Idle Theory The Value of Idle Time

Some people treasure their idle hours as a time of reflection or meditation or calm quietude.

But for many people - perhaps even most people - idle time is not something highly valued. They like to have some leisure or idle time. But they do not see it as uniquely valuable. It is just one of many things that they want. Perhaps as a breathing space between completing one activity and starting on another.

Many people like to live busy lives, doing as many things as they possibly can, in a full schedule of activities. To such people, a life seems fulfilled to the extent that it is busy. The good life is the active, full life, and one into which the maximum of experience is compressed, with never a dull moment.

Idle time is, in many ways, a rather dull thing. It is an empty container. What is interesting is what it contains. Which may be a conversation, a movie, chapters from a book, a walk in the country, a game of cards, a dinner party. On its own, idle time is like an empty cup or a blank sheet of paper.

Or else idle time is like water. Hardly anybody desires water in itself. They instead want it for the thousands of uses there are for it. In an ordinary household, a supply of water is used in countless ways. Every kitchen has a water supply, for use in preparing food and drink, washing dishes, cleaning surfaces. Every bathroom has a washbasin and bath or shower with hot and cold water taps. Every toilet has a flush cistern. In a house with central heating, hot water may be piped to radiators in every room. And water is also piped to washing machines. And also to lakes and pools and fountains. And it is sprinkled from hoses and watering cans onto plants. And it is gathered from gutters and downpipes. It is drawn up from wells. The human body is said to be 90% composed of water. And so are plants and animals. The surface of the Earth is mostly covered in water. Water is both valueless and invaluable. People may not much want water for itself - but cut off the supply of water to a house, and its kitchens and bathrooms and toilets would become useless, everything would get dirty as they remained unwashed, and plants and fish would die, and so also in turn would the occupants of the house.

Idle time is like this water. In itself its not a very interesting thing. It is what idle time is used to do that is interesting, in exactly the same way that boiled water on tea leaves or coffee beans makes a refreshing drink. The difference is that, while water has thousands of uses, idle time has an infinite number of uses. For anything that anyone ever wants to do is done using idle time. Reading a book requires idle time. Watching television requires idle time. Having a conversation requires idle time. Daydreaming requires idle time. Going for a walk requires idle time. Whatever anyone wants to do requires idle time, because 'doing' anything takes time. And so people who don't much like idle time for its own sake, but who enjoy the infinity of uses to which it can be put, should take care to ensure that they have plenty of idle time, just like a householder who has no liking for water should ensure that that he has a good supply of it all the same.

And if water is transparent and tasteless and odourless, all the more so is idle time. Because it is not an object or thing like water. It is more like the medium in which we dwell, like fish in a river, and whose currents measure our lives unnoticeably.

Water becomes valuable when it is short. It is most notable when it is absent. And the same also is true of idle time. In the absence of idle time, life becomes busy, frenetic, rushed, hectic. For the opposite of idleness is busyness.

We divide water into two sorts. On the one hand clean, fresh water. And on the other hand dirty waste water, which is what remains once water has been used for one purpose or other. The two are kept separate, so as to prevent the clean water becoming polluted water.

The Rosy Vision of Perfect Idleness

People tend to think that all their days are made up of idle time. But that is wishful thinking. It's a rosy view of life. It's an ideal life. Living creatures have to work to stay alive, and the work they do is subtracted from their idle time. Or their idle time is what is left over when their necessary self-maintenance work has been done. Living things have to work to make time for themselves. And the work that they do usually entails constraint to some very particular activity. The baker who earns his living by by baking bread will spend much of his days mixing and kneading dough, and baking it in ovens, and storing it piles, wrapping it in paper. He must do this each day, every day of his life, simply to carry on living for another day. This work always requires concentration upon one set of activities, and a continual refusal to be drawn into doing something else. The baker may chat to other people as he works, or listen to a radio, but if he spends too long in these diversions, he will have to make up the lost time later.

The idea that all time is idle time, undifferentiated from busy, concentrated work time, results in idle time not being seen as a scarce resource, and not being managed as a scarce resource. If all time is regarded as idle time, it cannot be added to or subtracted from. It is just there, available at a constant rate, like water flowing from a tap. For such people, it appears that everyone has all the time in the world. That there are great oceans of time available to everyone. And coming by idle time is not a problematic matter. In a world in which water is ubiquitous and abundant, there is no need to manage it, or store it in lakes or cisterns or jugs, or divert it through pipes or channels, or raise it with pumps.

We make a distinction between pure, fresh, clean water and dirty soil or waste water. In a household, the water is delivered clean and pure at the main, and it is dirtied in its uses, with flavourings and soap and detergent and food and dust and excrement. And the clean fresh water is kept separate from the dirty water. Yet we fail to make the same distinction between idle and busy time.

If modern life seems to be getting more and more hectic, rushed, non-stop hurried, it is because we don't manage our time like we manage water, and we actually are getting busier and busier, and so poorer an poorer. Unmanaged, busy working time is always likely to outgrow idle time. It is much easier for life to become busier than it is for it to become idler. For every way that there can be found to make life easier, there are ten thousand ways of making it harder. There is only one way to make a useful porcelain jug, but there are countless ways of breaking it.

Measuring Idleness

In modern life we don't distinguish between busy and idle time because we think that all time is idle time. Or nearly all of it. So we keep no tally. Maybe only when we have begun to run low on idle time, we will start to measure it and conserve it. By then we may be at the brink of death. For when life is completely busy, and there is no idle time, then very likely more daily work is needed than there are hours in a day.

We ought to have at least a rough idea of how idle we are, how idle is the society within which we live. The shops in our streets are filled with all sorts of luxuries - fashionable clothes and TVs and greeting cards and chocolates -, and these suggest high idleness, because it is only in idle time that such luxuries can be manufactured. But everyone seems very busy, working all day, often overtime. And that suggests low idleness. And as life gets ever more hectic, it suggests that idleness is falling.

The idleness of a society is an important measure of how well it fares. It gives a measure of how hard a society has to work in order to survive. In a benign climate, and in the best of all possible worlds, idleness may often be close to 100% idleness. But idleness can quite rapidly fall to zero idleness in an only slightly less benign circumstance, and bring extinction.

How can idleness be measured? How can we distinguish necessary from unnecessary activities. When we are busy we are making idle time for ourselves, and when we are idle we are using up idle time. One way, perhaps, of measuring idleness is to see what happens when something is not done. If some activity is superfluous, and simply uses up idle time, then ceasing doing it will produce more idle time. But if an activity makes idle time, then ceasing doing it will reduce idleness. In this manner, by trial and error, we might gradually discover our true degree of idleness. It would entail a kind of puritan disdain for luxury of every sort. But this particular sort of puritan would see no particular virtue in self-denial. He would undertake the journey as a scientist who was trying to measure something. At at the end of it he would come up with a figure - idleness = 71.3% -. And once he had discovered this, he would know that, if he loved dancing, that he could spend 71.3% of his days dancing, and not a minute more. And once he had measured idleness, he would revert to a more hedonistic lifestyle, much like a researcher who visits the North Pole to measure its temperature would return to his California home.

But perhaps we already know what activities are necessary work and which are unnecessary pleasures. We might know that a visit to a tavern to drink a few pints of beer, to smoke a pipe, and to chat amicably with acquaintances about the weather, setting the world to rights, is something entirely unnecessary and superfluous. Or so it would seem.

We might know in advance that a holiday in some foreign country is an unnecessary extravagance. Or even a trip to a beach. Or a walk in the hills. These sorts of outings simply use up idle time, do they not?

And is it really necessary to wash and shave each day? Or dress as fickle fashion demands? Is it necessary to wear clothes at all?

Jogging and the weight-training in the gym would have to go. If anything, it is more dangerous than smoking and drinking to continually stress the body to its limits. Pull on a branch enough times, and it will one day break. The same would apply games of football and rugby and golf.

And perhaps gourmet dinners would be replaced with bread and water, and all books and magazines and radios and TVs and computers disposed of. Do we need furniture? Do we need plates and knives and forks? Do we need a house with more than one room? Might a tent suffice?

The puritan is someone who perhaps knows what is unnecessary or not by how pleasurable it is. For in idle time we are able to do as we please, do as we like, and so idle time is always inherently pleasurable. Perhaps the puritan who strips all pleasure from his life is able to better measure his own idleness. But is not the hedonist who does exactly what he likes equally able to measure his idleness, by stripping out joyless work?

The division of the week into six busy working days and one idle sabbath day is perhaps the relic of a time when social idleness was measured by strictly separating idle time from busy working time. Starting on one particular day, people would busy themselves doing the work that was needed to sustain themselves for seven or ten or twelve days, and would cease work when it had all been done, and spend the remainder of the the allotted period in idleness. It would have been forbidden to be idle on any working day of the week, but it would have been forbidden to work on the idle sabbath days. If this rule was broken, and busyness mixed with pleasure, the measure would become inaccurate. And perhaps, when one person had finished his allotted week's tasks, he would go to help finish the work of someone whose tasks were taking longer than expected. In this manner, all work would cease at the same moment for everyone, and all would enjoy a sabbath of the same duration. Using this measure, a busy community would be able to gauge its true idleness, and so its relative prosperity and security. The sabbath period would not have been of fixed duration. In hard times, the sabbath might dwindle to hardly any time at all. And in easy times it would have expanded to fill much of the working week. To fix idleness at one day in seven - 14.28% - would have been to defeat the purpose of measurement. It may be that, as social idleness increased, it ceased to seem necessary to measure abundance carefully, and the institution fell into disuse and ruin.

There may be other explanations for the sabbath, of course. It may have been that it was introduced to ensure a minimum of leisure for the busiest of people, such as slaves.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: May 2009