The National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit group concerned about Americans' increased working hours and attendant sleep deprivation, believes that overwork ultimately makes us less efficient. Its researchers have estimated the cost of lost productivity in the workplace due to sleepiness at $18 billion. One solution they endorse is napping on the job, which studies have shown restores short-term alertness and enhances concentration and memory. Unfortunately, this idea has yet to catch on in most corporate cultures.
Other researchers have found that relaxing, in judicious doses, is good for us. James A. Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke, says learning to relax is "an active, not a passive, process." This makes relaxation sound like hard work, which appeals to my Protestant ethic. Doing nothing might now move somewhere near the top of my to-do list, and I'll feel that I'm being irresponsible if I don't make time for it. A relaxation regimen, according to Blumenthal, should include "a mental device"—like meditation or a contemplative walk—"a passive attitude, reduced muscle tone, a quiet environment, and regular practice." The physiological benefits—which include reductions in heart rate and blood pressure, less secretion of catecholamines (stress hormones), and slower respiration—seem to outweigh the tedium.
But to a genuine layabout like my husband, Blumenthal's regimen involves too much deep breathing and not enough snacking. Anyone can meditate, but being a truly accomplished slouch requires learning to waste an entire day eating bonbons and watching reruns. Only after hitting rock bottom can the slouch rebound and get back to work with renewed motivation.
The burst of enthusiasm that follows a fallow stretch might arguably have fueled the creative process of someone like Tolstoy, who suffered from long bouts of what's now called writer's block when he wasn't producing War and Peace. Marinoff points out that the distraction of uninterrupted busywork (as opposed to genuine creativity or communion with the universe) may prevent us from doing any one thing truly well. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own, "It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top." If, however, dredging up submerged truths sounds like too much work, James Thurber's advice is equally serviceable and goes one step further, exemplifying the profound beauty of laziness for its own sake. He wrote: "It is better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all."
Amy Finnerty has written for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Magazine.
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