My mind is racing; I am in a state perpetual list writing. A weary business traveller on the red eye, it is Monday morning and I am delayed on a flight from Manchester to Norwich, with a full day ahead of me knowing that this delay is going to throw the day, nay the week, out. I am tense, I feel it, it is almost tangible and I know my fellow passengers are feeling it too. They shuffle uncomfortably in their seats and they ooze the stress of the Monday morning commute. As I observe their behaviour, my stress was also clear for them to see. The actions of someone who needed to be somewhere and was stuck, acutely aware of the consequence of what was before them, my blackberry winking angrily at me from my lap. Trying to relax, but the very idea is almost absurd. A delayed plane is the ideal time to sit and think, to be, a time for reflection and, put simply, to do absolutely nothing… but this was something that evaded me, try as I might.

In a previous blog, Sophie reflected on the time she spent thinking with her hands, proactively making something that has a function or purpose that brought body and mind together. These seemingly unassuming, yet highly valuable tasks, offered room for thought and growth, a space to think, offering to the person undertaking the task a great sense of purpose.

I can entirely understand Sophie’s viewpoint, I crave the reflective pleasure of being at one with the world and oneself. However, modern living is not geared up to work this way, the technological advancements have seen us be able to work faster, to be constantly available even if we are on holiday 3000 miles away our employers and friends require us to be present 24/7. So, when I read the musing of our floppy haired, bumbling Mayor of London, Boris Johnson about the slothful behaviour of the average Britain, I was keen to hear more about his rationale. After all, the concept of being slothful was not how I experienced modern society – far from it. In his weekly column in The Telegraph he is quoted as saying:

This country’s workers are plagued by “sloth” and under-perform compared with their foreign rivals“.

Inflammatory, yes and written to provoke a reaction, which he certainly got from political commentators who had seized upon his idea that we are indeed slothful! Owen Jones, columnist writing recently in The Independent said:

You have to wonder at our lack of self-respect: where is the outrage of overworked, underpaid workers at being smeared by a millionaire who is paid £250,000 a year for cobbling a newspaper column together.”

My reaction was not as fierce as Jones but I did think, how dare he? I was keen to defend my position, to say that I was busy, proud to be working such long hours, proving the hapless Boris wrong. But on reflection, when I think back to the plane, to the fear that gripped me, the thought of being late or letting someone down was palpable,  I wondered who was I really letting down? Why was I so keen to be gainfully employed? Why, in modern culture, are we so against the art of reflection, why is doing valued over being? I wanted to explore these cultural phenomena more.

Will Self, speaking in 1993 said

There is a cultural taboo against thinking in England because of the Protestant work ethic, which demands that people shouldnt be idle.”

The reason for this might be multiple. It could be due to the current economic crisis, it may be that we feel more focused with a greater sense of purpose if we are busy, or perhaps modern HR practices are designed to measure output rather other, softer aspects of being? After all, you can’t say in your annual review meeting, “honestly boss I haven’t done much this year, but I have spent the time thinking about a great idea that will revolutionise this business“. I don’t think it will cut the mustard do you?

Engaging with ‘Work’

The average UK worker works 42.7 hours compares with 41.6 across the EU. I wonder, how many of those hours are we are actually fully engaged and immersed in our roles and completely productive? Germany is more productive per hour worked based on GDP than the UK despite working fewer hours. Whilst I don’t believe money is the only measure, it must stand for something? Are we all just busy fools?

The Japanese work ethic means that sleeping on the job or inemuri is a cultural norm, tiredness is seen as a sign of hard work. Whilst researching this piece I came across a British expat’s experience of management in China. Every Monday, this hard working professional would prepare a presentation to review the preceding week for his superiors. Each Monday morning he would walk into the office in central China and would start his presentation, as he did every week, with power and enthusiasm. And every Monday morning he would be greeted by his boss sleeping through the entire thing. At first he found it absurd: how can he possibly understand what is going on in this business if he sleeps through the entire thing? Then he realised that this was trust in action, his boss knew that the job would be done, and well, so it didn’t matter to him if he listened – being idle was more important. Valve, an American based video game development and distribution company, have no hierarchy, no managers, no objectives and people can chose where to sit or what they want to work on. Their philosophy is a belief that a relaxed environment ensures creativity and that time spent at work can be focused and productive.

But what do we really make of the idea of the sloth to which Boris refers? Why is the idea so abhorrent? Why is the idea of stillness so difficult to understand, moreover so culturally unacceptable?

The Age of The Idler

In a recent article charting the last 20 years of The Idler magazine, an annual periodical exploring alternatives to the work ethic and promoting freedom, one of the founders, Tom Hodgkinson, described the inspiration for the philosophy of The Idler as being a series of essays by Dr Johnson published as weekly columns in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1758 and 1759. Johnson’s focus was the sloth and said: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an idler.” The article looked back on the interviews undertaken with writers, artists, and philosophers about the art of being lazy, about doing nothing in order to be productive. Damien Hirst, Will Self, Zadie Smith all commented on how being being idle was fundamental to their creative process. John Cooper Clarke, performance poet, November 1996 said, in an interview with The Idler’s founder:

“Me and idleness go way back. I’ve had a few jobs, but if you want to be a writer, you’re better off getting a job that doesn’t require that you do anything. There used to be a lot of those jobs around. The best one I had was as a fire-watcher on Plymouth docks. I had to be there, but once I was there, there was nothing to do. It’s ideal because you’re not surrounded by distractions of your own It’s a lot easier to write under those circumstances than it is when you’re a completely free man”.

Will Self in speaking to The Idler in 1993 is quoted as saying:

“I am genuinely idle. But I’m highly disciplined. I do nothing and then I do something. It’s taken years of investigating idleness in all its forms to be able to achieve this.”

John Steinback, author of The Grapes of Wrath, took 6 years to fail his degree at Stanford University before taking a series of manual jobs. It was whilst he was working as a caretaker that he wrote his first novel, Cup of Gold.

All highly successful and self-confessed idlers. The idea that being alone with one own thoughts can create a space to be entirely consumed and productive is an interesting concept, although not everyone will agree. Why is it that, as Will Self put it, thinking is taboo? Is it the KPI’s we are working towards, is it our sense of value that we bring to the world necessitating that we need to be busy?

Sloth and freedom of thought?

We have all been in situations where we have craved the simplicity of a job at the supermarket checkout, or sweeping the streets, which brings to mind Adrian Mole (aged 13 ¾) who wanted to empty the bins of Ashby-De la Zouch whilst reading Kafka to the masses to broaden their minds.

This approach facilitates the creative process and thinking. So perhaps we need to be a little more sloth like? Our bodies get tired and we can make mistakes. We cannot work for long hours and maintain productivity, we need to rest and relax to face another day. Perhaps we are already doing this and Boris doesn’t like it?

So when you have deadlines looming, you are feeling the pressure and you have no time to think, ask yourself what would Will Self do? He’s probably trying to teach Boris the art of idleness.

Debs Barker


Quitting the EU won’t solve our problems” by Boris Johnson in The Telegraph

The Idler magazine

Busy doing nothing: Ten years of The Idler’s interviews with outstanding bohemians” in The Independent (if the link doesn’t work, please search on the title)