In Praise of Laziness

For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones, to be exact – from my small hometown located in south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. CQ is indisputably one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. Thus, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead in the middle of a huge metropolis. Somewhere in my digital drivel, I hope you will find something useful and entertaining.

The Spring Festival holiday period has ended. I hope it was a good, relaxing, and peaceful time for you. Now, back to work. (For many of you, those who are parents with small children who were on their school holiday, this is the week you have been looking forward to. Now you can begin to enjoy your own good, relaxing, and peaceful time… with the kids back in school.) During this transition period, as we return to our normal routines and welcome the advent of Spring weather – here in CQ, at least – it seems appropriate to reflect on just why we are engaged in all this modern busyness. Here is an article from the blog archives, with a few updates. The main theme still echoes today.

The Good Life

Recently, my days were filled with activities related to getting my book ready for publication. It feels like a hundred separate self-publishing tasks completely occupy my to-do lists. And, because these activities often involve transferring detailed information to other people, complications and miscommunications grow exponentially. All these book-related projects must be completed – “Quickly, quickly! People are waiting,” – plus all those repetitive but essential activities involving house and family, plus what I call “routine emergencies”. Then, there is the rest of my life which goes on unabated, regardless of my self-publishing travail. Stressful… confusing… exhausting.

Does all this sound familiar? Do you ever feel like turning off your computer, tossing your phone out the window, abandoning all your other digital devices, and slipping away in search of a little peace and quiet and no more to-do lists? What is the long-term result of all this busyness? Let’s explore how to cope with the fast-paced lifestyle we have evolved.

Everyone wants a good life but when we begin to describe just what constitutes that “good life”, we quickly get entangled in vague generalities and highly subjective terminology. Specifically, almost everyone who is living above the poverty level would agree that a Good Life (in capitals) begins with a safe, comfortable environment, then adds their personal mix of the elements that constitute a high standard of living and a superior quality of life. (My own version involves a view just outside my window of a warm, golden tropical beach – tropical flowers, tropical fruits, tropical breezes, tropical girls, etc.)

If given sufficient time to reflect and choose carefully, most people would probably follow Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs: Physiological, Security, Social, Esteem, and Self-Actualizing. As each level is attained, we tend to focus on the next, higher level. That then constitutes, with lots of individual variations, a Good Life. In modern times, accompanying those attainments come many possessions and services which use technology to make our lives much more comfortable and filled with conveniences.

Sadly, however, despite all our possessions, we continue to want more and more and more. Modern technology creates the products, but manipulative marketing techniques create a perceived need for those products… which generates the pressure to work, work, work to get the money to buy them. This is the origin of our overly busy modern lifestyle. To continue my reflections on this subject, I want to introduce a short conversation that attracted my attention. It is from a famous book, Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, in which the literary world was introduced to Sherlock Holmes.

The relationship between the two characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, has been called the most famous friendship in literature. In this celebrated conversation from A Study in Scarlet, the two characters have just met and are considering sharing a flat at, that’s right, 221B Baker Street. Before reaching a final agreement, Watson insists that they should each disclose any personal weaknesses and failings that might irritate a roommate. Holmes mentions some of the characteristics that later made him such a fascinating character and Watson reciprocates, “I keep a bull pup and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours and I am extremely lazy.” The two characters decided to become roommates – flatmates, since we are talking about England – and the world is richer for it.


“I am extremely lazy,” Watson said. What’s wrong with being lazy? This is exactly what I wish to explore here, especially in light of my own perpetual busyness. Like many people today, I have always idealized the busy person, the person who gets up earlier than others, the hard-charging leader, the person who works “smarter, faster, better” as Charles Duhigg puts it in his book of the same name. Indeed, in our modern lexicon, “success” is more synonymous with the result of that work (money) than with mastery.

Every day, we read about people who devote themselves to a single pursuit – usually their career – for 80 and 100 hours a week. We use glowing terms to praise their monomania which resulted in that individual rising to the top of their chosen field. Indeed, it is popularly accepted that one must devote 10,000 hours to becoming an expert. Dabblers need not apply.

We speak in adulatory terms of people who are eternally busy, filling up every waking moment with something “productive”. We are admonished to use the little windows of time sprinkled throughout our days as opportunities for increased productivity or of furthering our education by making our cars, buses, trains, and planes into “rolling universities”. There is a huge industry devoted to educating us on how to make tiny, incremental changes to become more efficient, more productive.

I am not exempt. As just one example of this pernicious mindset, I have long had the habit of carrying a Kindle with me everywhere I go. Borrowing a phrase from an ancient American Express card advertisement, I “don’t leave home without it.” The implication is that, in case I am stuck somewhere for five minutes, I can be reading something. Recently, thanks to the wonders of Bluetooth headphones, I have also begun listening to educational podcasts and audiobooks whenever I am walking or riding… to further ensure that no moment of my day is “wasted”. Such technology now allows us to fill, literally, every second of our waking hours.

Yet, as I strived to occupy that theoretical every second with something meaningful and valuable, I found that it wasn’t making me happy. Was I irredeemably flawed, unable to focus long enough to make myself a master of something – and, by implication, become a happy, self-actualized, successful (i.e., rich) person?

Upon reflection, I find this compulsion to be sad. On deeper examination, I find myself unable to justify it. What’s so wrong with Watson being “extremely lazy”? Why is that phrase such a damning description? It certainly didn’t make me happy to feel it was necessary to fill every moment with some kind of work. Actually, it had the opposite effect. As I created pressure to cram some meaningful, carefully chosen, high-value, high-priority activity into every minute, I often felt guilty when I failed to discipline myself to achieve that theoretical 100% efficiency. This led to feeling resentful that I never had time for relaxing and doing nothing more “productive” than watching an old movie, listening to music, spending irreplaceable family time with my young son, baking something that would fill the house with wonderful aromas, or just reading more Sherlock Holmes stories.

The conclusion I finally reached and which seems to be the proper balance (well, for me, anyway) is a blend of structured, highly planned productivity which is then supplemented with guilt-free, list-free periods later in the day. I still have my irreducible daily routines, some inevitable urgent/important activities on my calendar each day, and my highest ROI projects – currently, writing and self-publishing my next book and working to publicize my new company. But after I complete each day’s planned activities, I stop to consider what I wish to pursue during my discretionary time for the remainder of the day. I now follow planned tasks with what I call my Watson activities – whatever I damn well want to do.

And I am happier for this division of my time between focused, pre-planned, meaningful work and guilt-free, scheduled, unplanned activities which may include but is not limited to pure indolence. For I have concluded that it was not the busyness that I resented. Rather it was the pressure of trying to attain maximum efficiency with a perfectly planned day. So, on occasion, I like to join the fabled Dr. Watson and just be “extremely lazy” for a brief interlude. It must be the right choice, at least for me, for I always experience a relaxing sensation accompanied with the single, involuntary exhalation, “Ah, nice!” and wonder why I don’t do it more often.

Photo by pepperminting

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