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Productive idleness? from the Roman “otium” to no-screen nights

Or, why quality downtime might be the secret superpower of high achievers, healthy people who don’t need to show off achievements… and some geniuses, too.

Sometime during the information rollercoaster of 2016, I paused using most digital social networks, specifically those associated with Facebook, later called Meta. A few months ago, I was back, mainly on Instagram, though I also reactivated my Facebook profile. So far, I have just updated my profile pic on Facebook.

It was surprisingly easy to live without that input; as of today, I haven’t made it to TikTok, though a watcher/reader reminded me not long ago what I have been missing (not to talk about people copying Kirsten’s videos without bringing anything to the table in the form of self-creation). I’m no fool, however; having two teenage daughters at home, I know the power of such a platform.

From our first video interview with legendary counterculture author and pioneer of whimsical dwellings Lloyd Kahn, Bolinas, CA, July 11th, 2011; image by Nicolás Boullosa

I’m also conscious of the controversy around TikTok’s ownership and the potential security concerns regarding its ownership and its blurred relationship with the Chinese government, though my concerns are more related to a kind of entertainment that looks for the shortest, most effective way to keep us engaged.

So many people have written more deeply—and better—about the consequences of using the moments of casual idleness and contemplation to vow to the power of the small screen. To keep it short, the less friction we experience with one medium, the more difficult it will be to notice how much of our attention, energy, and agency we are giving up just to enjoy a substitute (and not a very good one, as researches suggest) of harder-to-achieve intellectual endeavors.

Non-stop stimulation, non-stop misery

As media enters an era of fragmentation and hyper-personalization, we all are experiencing the risks of a friction-free, all-you-can-eat digital entertainment environment. Going back to my limited Instagram participation and engagement, barely limited to the instances I share a post (typically, a video that Kirsten just posted or the link to one of what we call “evergreens”), I enjoy my moments on the platform. However, the transformation from 2016 is stark: now there are more videos, and the feed is a blend of fast, effective clickbait with the shares of those accounts the user follows —plus carefully targeted advertising.

In other words, after being more than seven years out of the game, in late 2023, I reactivated my dormant account. My daughters think I must have felt like a Japanese WWII soldier who never surrendered, still clinging to the atoll he thought to be defending in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when he’s told that stuff has happened since; then, amid the shock, he’s given a smartphone with all-you-can-eat feeds as a welcome badge to our times. I’m slightly exaggerating.

Some may say, but you DO videos! The short answer: all content isn’t equal, nor all “content” is processed the same way by our brain; like food, there’s healthy (it can be yummy and not that tasty, it depends) and less healthy stuff for you long term.

Some videos can be just entertaining, and that’s alright, though our intention is to enlarge the conversation by offering a vantage point to the lives and endeavors of people who decided to take a risk to better their lives and those of the people around them. I’m a part of the production of those videos, though a fair amount of them surprise me in a meaningful way —despite the fact that I was present when they were shot.

Keeping oneself busy can lead to restlessness

I recently read and then listened to (via Spotify, while exercising) Alice Munro’s short story collection Too Much Happiness. Each one of the ten stories in the book by the Canadian writer is not only very entertaining, but they invite us to the lives of people from all walks of life; I felt I knew more about the great equalizer in which we all are, no matter our place at this moment, called “trying to live a meaningful life.” Knowing the experiences of people who are very different from me is eye-opening —and quite engaging, too.

When I finish a good read or watch a good video or movie, I sense that I’m better because of it. I doubt this would be the case anymore if I’d try to fill the few spots of idleness I enjoy across the day by scrolling through short videos portraying lovely animals doing human-like things to be relatable (I find it somehow cruel, though most people seem to love it) or watching neverending stuns.

I posted this photo session on Flickr under license CC, so you may be familiar with some of the pics; Bolinas, CA, July 11th, 2011; image by Nicolás Boullosa

These videos are short and carefully staged, always displaying choreographies of things that are very difficult to make—especially to those unexperienced—but served in such a deceiving, friction-free format that anybody watching the contortionist-level stuns or super-crafty makeshift artifacts portrayed will assume it’s easy. I can only imagine the amount of frustration that everyone engaged in the alternative reality portrayed in such clips would feel when realizing that, actually, those videos show very skillful activities that very few can replicate in an instant, with no need to face the struggle of putting time into conceptualizing, storytelling, planning, or measuring before doing the proper cut to a given material or acing the perfect performance movement —and discarding boatloads of bad takes.

The promise of frictionless engagement

Frictionless engagement isn’t as innocent as one of such good-spirited short clips on Instagram Reels, TikTok, or YT Shorts would appear. I’m aware that algorithms will serve content that I may find amusing based on my activity and behavior; to Meta’s credit, I’ve noticed that all (that’s every one of them, with no exception) the videos served are uplifting and don’t fundament their potential engagement power in outrage or the controversial takes that drive polarization and other phenomena I won’t be discussing, since plenty of people have dedicated enough time to the topic. The algorithm might think, mistakenly or not, that I’m a very nice person. Or it may feel that it won’t get my purchasing power by angering me. Either way, at least there’s that.

That said, the transformation of Instagram—and, lately, X—from essentially static feeds highlighting information shared by people you subscribe to into a more dynamic, almost short-video-driven medium, has also caffeinated the user experience; if the goal is to keep users engaged and serve them more content and advertising, then it’s working. Though tweaking platforms that had their consolidated niche (offering their users a predictable medium they could customize to some extent) to resemble TikTok, has caused some disappointment among a well-spirited old guard of meaningful users who had managed to turn their feeds into an expression of their place in the world.

Consider, for example, the legendary housing editor of Whole Earth Catalog and publisher behind Shelter Publications, green architecture pioneer Lloyd Kahn. Through his blog, newsletter, indie books on domes, whimsical builds, and lately small homes, rolling homes, etc., Lloyd Kahn is a living expression of uncompromised awesomeness. You can subscribe to Lloyd’s newsletter on his site (he doesn’t do Substack, as far as I know; I’ll ask him soon why not, since we’ll be visiting him shortly). In the February 2024 update he shares some sad news he’s been enduring stoically, albeit not at ease; I’m sure he’s aware of the many people who love and respect him.

For the few thousand who receive his carefully crafted newsletter (I consider myself among the fortunate ones), Lloyd is a pioneer of many things. He contributed to popularizing makeshift construction and the DIY ethos, and he, along with some of his old friends—Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly—is also a part of the ideals of using technology to elevate human potential.

When wisdom pills on “focus” keep you unfocused

Few people Kirsten and I know can keep themselves in check with Lloyd’s enlightened self-awareness. You can tell that when he is doing something (be that skateboarding, getting the sourdough ready, editing one of his image-rich books, sharing moments with relatives and uncountable friends who visit him at his Bolinas’ half-acre homestead), he puts his full attention into it.

Carried from the nearby Bolinas beach, perhaps after a surfing early morning outing; Bolinas, CA, July 11th, 2011; image by Nicolás Boullosa

In our time, the ability to focus is what divides those who wander, not knowing where to crash finally, exhausted from all the inputs we go through in a day, from those who turn “things happening” into events that are memorable and meaningful for them, no matter whether it’s work or play (though work and play are intermingled to some of them). In the era of attention deficit and multimedia overexposure, focus is a superpower.

When asked about the life lessons he took away from working with Steve Jobs, designer Jony Ive paused for a moment, then answered:

“This sounds really simplistic but it still shocks me how few people actually practice this. It’s a struggle to practice this: Steve was the most remarkably focused person I ever met in my life. Focus is not something you aspire to: you don’t decide on Monday, ‘I’m going to be focused.’ It’s an every minute ‘Why are we talking about that?’ This is what we are working on. You can achieve so much when you truly focus.

“One of the things Steve would say [to me] because he was worried I wasn’t focused —he would say how many things have you said no to? I would tell him I said no to this. And I said no to that. But he knew I wasn’t interested in doing those things. There was no sacrifice in saying no. What focus means is saying no to something that with every bone in your body you think is a phenomenal idea; you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it because you are focusing on something else.”

No need to “focus” on Jony Ive’s answer to Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter’s many years ago since this passage has morphed into a meme on its own, one of these wisdom pills that prevalent accounts on the platforms that occupy us share one thing and another, knowing they’ll get the engagement they seek: by offering a sharp answer on the importance of focus (achieved by, among other things, staying out of social media or binge-watching), they contribute to keep people essentially unfocused. Nobody notices (or wants to), everybody is happy, and, after twenty seconds or so of conscious reflection, the thumb kicks the scroll as if it were a tiny wheel of fortune —the ultimate existential gambling, driving ourselves to exhaustion.

The wisdom of an 88-year-old skater

Or, put by Neil Postman in the pre-Internet, mass media era, Amusing Ourselves to Death. He saw it coming when he realized that our world was getting more similar to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” than Orwell’s 1984. Forty years later, our “soma” is the ultimate digital fix.

Back to people who can focus and can use social media in a meaningful way, especially by knowing the risks of not limiting its use and curating it as much as possible: Lloyd Kahn is a long-time Instagram user, and his feed doesn’t disappoint, blending some of his interests with everyday endeavors, pictures of people visiting, occasional trips to San Francisco (or, recently, to Baja California) and news on his rich circle of relations.

Some people have books to show; Lloyd has book to read; Bolinas, CA, July 11th, 2011; image by Nicolás Boullosa

Now, how many of us can aspire to live as fully at 88 as Lloyd? So when he shares some concerns regarding Instagram, a platform he likes and uses, I listen. On February 18, Lloyd commented on a post:

“I’ve got a few bones to pick with Instagram. From 3 weeks of pretty heavy use I’ve noticed how it’s gotten progressively more Zucked. To wit:

I’m now getting about one post of the people I’m following to 5 or 6 categories:

— posts cleverly algorithmed to my tastes, such as these two
— sponsored posts
— ads
— a strip of videos based on my tastes.

This is such a valuable platform, it’s a shame to watch it get ever more debased.”

Little to add to his words. To those not following him, you know it’s rare to trigger somebody like him, because, besides being capable of focusing and using social media to his benefit and not the other way around, Lloyd has another superpower: he finds the upside and opportunity on things, or at least that’s the feeling I get when a listen to him and read him. We’ve visited Lloyd several times over the years, and we know that his critique is always valuable.

The algorithm makes the marionette dance

Anyway, Lloyd’s last post on Instagram is a reminder he wrote and posted on his kitchen, in which we can read something we all know but often refuse to comply: “No screens at night!” Why? He elaborates:

“My iMac, my iPad, my MacAir laptop, and my ever-lovin iPhone: too much screen time of late, so I have been turning off the phone when I come in to make dinner, and keeping away from screens (except for occasional TV).
Makes a big difference.
Kinda like going from digital to analog, back to the pre-web world…”

If you’ve visited Lloyd, you know he reads. His library (talking about the one in the house, there are also books in the Shelter Pubs shed) is well stocked with books he reads; his is not a library to show off. When I edit this post, I’ll go through some of the pictures I took many years ago, where I saw some of my favorite essays, as well as many others I hadn’t heard about then. The half-acre homestead also needs some care, and Lloyd has children and grandchildren. So, I understand his reminder, and I want to learn from it, too.

When he posts it there, it’s because he’s aware of the Socratic appreciation of getting to know yourself equals getting to know other people. The more we know ourselves, the more connected to others we feel since we appreciate better the things other undergo in their lives. So he’s letting us know screens are powerful, but also dangerous if overused.

In Lloyd and Leslie’s living room; Bolinas, CA July 11th, 2011; image by Nicolás Boullosa

One of the things excessive screen time undermines is our ability to disconnect from the network of strings that pull our attention and diminish our tranquility: digital calls to action (whether work or unconscious escapist routes such as diving in feeds with no self-imposed limit) may transform us into a marionette. We may ask ourselves why we are willing to let our agency go sometimes, allowing an algorithm to puppeteer us. As they get better, such tools can serve not only engaging content but also the contextual world that goes with it —one in which people’s ability to focus and put some time into other activities is not a priority.

Has Marcus Aurelius made it to TikTok yet? FOMA vs. enshittification

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate something I didn’t pay much attention before, though now I’m more conscious of its value since it has become more difficult for me to find those moments: when done right, idleness is as important for mood, wellbeing in general and productivity as eating well, resting, exercising and maintaining healthy relations.

How do we make “idleness” count? Isn’t “productive idleness” the biggest oxymoron in this universe thought of by faulty humans? Yes and no. In the Mediterranean, contemplation has always been a part of the aspirations of a life well-lived; Greek and Roman philosophies of life, as well as the Abrahamic religions, tried to explain the need for productive idleness by, for example, metaphorically equating cultivating a garden to cultivating our soul. Roman citizens made a difference between “otium” (from the Spanish word “ocio” or the English “otiosity,” which itself derives from Middle French’s “ociosité”: from the Latin “otiositas”) and “negotium” (“negocio” in Spanish, or “negotiation” in English, etc.).

Though the term otium encompasses leisure, it’s not ANY sort of leisure. Tranquility is achieved by cultivating the garden of the mind and that on earth. Romans who could afford it had a country house (a villa) with land to cultivate and animals to care for, but also a library and many activities to help personal development, among them the old wise activity of spending meaningful time with friends and relatives.

By doing the “otium” part well, or “otium ruris” as described by Cicero and others, people were able to return to their activities, their “negotium,” replenished and ready to go. Seneca, the stoic philosopher from Corduba, stressed the importance of aiming at the impossible balance between otium and negotium. The balance didn’t need to be quantifiable, and once achieved would be felt, for it’s the path to a fulfilling life. Productive leisure is as important for personal growth and happiness as work and personal clout—the actual institutions of our time—are.

In his Meditations, the Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, depicted by legendary Richard Harris in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000), reflected on the nature of work and duty (he had plenty of both) but also of conscious leisure to achieve virtue and get wiser, eventually happier.

Doing nothing, sometimes

Filling any quotidian moment of potential inactivity with the random content of the last fad in digital feeds prevents anybody from confronting oneself. Being at peace with ourselves doesn’t equal ruminating but consciously deciding what to do with our precious time. Focus isn’t only for work; it’s especially fit for conscious, fulfilling leisure. Do we need to have a physical garden, learn an instrument, or try a new cooking recipe whenever we call at the doors of idleness? More than an obligation, “otium” is an attitude.

Across the Mediterranean, some lucky people inherited the otium/negotium secrets. In Italy, there’s one saying that still encompasses it: “la dolce far niente” (literally, “sweetness [of] doing nothing”). Sweet idleness can be so productive that a young Swiss patent office worker who had been refused an academic position named, Albert Einstein, may have gotten to a few interesting theories by knowing how to let his mind playfully divagate —sometimes by playing the violing at once.

One of the several sheds within Lloyd Kahn’s legendary half-acre homestead; Bolinas, CA July 11th, 2011; image by Nicolás Boullosa

Not surprisingly, young Albert Einstein arrived in Italy with his family at the end of 1895, and until his Annus Mirabilis of 1905 (when he published a series of papers that transformed forever the way we see the universe), he lived in Pavia, Milan, and Casteggio.

Though productive idleness isn’t only a superpower that can be achieved by a particular set of fortunate people —say, those who’ve lived in a Mediterranean culture—. I recently came across an article depicting the apparently very Dutch activity of “niksen,” or doing absolutely nothing.

Viv Groskop writes for The Guardian:

“I am standing on the sand at Scheveningen, The Hague’s most famous beach resort, in the act of niksen, the Dutch term for doing absolutely nothing. I try not to think about whether I am really doing nothing if I am standing on a beach. Maybe I should be sitting down? But then I would be sitting down. How do you niksen properly? Being effortlessly aimless next to me is Olga Mecking, the author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. In the three years since the book was published, she has become the Netherlands’ go-to authority on doing sod all. I suddenly remember there is a pancake house back on the promenade. Does eating pancakes count as doing nothing, or is it too much like doing something? Maybe I am not cut out for niksen.

Dumb productivity doesn’t beat good divagation. Ask Albert Einstein

“It’s very common, says Mecking, to struggle to define niksen. ‘The definition I use in the book is: to do nothing, without a purpose. Not watching a movie, not scrolling social media, not reading emails. We always have in mind some kind of outcome. When we prepare meals, we think, ‘This meal will help me lose weight or will make me healthier.’ If we go for a walk, it has to be part of our 10,000 steps. So we lose that fun of just eating or just walking. So it’s about letting go of the outcome.'”

Groskop explains how Mecking stumbled upon niksen. She’s from Poland and married to a German, though they live in The Hague. She first knew about the expression in a supermarket in 2018, and decided to pitch the term to the New York Times: The Case for Doing Nothing popularized the term in the US —and she got a book deal. Not bad if it all came from proselytizing on idleness.

Niksen is almost a reaction or counterbalance to the mandates of modern life, she explains.

What’s the science behind well-understood idleness, if any? Idleness is misunderstood in a society and zeitgeist prioritizing productivity and being busy. Apps like Calendly allow people to dedicate any single free slot to “productive” things, like letting others schedule meetings with them, and it’s very popular among hyper-achievers —and among those wanting to become one.

Other high-achieving people, however, are more in the field of young Einstein, appreciating the power of divagation and keen to replenish their energy with moments of introspection, away from inputs that prevent us from self-reflection. When used for rest, recovery, amusement, or casual learning, idleness can foster creativity and innovation but also reduce stress.

Ultimately, if we want to work better, improved rest and embracing moments to recharge will improve mood and self-reflection, improving mental health. Others could notice and benefit from it, too.

My buddy Herodotus

When I was a young student in Barcelona, somebody recommended the fictional reporting of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. His style was literary, somehow influenced by magical realism. His journalistic work in Africa took place before the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, though he had learned to keep his autonomy as a journalist; reporting about foreign lands may have helped him not to get into much trouble.

I admired most of what I read from him then, though the revisionism of our times sets him in a more uncomfortable position as a European traveling describing the African continent. It came to my mind as I write this because I owned—and lost somewhere, sometime—his long reportage Travels with Herodotus, a book he wrote much later, blending his travels in Asia with some of his philosophical readings and excerpts from Herodotus’ The Histories, considered the first book of history in Western literature.

In the book, the Polish journalist discredits people who lack curiosity about the world, making little effort to get to know things and connect to others in meaningful ways. To him, idleness is the necessary ally for contemplation and reflection, kindling the curiosity that fosters exploration and discovery.

In the end, aspiring to a life well lived doesn’t mean dedicating every second we are awake to responding to stimuli, especially those bestowed upon us by an algorithm maxed for engagement. I trust Lloyd when he sets the reminder. When was the last time you took the pain to get genuinely bored?