that it's an explicit way to please god.


There is a similar phenomenon inside catholicism with Opus Dei, which teaches that anyone can become a saint through labor, which is akin to prayer. Its numerary members forgo family and independency and devote themselves to just work (similar to a modern monk, but without exiting society).

Interestingly, the result is that you end up with an organization full of people with successful careers, including positions of power. As they are also quite secretive, this generates colourful conspiracy theories.

It is, however, not a value shared across time in those religious and ethnic backgrounds, and anthropology shows this. Religion tends to incorporate ideology, not just produce it. It is entirely reasonable to say that there is a "capitalist work ethic" that finds its fruition in societies with generalized commodity production. The same work ethic was not found in many more isolated countries, or those countries which resisted capital. It was not nearly as strong (and had different motivations) in feudal and slave modes of production.

It is absolutely not some kind of eternal human nature common to us all to value hard work, and it is not even an emergent phenomenon in many cultures - until, as I said, they come under the sway of capital.

>Religion tends to incorporate ideology, not just produce it.

This. Religion is basically a convenient vehicle for "lifestyle", "ethics" and "ideology", encoded in stories, symbols, and imperatives.

(Which is also why modern "atheist" phenomena like soviet communism or Californian ideology are themselves religious in nature).

Without work there is no play.

You'd be surprised...

I find that, even though you and I are probably no longer religious, such values have huge staying power.

I'll do you one better - it propagated to my, firmly catholic, country and apparently it's here to stay even though no one ever associated it with religion.

We're now among some of the most overworked nations in Europe.

Are you by any chance from Poland?

It's so frustrating that many people here work themselves to death, using up rest of their time for the time-sinks called children.

After that they have no time left for participating in the civil society, contribute to open source or otherwise make impact in their community.

Only in this forum you will find someone arguing that contributing to open source is better for society than being a good parent.

Pray tell what is the community for if not to raise children?

Respectfully, childrearing arguably has very deep impacts on the local community.

Yes, but if you are not overworked then you can use that time to take care of the children. Also, for some reason people don't use help of grandparents as often anymore.

Like they say: you're not your job, or: you're not your code, maybe we should say: you're not your children. They are important, but not everything.

NYTimes need to stop these self-help smarter living junk science articles. This article isn't helping you relax, it's helping you become a more efficient worker bee:

"daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.”

So the article is not advocating that we should relax more for our mental health or enjoyment, just that if we do relax a bit, we'll get much more done when we're not relaxing... i.e., "spend your weekends meditating so you'll be more productive during the week".

Work doesn't have to mean your fulltime job. Work can mean a side project that you're passionate about, or a side business.

When is being more efficient at anything a bad idea? If you can get your day job done in 2 hours vs 8, maybe you can argue for a raise or the ability to work from home.

>When is being more efficient at anything a bad idea?

When it drives people to stress, burnout, obsession, losing connection with family and friends, and so on...

In other words, today...

If you've efficient you shouldn't try to keep up the same hours. That's just multiplying the work you're doing by your increase in efficiency. If you work 5x as fast as everyone else, but work the same hours, you're doing 5x as much work.

I'm suggesting to work more efficient as well as work less hours. Then you have more time to spend on relaxation and the things you want to do. That is how this modern society should view work, but we don't

My point is being efficient and wanting to be efficient or being obsessed with efficiency are not the same thing.

So while already "being more efficient at anything" is not bad, the idea of "being more efficient at anything" can be a very bad idea, downright to killing people...

That is the only way to sell recreation or relaxation to Americans. Benefiting yourself or pursuing pleasure always has to be justified. I can't recall the source, but I read a long and insightful article about this specifically and the difference in viewpoint between Americans and most Europeans. It explains why some products and trends perform differently across those places despite so much else being shared.

> Benefiting yourself [...] always has to be justified.

Do we live in different Americas? Benefiting yourself is revered in America, in my experience.

I can't think of any situations where self-benefit, when not justified by claims it will make you more able to function as a worker or 'contribute to society' (aka an employer), isn't laced with implications of inherent immorality, assumptions of damaging health, etc. If food is delicious, it must be unhealthy. If an innovation makes things easier, it must be dangerous. If something is fun, it is probably addictive. If something is addictive, it is inherently immoral and bad. If you pursue pleasure, you are self-destructive.

Yes, if you take up exercise and yoga and healthy eating, that could be seen as 'benefitting yourself'.... but it is OK only because those things are cloaked suffering. They're things you don't want to do, they cause pain or discomfort and involve avoiding doing the things you would prefer to do.

I am open to a counterpoint. I might just not be thinking of something where doing something pleasurable because you care for it for your own benefit is seen as a positive, something a mother would love to hear her child is pursuing, something that would be met with people at a party saying 'good for you!' that is, at the bottom of it, just fun.

Eh. I'm lucky enough to have done plenty busy worker bee AND plenty of nothing and I have to say neither is really very satisfying.

Finding a passion project and tilting at windmills, though? Never been happier.

I've found the same, although if I have nothing to do AND have a reserve of cash I have been able to travel, try a new hobby, or do something out of the ordinary. Creativity shines in that scenario, as long as you don't have a propensity to stay in bed all day.

And I bet you didn't find your passion project while being a super busy bee.

Doing nothing is one of my top skills. Unfortunately my recruiter always tries to downplay it.

It's actually a useful skill to have for remaining in some organizations for a long time. Not everybody can sustainably do nothing.

One of the all-time great investors, Jack Bogle, often said not doing anything is intelligent investing activity.

He had a saying, "Don't just do something, stand there!"

The Italians have "Dolce Far Niente" - and the few I know and talk to on a regular basis consider it a commandment - it is like an activity.

That sounds nice. As an American, I often catch myself feeling guilty when I'm resting. Though learning more about "mindfulness" has helped me be more OK with enjoying it. But then I sometimes feel guilty for not being mindful enough more often! Go figure.

Also, not sure if your "commandment" phrasing was intentional, but it made me chuckle a bit. The concept of "observating the Sabbath" by resting seems does seem to be a bit relevant to this topic.

Mindfulness meditation is not the same as relaxation. Observing your mind and it’s responses to your days over and over can show you you aren’t resting enough and can enable you to stay calm when maybe your habit is to get worked up (tho it can also show you times you need to stay involved rather than shutting down) but it is in no way equivalent to a slow walk around a pond or playing a vid game for a whole day or sleeping late and rereading a favorite old book and then napping and then wasting a lot of time and ending up with some ice cream. Mindfulness takes a bit of effort mostly. Relaxing is stopping the effort for a bit. Both might be parts of a fulfilling life.

Yep, and we’ve been doing it for a while: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otium

The basis for one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s best rhymes!

This gentleman is seen with a maid of seventeen

A-taking of his dolce far niente

And wonders he’d achieve, for he asks us to believe

She’s his mother, and he’s nearly five-and-twenty!

— Iolanthe

Actually 'niksen' in the way we dutch use it can be used negatively. I think it's most commonly used that way 'ben je weer aan het niksen?' (parent/boss tells child/employee to go do something useful). Although sometimes people might say they are 'even lekker aan het niksen' (the pretext here is they are normally busy, so they are taking just a little while to relax while they can).

Just this summer, I read a book by Josef Pieper called "Leisure: the Basis of Culture" that is a response to what he calls the tyrannical culture of "total work". He begins the book with a bit history and a bit of etymology. For example, the word school comes from the Latin scola which in term comes from the Greek skole, both mean "leisure". Indeed, neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a word for work that wasn't the negation of a word meaning "leisure" (e.g., the Greek a-scolia and the Latin neg-otium, hyphens added for emphasis). This identification of leisure with school (as classically understood) is the source of the term "liberal arts" (artes liberales), that is, arts free from practical purpose, as opposed to the "servile work" (artes serviles). These can be related to theoria and praxis, respectively.

Pieper distinguishes leisure from idleness or amusement which, for the man of total work, are the same. Leisure is not aimed at sensual indulgence but rather contemplative, receptive encounter with the world, with being. Here he distinguishes between intellectus and ratio, or a purely receptive intellection versus discursive thinking. Man, of course, needs to work. Pieper does not deny the need and proper value of work, but he rejects the primacy of work or work for work's sake. He is drawing attention to the superiority of contemplation to work.

In any case, I recommend the book.

Back in the 70's someone made a cartoon about changing attitudes toward leisure time. It won an Oscar.


In busy lives of today, we've really forgotten the excitement of doing nothing and even look for something to do in free time and holidays/weekends. I often get conscious of this and then try doing nothing which is enjoying the present and it helps a lot and has changed my life for better.

Sometime ago I wrote a similar blog https://medium.com/@thallukrish/give-a-break-db1602db44f7

I'll just leave this here:

“How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad, that driveth oxen, and is occupied in their labours, and whose talk is of bullocks?”

~~ Ecclesiasticus 38:25

There's no need to make a case. Procrastination is my middle name. However I have rarely found it to be a useful things

Never put off 'til tomorrow that which can be forgotten about entirely.

In the workplace, priorities shift, projects get cancelled... procrastination can be an effective strategy for minimizing wasted effort.

I really agree with this. In an era where overcommitment seems to be synonymous with "work", I think people just tacitly acknowledge that not all commitments can be met. It is up to you, the employee, to correctly interpret the implied priority.

procrastination > concrastination


Switch to Firefox, go to addons.mozilla.org and install the extension NoScript. Or just go to about:config, search for "javascript.enabled" and turn it to false. Then go to the NYT page. Magic.

Seems like time for you to get a subscription! If you read it that many times, it actually provides value for you.

I've considered it.

Off topic, but I have subscribed to the NY Times. I still have a problem with the newspaper tracking my reading habits, and thus object to having to log in to the paywall. At least I can read the print newspaper without being observed.

They could still fingerprint your browser and easily track you even if you read each public page in a new Incognito session. Combining that data with logs from other sites where you did provide your details and they (or any of the 100 trackers popular sites share visitor data with) will also have your name and details. Unless you're using something like Tor and a clean browser, that battle is already lost.

If you're unhappy with NYT, consider their mainstream-educated-conservative counterpart, WSJ. NYT had a porous paywall for a long time, intentionally. WSJ has always been on lock-down. In both cases, it's a strategy, not do-goodery, but regardless NYT is no bad actor in this area.

> If you're unhappy with NYT, consider their mainstream-educated-conservative counterpart, WSJ.

As if there's a major difference between the two papers. They both hire from exactly the same schools and cocktail parties and there's not much tangible difference between the two papers—maybe slightly different opinion column headlines.

I believe OP meant, "consider [the paywall strategy of] their mainstream-educated-conservative counterpart, WSJ" - not "consider [switching to] ... WSJ" - as he/she continued with a comparison of the hard vs. soft paywall employed by each.

I really wish HN had an option to filter all paywalled links. HN should link to the open internet.

I am not against paywalls in general (I subscribe to The Economist), but HN becomes much less useful if 60% of links on the front page are to content I cannot read. And no, I will not subscribe to 5 or 6 newspapers, that makes no sense at all.

This discussion is being sidetracked into a discussion of morality of paywalls. I am perfectly fine with paywalls, I'd just like an option to not see all the links to content that is inaccessible to me.

I’d rather see them, so I can decide if it might be worth subscribing.

Sure, that's why I wrote "an option".

But I know I won't be subscribing to any mainstream news site other than The Economist, so many of HN's links are non-existent for me.

Just be quick on the "Stop Loading" button. If the JavaScript never loads, neither will the paywall.

Or prepend "outline.com/" to the full URL.

I feel there must be a filter on Hacker News that allows us to hide all content behind paywalls. Or to block content from a certain domain from appearing on our feed. That will stop us from complaining. I don't live in the US and I am not about to subscribe to a US-based newspaper just to read one article per month. Telling us to just subscribe won't work. There are millions of newspapers around the world. We can't subscribe to all of them. Even to 10% of them.

Perhaps consider paying for NYT? I think if you're frequenting the site enough to be getting paywall warnings, then you're probably someone who is interested in their journalism.

Personally, I’d be happy with the free monthly quota they offer. Unfortunately, I get charged for one of those views whenever I load a NYT page even if I didn’t realize that’s where a link would send me.

They (and other similar paywalls) have generated an asset that gets spent automatically by clicking on a normal web link, which has made me be much more self-conscious about every move I make on the web. This materially degrades my experience everywhere on the web. What happened to the idea that a GET request should not have permanent repercussions?

Personally, I'm just there to see what makes the link on HN so interesting. I don't seek out articles on paywalled sites directly. When I stumble into a paywall, I just close the tab and look at other headlines on HN.

Can someone explain to me why paywalled journalistic quality content has become societally unacceptable?

Do you work for free? Do you pirate your software?

There are so many other free outlets of information. But quality journalism (although admittedly not always perfect) has its price.

Pompous boring filler in the house style?[1] Yawn, no thanks. As you say, there are plenty of free outlets of information. What more explanation do you need?

“Quality journalism” has its price, and the market doesn’t want to pay for it.

Quality software has its price too, but the market prefers Linux. Wait, are you associating “free” with “low quality” or am I? Who can tell with quality these days. One thing’s for sure, it’s a difficult issue.

[1] The text equivalent of Charlie Brooker's "How to report the news" segment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHun58mz3vI

I have had a (paper) subscription to this and other quality news papers, but in my experience most of the content is news, opinion, sport / entertainment / culture, or advertisements / infotainment, and only a very small part I would consider to have journalistic depth. I would not mind paying for those articles, and I would even prefer they would extend these articles to a substantial read (say 1/3 the size of an average novel). However, somehow, newspapers keep holding on to the news paper model that exists since the late 19th century.

There's only a paragraph's worth of information in many stories, or there's just a cutesy headline and a momentary desire to find out what the story is about. Here it's 'procrastination is kinda good actually.' Big whoop.

Yes to both of your other questions.

Totally valid point.

Perhaps your questions are more general, but I'll speak for myself.

I don't consider paywalling quality journalistic content socially unacceptable. I consider dropping a link on a free discussion board to a site with a paywall to be beyond obnoxious (but not quite to 'unacceptable.')

I often work for free, but not always. I often pirate software, but not always. I pirate software when I can't get a trial; I've seldom found reason to continue using pirated software and thus don't pay for it. Software with trials (much like paywalled sites with a limited number of free articles each month) let me sample without cost and are indeed more likely to get me to pay.

As I said, I don't seek out paywalled content- I'm not visiting the NYT daily trying to find a way around the paywall so I don't have to pay. I don't subscribe and pay for these things because it's not a part of my life. I get news and opinions and entertainment from other sources, only as sporadically as my curiosity piques, and usually because it's in some public place (TV on in the lobby, newspaper on the security desk, etc.)

Quality journalism does have its price. As does poor quality journalism - they paywall both. But I can't be bothered to throw money at them so that I can learn who actually provides quality content ... because it's not a part of my life, nor do I want it to be. See sibling comments on content quality.

By themselves, paywalls are the very definition of "fair": you offer what you think is a valuable service and would like to be paid for it. That's fair. You're free to ask, I'm free to not read your stuff if I don't want to pay.

What makes linking to paywalls unacceptable is that links are not marked with a "paywall" tag of some sort. So it ends up being bait and switch and a waste of time.

Regarding subscriptions: I'm just not going to separately subscribe to three dozen news sources I regularly read, I'm sorry.

I would gladly pay per article, but unfortunately that is not an option.

I only see it considered unacceptable on Hacker News.

I find that letting search engines index your content and then paywalling it an unfair practice. The linked article, for example, is entirely googlable but not readable (try to google a phrase from the bottom of the article). Let alone it's against Google's policies.

There should be no distinction who's looking, with the only exception being paying vs. non-paying clients.

Starting with not reading that paywalled article.

Keeping busy?

Running from place to place and laboring over long to-do lists have increasingly become ways to communicate status: I’m so busy because I’m just so important, the thinking goes.

Perhaps it’s time to stop all this busyness. Being busy — if we even are busy — is rarely the status indicator we’ve come to believe it is. Nonetheless, the impact is real, and instances of burnout, anxiety disorders and stress-related diseases are on the rise, not to mention millennial burnout.

There’s a way out of that madness, and it’s not more mindfulness, exercise or a healthy diet (though these things are all still important). What we’re talking about is … doing nothing. Or, as the Dutch call it, niksen. What is niksen?

It’s difficult to define what doing nothing is, because we are always doing something, even when we’re asleep.

Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist who studies boredom and wrote the book “Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World,” likens niksen to a car whose engine is running but isn’t going anywhere.

“The way I think about boredom is coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be,” she said.

Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, added that niksen can be “when we’re not doing the things we should be doing. Because perhaps we don’t want to, we’re not motivated. Instead, we’re not doing very much.”

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

We at Smarter Living have long been fans of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity.

In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out. Editors’ Picks Giuliani Divorce: It’s Ugly, It’s Operatic. What Did You Expect? Dior Finally Says No to Sauvage One in Four of New York’s New Luxury Apartments Is Unsold Why we need niksen in our lives

Generally speaking, our culture does not promote sitting still, and that can have wide-reaching consequences for our mental health, well-being, productivity and other areas of our lives. Technology doesn’t make it any easier: The smartphone you carry with you at all hours makes it almost impossible to truly unplug and embrace idleness. And by keeping ourselves busy at all times, we may be losing our ability to sit still because our brains are actually being rewired.

Indeed, the benefits of idleness can be wide-ranging.

Ms. Mann’s research has found that daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” For that to happen, though, total idleness is required.

“Let the mind search for its own stimulation,” Ms. Mann said. “That’s when you get the daydreaming and mind wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity.”

[Like what you’re reading? Sign up here for the Smarter Living newsletter to get stories like this (and much more!) delivered straight to your inbox every Monday morning.]

Counterintuitively, idleness can be a great productivity tool because “if our energy is totally shot, our productivity is not going to be good because we’re not going to have fuel to burn with which to be productive,” said Chris Bailey, a productivity expert and author of the blog “A Life of Productivity.”

Niksen can help you solve problems as well.

“It takes you out of your mind, and then you see things clearly after a while,” said Manfred Kets de Vries, a professor of leadership development and organizational change at Insead in Paris.

But stopping the cycle of business can be challenging in a culture that prizes getting things done. Here are some tips to help you stop and be: Make time for doing nothing, and do it with purpose.

Figure out when you’re most productive and creative, then notice when your mind starts to shut off or you start performing tasks just for the sake of doing them, Mr. Bailey suggests. That’s when you should go for a walk or take a break. The intention behind the decision is what counts.

“I do nothing with purpose,” Mr. Kets de Vries said. “I know that without breaks I cannot be effective.”

Prioritize the things that are important to you and the things that bring you pleasure, and outsource everything else when possible. Focusing on the truly relevant parts of life can help you build free time in your schedule. And take advantage of convenient opportunities to practice idleness, like when you’re standing in line or waiting for the children to come home from school. Resist the culture of busyness.

If you’re doing nothing, own it. When someone asks you what you’re doing during a nothing break, simply respond, “Nothing.” Be unapologetic about taking breaks or holidays, and if you start to feel guilty about being seen as lazy, think of niksen not as a sign of laziness but as an important life skill. Choose the initial discomfort of niksen over the familiarity of busyness. Manage your expectations.

Learning takes time and effort, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t catch on immediately to the benefits of idleness. Know that sitting still might actually be uncomfortable at first and might take practice — just like exercise.

Ms. Dodgen-Magee likens it to beginning a new workout routine: At first, you might get sore, but “after a while, you’ll find yourself in this moment where you’re like, ‘Oh, this feels fantastic.’” Reorganize your environment.

Your surroundings can have a major impact on how much nothingness you can embrace, so consider the physical space in your home and workplace. Keep your devices out of reach so that they’ll be more difficult to access, and turn your home into a niksen-friendly area. Add a soft couch, a comfy armchair, a few cushions or just a blanket. Orient furniture around a window or fireplace rather than a TV.

“If those spaces are present, people will use them,” Ms. Dodgen-Magee said. Think outside of the box.

If you can’t sit still in your home or workplace, go to the park or book a relaxing day at the spa. Ms. Dodgen-Magee encourages people to host boredom parties, during which a host invites over a few friends to … be bored together.

Mr. Bailey suggests experimenting with different lifestyles to find the right one for you. For example, he lived like a slob for a week and learned that it’s important to “let the air out of the tires” once in a while.

If you’re still uncomfortable with the idea of doing nothing, try to trick your mind into thinking you’re being productive. Ms. Dodgen-Magee suggests using open-end toys such as kinetic sand, Baoding balls or marble runs.

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