Credit: AJ Duncan

People just do nothing

By Frances Chorley

A ‘less is more approach’ to productivity

Today’s society has little room or consideration for free time. Side-hustles, self-improvement and networking, there is a prevailing attitude that no matter what we’re doing it ought to some degree be productive. Podcasts have infiltrated the quietness of a daily walk, Instagram infographics now saturate our social media feeds, and the message is blaring – no matter how much you’re doing, you could always be doing more.

Byung-Chul Han lives his life in direct opposition to this culture. Self-described as “extremely lazy”, he passes his time leisurely, tending to his garden, playing the piano, and writing an approximate three sentences a day. A philosopher and writer, Han is adamantly anti hustle culture, focusing much of his work on the importance of simply doing nothing.

In 2015, Han published The Burnout Society, attributing much of our current social issues to the overwhelming desire to always be doing something. Capitalism, he claims, has led us to view ourselves as projects, constantly seeking to self-improve, and achieve more than before. Our own employees, all activities have become designed to make us better versions of ourselves, and leisure time is no longer used as a break. Progressing from one task to the next, our inability to stop has prevented us from reflection and introspection, meaning that our actions become instinctive, functionless, and often counter-productive. Instead, Han proposes, we need to carve out time in which we do absolutely nothing, taking moments to appreciate our achievements and find satisfaction within the present. “If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation”, he writes “deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation”. Tell that to your favourite study-tuber.

Although Han’s exhibition of this mentality may err on the side of the extreme (although it would be nice, most of us can’t afford to water our plants all day), his voice is one of many in a growing movement. “Productivity is a trap”, notes Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousands Weeks, “becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.” As Burkeman points out, tasks have a tendency to continually regenerate themselves. The more we do, the more we will find to do, creating a sense of unending, bottomless jobs and responsibilities. Burkeman says: “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer…and when the full optimised person you’ve become can turn, at last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.” Without taking free-time, Burkeman says, we burn-out. We need to accept our finitude and prioritise, acknowledging that much of the pleasures of life come not from an end-goal but the process of getting there.

Over the course of writing this article, I’ve increasingly tried to incorporate this thinking into my everyday life, (let it be known, not without resistance). A chronic multi-tasker, I’m inclined to madly rush from place-to-place, trying to cram in as much as possible, often without much reason. Taking a leaf from Han’s book I’ve tried to slow it down, limiting myself to one thing at a time. Fighting the urge to get out the door as quickly as possible each morning or put on my shoes while brushing my teeth. I instead take each task individually, allowing it to fill as much time as needed for it to be done right. I leave my coffee in the cafetiere for the full amount of time, eat my breakfast slowly, and instead of mindlessly listening to a podcast on the walk in, I let my brain run, or else, just be silent, something that I haven’t done in a long time. To my surprise, I haven’t felt less productive, rather, the opposite might be true. By resisting the urge to rush I’ve become more selective with what I do, and into what I invest my energy, cutting less corners along the way. Rushing around may well produce the illusion of productivity, but unlike what self-improvement gurus will tell you, it won’t help you get any more done. As put by Burkeman, “In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth”.


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments