The Paradoxical Power of Idleness

In 1935, the influential British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled “In Praise of Idleness.” In it, he extolled the virtues of relaxation and leisure even in the face of withering pressure to push your body and mind to their limits.

Russell proclaimed that working four hours per day is not only feasible economically, but that it would “guarantee happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia.”

While I can’t speak to his claim about excess work causing dyspepsia (indigestion), the bulk of his thesis rings true. It’s time we start embracing the notion that idleness can spark creativity, improve efficiency, and even boost our health.

Idleness and Ideas

Many of us have experienced a flash of insight when we least expected it. Just recently, I thought of a way to unknot a frustrating work problem while relaxing on my couch. I wasn’t racking my brain at the time. It just sort of happened.

But there are more impressive examples of people having profound creative breakthroughs while on their downtime. For instance, NASA scientist Jim Crocker had a key insight into the design of the Hubble space telescope while in the shower.

Researchers even have a pet phrase for this kind of downtime-related epiphany. “In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs — for the bathtub, the bed, and the bus — places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged,” Keith Sawyer, author and professor of education at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, told Time. “When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another.”

If you’re trying to work your way through a tough problem, idleness can be a crucial ally.

As Russell put it, “The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.” The key is to truly let your mind wander. Then, if you’re lucky, the insights will follow.

If multiple brainstorming sessions haven’t led you to a breakthrough on your problem, what you might really need is a soak in the tub.

Idleness and Productivity

Even though the four-hour workday is still a pipe dream, people are starting to realize that building some idleness into the day can have positive effects.

A study from the Boston Consulting Group showed that when they forced their employees to take more breaks, productivity went up. A similar study out of Cornell concluded that worker efficiency significantly increased when a computer program reminded the workers to stop and take breaks. Anyone who has ever felt mentally recharged after getting some fresh air knows intuitively that these studies make sense.

Furthermore, author and economist Nassim Taleb makes a compelling case in his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” that idleness played a big role in ushering in the Industrial Revolution. He points out that many key inventions, such as the power loom, were made not by professional machinists, but by amateurs. These were the people who had enough free time to try audacious projects without the fear that failure would cost them their livelihood.

Ironically, America’s “work til’ you drop” culture could be holding back American production. As Russel so eloquently put it, “In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it.” Sure, some people would simply golf or goof off with extra downtime, but plenty of others would have more time to pursue their ideas and passions. Who knows, maybe the cumulative effect of all those curious people could propel us into the next phase of economic development.

Idleness and Health

Russell did not imagine that increased leisure time would lead to more laziness. On the contrary, he felt that idleness would encourage more self-expression. He mourned the loss of play, saying, “There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency.” This loss, in his eyes, makes us weaker economically, physically, and spiritually.

Modern science backs up Russell’s intuition. Numerous studies now show that play is as beneficial for adults as it is for kids. Playing, whether that’s tossing a football, playing cards, or using coloring books, reduces stress and contributes to overall well being.

Beyond just forcing us to miss out on the benefits of downtime, long hours in the office have demonstrated negative effects all their own. Working 55-hour weeks increases the risk of heart disease and stroke and can lead to diabetes and depression. And, if that work is performed sitting at a desk, it can significantly increase your overall chance of dying from any cause. Long work weeks are the anti-fountain of youth, and we should be doing everything in our power to reduce their length.

Idleness Ain’t Easy

Productivity guru Tim Ferris wrote a book called “The 4-Hour Workweek,” which became a bestseller. The book encouraged people to construct their lives to maximize output while minimizing effort. As the title implies, parts of it are like Russell’s ideas on steroids.

Yet, Ferris found that living up to his own advice in the modern era (and as he grew more successful) was easier said than done. He has admitted that he’s nowhere near that ideal four-hour workweek, at one point drinking 10 cups of coffee per day to keep up with his workload while experiencing major stress and anxiety.

In an era where it’s not uncommon for people to work 60 or more hours per week, it’s as difficult as ever to take a step back. Which begs the question: When even famous authors who write extensively about the joys of working less end up as workaholics, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Thankfully, there are many things you can do to build a more healthy work-life balance. For instance, my productivity goes way up when I’m vigilant about organizing my schedule so that I can take afternoon walks. I also find I’m more productive overall when I get involved in projects or activities outside of work, like sports leagues. The key is to take the time to figure out what’s really important to you, and then do your best to prioritize those things above all else.

Whatever tools you use, remember that your leisure time is precious and that you are more than your job.

Summing Up

Bertrand Russell believed that “four hours’ work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit.” If that was the case 83 years ago, well, I think it’s fair to say it’s even truer today.

Amazingly, both science and intuition support Russell’s call to (in)action, and it seems in the near future society might finally stop thinking that “idle” and “lazy” are synonyms.

Russell also notes that “without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things.” I couldn’t agree more. Now, I’m off to go play.

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Drew Housman


Drew is a former professional basketball player and a Harvard graduate. He is passionate about writing content that empowers people to improve their careers, save more money, and achieve financial independence. His writing has been featured on MarketWatch, Business Insider, and ESPN.