Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

The Idle Hands Myth

Over the 2012 Christmas break, a rather interesting and in some ways sad post on a microblogging site passed through my stream. It was a post that made me shake my head — partly in disbelief and partly out of pity.

The post? A plaintive cry from someone who said they needed to be productive. Over the holidays. Not only that, the word need was used three or four times in the post. It was like hearing a junkie who’s jonesing for a fix.

Take a moment to consider that. Someone lamenting the need to be productive. Over the holidays.

Two questions immediately came to my mind: Why? and What’s wrong with taking a break?

Once again, I’d run into someone who had fallen for what I call the idle hands myth. Idle hands, as in the Devil makes work for

We all know at least one person like that. Someone who is compelled to perform task after task, in an almost assembly line manner. Someone who constantly feels the need to do something. Someone who often feels guilty or stressed if they aren’t doing some sort of work.

But what’s the goal?

Doing more doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing things that matter. It’s often an exercise in busywork, nothing more. And it doesn’t mean that you’re doing more things to a high level of quality. Chances are, you aren’t.

Guess what? It’s OK, every so often, not to do work. It’s OK to relax and let your mind drift or go fallow. It’s OK to let your hands go idle.

Far too many people have been conditioned by a skewed definition of productivity. They’ve been conditioned to always be working, and to feel guilty if they’re not.

It shouldn’t be that way.

When you feel the same urge that the person I mentioned at the start of this post did, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is what I’m about to do important?
  • Can it wait?
  • Do I even need to do it at all?

In most cases, the only question to which you should answer yes is the second one.

And when you feel that urge to be productive (whatever that means), step back. Clear your mind. Take a walk. Exercise. Play with your children or pets (if you have them). Go have a coffee or something with a friend or family member. Sit on the sofa and read something for pleasure.

That will be time better spent than trying to force yourself to be productive.

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