My husband, a journalist, has been known to turn entire weekends into orgies of repose, changing out of his bathrobe only at a minute past six on a Saturday, when one can respectably initiate the cocktail hour. This despite the fact that he works under a daily deadline. He knows how to procrastinate effectively, and with style. Sleeping, watching TV, eating, and generally being good to himself are all part of the creative process, he insists. "I have to allow time for an idea to gestate," he says, "and let the guilt over the deadline build up steam, and then the piece just spills forth and writes itself."
What he's doing, when he's doing nothing, is letting the universe manipulate him, according to Lou Marinoff, a philosopher and the founding president of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. My fellow deadline slaves and I, on the other hand, are forever trying to manipulate the universe, fussing over details and imagining the sky will fall if we sit still. Marinoff is the author of Plato, Not Prozac!, which promotes a philosophical approach to modern pressures, prescribing the wisdom of the ages as an alternative to, say, tranquilizers and self-help guides. Over the phone recently, he assures me that my husband's idleness and procrastination are grounded in a venerable Eastern tradition. "Chinese philosophy—the I Ching, for example—is full of advice about the natural order of the universe and the correct timing of actions," he says. "Indian philosophy also gives equal weight to the paths of action and inaction." The right timing, he explains, can be just as productive as effort and sweat: "Sometimes we fulfill our responsibility not by acting but by doing nothing."
My children seem to understand this maxim intuitively when, after a forced march of museum visits or a spurt of housekeeping, they implore, "We just want to be with you." I remind myself to stop and listen to their meandering, fascinating stories. Kids are surprisingly adept at doing nothing, and the most rewarding exchanges with them usually unfold during unscheduled moments—in the supermarket line or when they pile into our bed on Sunday mornings.
But languor doesn't come naturally to me. My own hyperactive approach is informed by the unglamorous and less worthy-sounding "time is money" ethos—the one that begat the Industrial Revolution and the TV dinner. I'd do well, Marinoff advises, to remember that time is our most valuable resource and that no amount of money will buy more of it. "If you never let your children out of your sight, never miss a deadline, and try to be on top of everything all the time," he says, "you're doing more harm than good." He suggests a therapeutic technique: "Think about one of the many things that you're worried about, that you think you have to do, and try just not doing it. And see if the world comes to an end."
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.
When You're Done Procrastinating, and Ready to Get Started