Strategic idleness, and why busyness is more problematic than laziness

My first idea for this post was to write about laziness, and how to work around it. I don’t like it, I don’t like feeling it, and I don’t like using it as an excuse. I wanted to explain that I think it has more to do with how I set up my environment, than with me as a human being…

But then, I realised I had it all backwards.

In thinking about this a bit more, I realised that my problem isn’t with laziness. You see, the thing I actually suck at – the thing I actually have a toxic relationship with – is busyness.

Firstly, ‘busyness’ is a complex topic. It can be looked at through many different lenses – psychology, anthropology, biology, etc. – and we could go into a full-blown research paper, untangling all the things that it influences, and that influence it.

In this post, however, I want to use a more sociological lens: I want to see why laziness and busyness are so meshed together in the first place, what that means for us, and how I think about strategic idleness in my day-to-day.

In my opinion, ‘feeling lazy’ is just an expression of ‘needing to feel busy’ – and by changing my relationship to busyness, I can start using idleness as an advantage as opposed to a blocker.

What I’d like you to get out of this post:

  • See the impact that our ‘culture of being busy’ has had on how we treat idleness (and why that’s a meh thing)
  • Understand that laziness is actually about the stuff that’s keeping you busy
  • A few practical ideas for changing your relationship to busyness, and using strategic idleness to your advantage


We live in a world where motion is synonymous with progress, and progress is synonymous with success. This means our lives are run by the idea that, in order to be successful, we always need to be doing stuff, and always need to be spending that time productively.

Society has conflated the idea of busyness with how we perceive productivity: The world we live in tells us that people who are always doing things are driven and motivated (*remember this word for later), and those who sit at home, or simply aren’t as busy, are lazy (*remember this word too).

Busyness and productivity are so entangled that I even go as far as to beat myself up when I’m not doing things, or even think I need to justify to myself (or someone else) when I’m not in constant motion. I say things like: “I know I need to do that thing tonight, but I just had a really exhausting day at work and I don’t think I’ll be able to give it my all. I just need to relax in front of the TV for an evening. I’ll get to it tomorrow!”, or “I should be working on this now – why am I just sitting here? Dammit, why am I so lazy?!”

Our conflated ideas of productivity and busyness end up impacting where our motivation comes from, and that affects how sustainable that motivation is.


So, those words I asked you to remember… motivation and lazy. Let’s apply them to my experience with writing this post as an example:

Seeing as I measure my productivity against how busy I am, my motivation to sit down and write often comes less from wanting to do the thing itself, and more from wanting to avoid feeling lazy.

In other words, my goals are actually just justifications for keeping busy. They are simply expressions of my desire to always be busy. This means that instead of being motivated by the thing itself (eg. sitting down to write this post), I use the thing as a way to satisfy my motivation to stay busy and avoid laziness.

It’s no wonder, then, that I beat myself up when I don’t do the things I say we want to do – because it has nothing to do with them! What I’m actually upset about is having paused, or taken a break. I’m upset that I’m not in motion. I’m upset that I’m idle.

But being motivated by not wanting to be idle is not only superficial, it’s unhealthy: Glorifying busyness to the point where we try our hardest to never be idle negatively impacts our moods, our immune system, our physical health, and our relationships.

However, at some point during writing this post, I realised that in all this effort I put towards maximising my productivity using busyness, I was actually missing out on one of the best productivity hacks out there: Strategic idleness.


Strategic idleness simply means leveraging the benefits that everyday moments of “non-busyness” can give us, to improve our productivity in small ways every day. Simply put: Doing one unit of nothing for every two units of something to help improve the quality of the time – as opposed to the amount of time – you spend on the ‘somethings’.

Busyness has to do with an amount of time spent doing something; productivity has more to do with the use and quality of the time we spend.

This approach to idleness is also a great way to begin changing your relationship with busyness, and stop feeling like productivity requires constant motion.

Here are some things I’m trying, in order to use my idleness more strategically, and improve how I use my time as opposed how much of it I use:

Rest with Intention. Pause with PURPOSE.

The single most impactful thing for strategic idleness is to see inaction as a requisite for productive time: If I want to be productive, I need to give myself moments of inaction.

And both rest and idleness actually have a bunch of proven benefits, both physiologically and psychologically. They not only lower our heart rate and reduce the effects of anxiety, but they also make it much easier to find inspiration, gain new perspective, and circumvent pettiness through mindful thought.

All of these things make rest a critical part of performing our best. It’s not luxury or a vice; it’s essential for productivity.

So, two of the simplest ways I incorporate rest in to the things I do on daily basis are: Schedule time for inaction, and turn idleness into play.

#1 Schedule time for inaction

This is agenda-less time. It’s time without a goal, or an outcome, or a desired result. I can do nothing, I can do something, I can a little bit of that thing, or a little more of this thing. It’s simply time for me to do nothing in particular.

Sure, this is partly just changing the language I use, but that matters – a lot. How I treat that time mentally is how I change the relationship I have to busyness.

Importantly, though, inaction should be real distance and space from the thing I’m working on. Writers might know the feeling of leaving something for a day and rereading it the next, and how much you see you’ve missed! But it’s more than a break; it’s a gear shift.

Shifting gear helps me not only get physical distance from the thing (ie. getting up and walking away from my laptop for a bit), but mental distance (ie. making my mind think about something completely different). This helps me return to that thing with new perspective, renewed energy, and maybe even a new idea for how to get it done.

#2 Turn idleness into play

Another really useful way I’ve found to use idleness strategically is to harness the power of play. Playing in idleness lets me tap into something I cannot achieve when I’m in the motion of busyness.

There are studies that have shown play to relieve boredom, increase creativity, and improve your ability to deal with stress. All of these things are integral for increased productivity, and are really hard to get by being busy. In fact, most types of busyness stimulate boredom, reduce creativity, and increase the chances of stress.

Types of play I enjoy during my idleness sessions include:

  • Any form of laughing, whether it’s having a fun conversation or watching an episode of QI
  • Playing a game on my PS1, or playing a game of cards with someone
  • Spending some time sketching or drawing
  • Making some music, playing some guitar, or singing in the shower
  • Reading some of my favourite blogs, like Tim Urban’s WaitButWhy or Marc Manson’s life advice that doesn’t suck

I hope some of the above has resonated with you. Or, at least that it’s given you a new way to treat yourself when it comes to motivations for keeping busy, or obsessions with averting laziness.

If you have any other thoughts, please do share them with me. I’d love to hear how others struggle and reconcile this topic.

J. x

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