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In Defense of Idleness (Week 42 of Wisdom)

‘Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.’

If you go through the literature on productivity, time-management, or behavioral economics, you will notice a common presupposition: you have imperfections in your brain that will be harmful to your well-being.  

The reason you procrastinate is that your brain is a faulty machine that does not always work properly. The way you rectify this problem, is to learn how to mitigate for your impulsive tendencies, and cognitive biases.

Often, the recommendation is to become more decisive. The word “decide” literally translates to “cut off” (in Latin). To be productive, you need to eliminate what you should not do, and focus only on what you should do.

You procrastinate, the reasoning goes, because you have not made decisions to eliminate non-essential tasks. And so, your day is filled with distractions that contribute to your deteriorating sense of self-efficacy. Your lack of single-minded clarity prevents you from producing high quality work and accomplishing important tasks.

Homo Non-Economicus

Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.

Peter Drucker

Before the dawn of psychology, we have known about man’s irrational nature. Plato and Nietzsche are just two philosophers who have argued that man is not ruled by rationality alone, but by other forces, often unknown to him. Psychologists have since then confirmed that man can be irrational, and that our cognitive blind spots are as integral to our identity as our rationality is.

But the more important question is: what should we do about it?

For some, such as the peddlers of standard productivity advice, is to identify and censor emotive forces that push us off track towards our desired goal. While others, who take a more contrarian viewpoint, argue that our seemingly irrational nature is far more wise than we give it credit for, and that instead, we ought to respond to the signals they give out, rather than suppress and ignore them. And this idea, while contrarian to most people, is not very contrarian among psychologists.

Freud taught us about repression, and how it results in neurosis. Jung warned us of the shadow, and how repressing our darker impulses will lead to self-defeating behavior. And Piaget told us that we must learn to negotiate with ourselves, rather than resort to tyranny – instead of telling yourself what you should do, figure out what you are willing to do, and under what conditions.

The Value of Leisure

In Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness – Russell launched a critique on the post-industrial ethos which only praises productive work – industrial society has imbued a work ethic into the modern individual that precludes their ability to indulge in activities of secondary importance, and this ethic has been passed down across generations without enough scrutiny.

He notes that the most worthwhile things are discovered precisely when you have nothing that you have given excessive priority to – that’s how happy accidents occur. That is how you manage to satisfy your scientific curiosity or to work on something that is monumental.

And he wrote at a time in which wage earners were not expected to have any leisure time. But in the modern world, leisure is available to more people than before and yet, many people have no idea what to do with it. The Covid-19 pandemic created hours of leisure by eliminating commutes and disrupting multiple industries, but it is unlikely that most of this time has been put to good use. The reason, Russell would argue, is that few people have cultivated the skill of knowing how to deal with leisure. In the future, if policies such as Universal Basic Income are implemented (1,2), the exponential rise of technology will force leisure time upon a higher number of people.

If everything that is considered valuable must in some way create wealth (be of primary importance) then many of the things that make life worth living, such as art or music, will never be pursued. We heap praise on the producer, but give no value to the consumer, even though each transaction requires both parties to exist.

I will extend Russell’s critique of the industrial ethos to include, not only a disdain for leisure, but a disdain for experimentation and hesitation. The industrial philosophy is, in short: waste no time on trifles, do not experiment, do not hesitate, make unwavering commitments.

The problem with such a philosophy is that it works. But because it works, people make the error of over-generalizing it to all domains. For some people, such as some executives or factory owners – this philosophy is powerful, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

The Procrustean Bed

There is a Greek Myth about a man named Procrustes, who abducted travelers and stretched or chopped their bodies to fit the length of his bed.

“Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad — at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment. It is my soul fighting the Procrustean bed of modernity.”

Nassim Taleb

For Taleb, procrastination is a signal that he is doing the wrong thing. This goes back to the Druckerian dichotomy “efficiency versus effectiveness.” If you are doing a job you hate, maybe the solution is not to figure out how to train yourself at becoming more stoical and proficient at eating glass, but to find a job where glass-eating is not a primary requirement.

Taleb says that procrastination is a signal that he uses for his writing. When he finds himself resistant to writing a certain section, he leaves it out. To him, procrastination is not an illness, but a rational physiological response.

“Psychologists and economists who study ‘irrationality’ do not realize that humans may have an instinct to procrastinate only when no life is in danger. I do not procrastinate when I see a lion in my bedroom or fire in my neighbor’s library. I do not procrastinate after a severe injury. I do so with unnatural duties and procedures.”

Nassim Taleb

The problem with Taleb’s argument is that it does not translate to sound practical advice for someone struggling to make ends meet and is going through a lot of pain because of their procrastination. It works for people in creative professions, or for anyone who has many options to choose from.

Since procrastination is a message from our natural willpower via low motivation, the cure is changing the environment, or one’s profession, by selecting one in which one does not have to fight one’s impulses. Few can grasp the logical consequence that, instead, one should lead a life in which procrastination is good, as a naturalistic-risk-based form of decision making.

Nassim Taleb

If you find yourself in a situation where you tend to procrastinate and you have limited options, you have one of two choices to make. Either find out how you can procrastinate less, or change your profession. Taleb is saying that you should always go for the latter option. Is he right? It depends on how you view human rationality.

People like Taleb and Gigerenzer think that our definition of “rationality” is too narrow, and that we procrastinate, not because we are stupid or don’t know any better, but because our naturalistic impulses are telling us that we need to change our environment. It is the environment that is irrational, not us.

The disagreement between Taleb and the peddlers of standard productivity advice (fight procrastination) is not necessarily about whether psychology is right or wrong about human irrationality, but how we should interpret it. In other words, when we find out that our behavior does not conform to our narrow definition of rationality, does that mean it is irrational, or does it simply mean that we haven’t thought long enough about what constitutes rationality?

Diligence promptly executes what intelligence slowly excogitates. Hurry is the failing of fools; they know not the crucial point and set to work without preparation. On the other hand, the wise more often fail from procrastination; foresight begets deliberation, and remiss action often nullifies prompt judgment. Celerity is the mother of good fortune. He has done much who leaves nothing over till to-morrow. Festina lente is a royal motto.

Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom

If “irrational” behaviors such as procrastination are adaptive, then are they still irrational? Perhaps your physiology is less interested in being efficient, and more interested in being effective over a long period of time. Even within the domain of psychology, there is the concept of Flow, the psychological state of feeling integrated, where time ceases to exist, and where tasks are accomplished without internal conflict. Such a psychological philosophy gives credence to Taleb’s argument – it is saying: trust your feeling rather than your conceptions of the world.

One final point. Piaget taught that we have two types of memory, procedural (driving a car) and demonstrative (explaining to someone how one drives a car). He shows that procedural memory supersedes demonstrative memory, in that the way we act informs the way we conceptualize the world, and not the other way around. The problem with the standard productivity advice is that it asks you to conform your behavior (procedures) to your demonstrative knowledge. It is asking you to reverse how you actually function.

In other words, it does not take into account how your procedural memory, that has been shaped by a painstakingly long process of social feedback in childhood, will not be easily reshaped according to the arbitrary requirements of a corporation, that cares very little about your personal well-being.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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