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BERLIN - If you’re reading this, you’re one of us. Or somebody in your inner circle is and you’re hoping for a recipe to change them. What are we talking about? Laziness?
Some of the following will apply to you (or your nemesis). You’re chronically late. In the last 48 hours you’ve spent valuable time researching irrelevant facts on your computer, drawn in by one link after another to the encyclopedic quicksand that is the World Wide Web. You may also spend a considerable amount of time just staring off into the distance. Sometimes the dithering carries over into your free time, and you can’t ever seem to make it to the health club or do those cultural things you’ve been meaning to do. Of course all of the above fills you with guilt.
Chances are, you’re a loafer, slacker, idler, sluggard – a lazybones, a dosser! And wasting time is not something our society smiles on. We need to be seen as constantly reachable, available, and mainly busy and productive. That said, we’re now experiencing a certain amount of backlash. Employers for example are starting to stress the need for downtime to their employees, telling them to go easy on cell-phone availability and e-mail checking in their free time.
We’re also seeing a spate of in-praise-of-idleness publications usually aimed at showing that lazy behavior is positive and necessary and all around great if you could just maybe manage to change a couple of little things? But John Perry doesn’t approach the subject that way. He’s professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford, and a half-time professor at the University of California, Riverside. He’s also a self-described procrastinator.
Some see the chronic deferral of things that is procrastination as a kind of sub-category of laziness. Perry felt guilty about his behavior and then one day – in classic procrastinator’s style, to put off doing something else – he wrote an essay called “Structured Procrastination” (1996) about it.
As he told National Public Radio: "I had a stack of papers to grade and some other stuff to do, and I wasn't doing it, which is pretty typical of me. There was no reason not to do it, but I wasn't doing it, and I really started to get depressed and feel rotten about myself. But then it occurred to me that, you know, I get a lot done. I mean at Stanford, people thought of me as kind of a go-to guy, put me on a lot of committees, gave me a lot of tasks. And I publish all this stuff and manage to keep a job there. ... If I get all this stuff done, how can that be when I'm a crummy procrastinator? And it occurred to me, well, there's a difference between procrastinating and being lazy — I'm not lazy. I do a lot of stuff, as long as it's a way of not doing something else that I'm supposed to do."
Dawdling, lollygagging and postponing
Perry’s essay was soon making the rounds on the Internet – and finding incredible resonance. He’s now turned it into a 92-page book, widely-spaced book, “The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing,” and it’s exactly what the doctor ordered for people like us (or your nemesis).
Perry’s thesis is that procrastinators with a plan actually accomplish an enormous amount precisely because they are constantly finding a thousand other things to do to put off the moment when they have to tackle specific projects – which somehow end up getting done also. (By the way, if you can’t seem to get started on that business report, this book is a great way to fill the time until you do.)
If you want practical tips for dealing with idleness, The Idler magazine founded in 1993 by Tom Hodgkinson and Gavin Pretor-Pinney “in order to explore alternatives to the work ethic and promote freedom and the fine art of doing nothing” is a good place to start. This “literature for loafers” is actually a collection of essays that comes out once a year in hardback. Tom Hodgkinson lives out in the country and has a very effective way of dealing with what needs to be done – dividing the sum of it up into doable little parcels to be tackled at different times of year (chop wood, January; bee-keeping, June; brew beer, October; throw party, December).
The other idler, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, is a cloud watcher – and author of “The Cloudspotter’s Guide” and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. Then one day at the beach there weren’t any clouds, so he lowered his gaze, and ended up writing “The Wavewatcher’s Companion,” which won the 2011 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.
Watching waves and clouds – there is hardly any greater antithesis to the rat race, the ringing cell phone, the e-mails, the tweets, the non-stop bla-bla of the “busy” world engaged in its “relevant productive” endeavors.
If you still can’t shake your guilty feelings, consider these two anecdotes about people who took it easy but made it anyway. Albert Einstein loved to nap. He did so frequently, but always made sure to hold his key chain in one hand so that when he started to seriously fall asleep the chain would drop to the floor and jolt him awake. Marcel Proust used to spend weeks lying in bed. Once he invited a guest over so he could verify – from his bed – that he had captured the person correctly in his novel, In Search of Lost Time. Not bad for a sleepyhead and a lie-about.