How To Be Idle: An Interview with Tom Hodgkinson

On the insane hustle of modern life and the virtues of kicking back.

| Wed Jun. 8, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

Ten a.m. is for sleeping in, three in the afternoon for a nap (waking fresh for teatime). Then a rambling stroll followed by the first drink of the day. Ten in the evening: pints at the pub; a midnight contemplation of the celestial sphere; meditation at four in the morning.

Who the hell lives like this?

Tom Hodgkinson, for one. His book, How to be Idle, just out in the United States, is a treatise on living a life of leisure and should be required reading for the Western world’s workaholics -- and especially for Americans, who with their collective 415 million unused vacation days last year and pathetic 53 percent job dissatisfaction rates could evidently use some edifying pointers on successful loafing.

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In his early 20s, Hodgkinson was becoming “massively disappointed” with the world of work post-graduation. “At the University I was more or less the master of my own time,” he said, reminiscing about his days publishing magazines, playing in bands, and attending great lectures. “But I started to question this whole idea of jobs because it was taking away my freedom.” He intended to become a freelance writer (both his parents were journalists), but was chronically unable to get out of bed. “I wasn’t doing it with any pleasure, I was feeling really pissed off at myself,” he recalled. In the midst of this guilty inaction he found a series of essays by Samuel Johnson on the virtues of kicking back and the vital link between idleness and creativity. As he told a British interviewer, "I suddenly realised, hey, I'm not a lazy idiot, I'm an idler! It's something to aspire to, it's part of the creative process! That's fantastic!"

The fruits of this un-labor came in 1993 with the first issue of the Idler, a magazine founded on “conviction that laziness has been unjustly criticized by modern society, and that it deserves to have its good conscience returned to it.” True to topic, the essays and articles--exploring everything from “crap jobs” to the benefits of shunning a career, to a celebration of lunchtime--come out at a leisurely twice a year. The current issue declares a “War on Work.”

What would happen, Hodgkinson asks, if we did embraced, say, a four-day work week, or decided to work three hours of the day? One possibility is predicted by the idler’s golden rule: one creates in inverse proportion to the time one spends working. Hodgkinson spoke with Mother Jones from his seaside farm in Devon, England, after an afternoon spent puttering about the garden.

Mother Jones: We stay late at the office, we don’t take our vacation time, we neglect our families and our interests. Where did we go wrong?

Tom Hodgkinson: What seems extraordinary is that the richest countries in the world, in terms of economic output, are the ones where we work hardest. You would have thought that the end of all this innovation, technological advancement, and financial wizardry should be to create less work, not more of it. I think you have to put it down to, particularly in the case of America, Benjamin Franklin and the whole idea of a new attitude to money: “Time is money.” He invented that idea. Before that, time wasn’t money in the same way; in the medieval age it was regarded as sinful for money to be the object of your life.

But that all changed in the 18th century. The Factory Age took people out of their self-sufficient life and made them dependent on wages. At the same time, there’s propaganda from the people at the top instilling you with a guilty feeling around work. You’re not contributing to society in the way you’re expected to. And fear of losing your job keeps you more or less enslaved. The best thing that can happen to anybody is to be sacked or made redundant because often that’s when you think, “I don’t want to become one of the living dead. I haven’t got anything to lose, now I can start to follow my own dreams.”

MJ: You've written that the concept of boredom didn’t really exist until 1760.

TH: That's the date most of us put on the Industrial Revolution, i.e. the age of the Big Machine. The idea of the machine was that we wouldn’t have to do that kind of work anymore ourselves. But you still need lots of men to work the machines, and these men become robotic because there’s no real skill involved. It’s like in Fast Food Nation where Eric Schlosser says the ultimate successful business could be operated by monkeys. They make it easier and easier to work the machines and keep the wages as low as possible. In the past we had a more varied existence, where you might do a bit of weaving, you’d be tending the garden, you were involved in a whole range of activities. You still see it now, if you go to, say, rural Mexico. Work was mixed in with leisure, and the day was more varied, so it wasn’t boring.

If you look at the literature of the 19th century, you get things like Kafka and Dostoevsky, who basically write about feeling bored and alienated. That’s because we lost contact with the important things in life like work that you enjoy, or the garden, nature, your family and friends.

MJ: What about this paradox that you do more by working less?

TH: I had lunch with these French people who said, “Travailler moins, produire plus.” In other words, the less you work, the more you produce. And certainly in my own experience—even in the really good jobs—a lot of the day is just spent sitting there, staring at your screen, pretending to work, checking your emails, on the phone to your girlfriend. I realized I’d rather work hard for two or three hours in a day—which was the only real work I was doing—and then bobble about the rest of the time, in the park or whatever. I’ve found that there isn’t any correlation whatsoever between the hours put in and the quality of what comes out. Most of the Beatles’ songs probably originated in about five minutes. Often, the things that a lot of work has gone into have been incredibly bad because they’re over-worked.

MJ: When we’re constantly working, we don’t necessarily have time to even vote, much less be an actively involved in politics. How does overwork affect a democratic society?

TH: What I’ve found in working less is you start to get a bit more involved in the more real politics, which is local politics that affect what’s going on in your own community. Also, you have time to do things because they’re fun and not because you get paid. We have an idea that if something we’re doing isn’t actually earning money, or spending it, then it’s completely worthless. But if you start to work less, you can actually start to give more to society, but on a local level.

The idea of a government is to create an ordered, willing work force where there’s no trouble. I think idlers are generally seen as potentially dangerous because they’re asking questions.

MJ: How do you think overwork affects creativity?

TH: For most of us, the opportunity to become creative is being squeezed at both ends. We think, “Well, I’ve been doing all that work, and now I’m going to reward myself by doing a lot of spending.” What would happen in the days before time was money and money and machines weren’t quite so dominant would be you’d have all this other time when you’d do what turned into hobbies. Little things like making clothes, baking bread, cooking, even useless things like bird-watching, sketching flowers, playing guitar in the home--that sort of time is gone. And the time we have? We’re so exhausted, we want to let ourselves get sucked in to the escape world of TV. I’m speaking from experience; I’m not above all this.

I like the idea of becoming [fairly] good at lots of things rather than very good at just one thing. So it would be nice to be okay at the guitar or at the piano, a reasonable cook, perhaps able to fix your car or do some basic carpentry, and be able to write the odd article. Rather than being super good at one tiny thing, to be kind of average at lots of things. It might mean that you have a more kind of enjoyable, complete life.

MJ: What do you think the world would look like if a lot of people read your book and followed its advice? What would it take to get people to shift to a less hectic lifestyle?

TH: Hopefully it would be full of people bicycling along the streets and whistling and raising their hats to each other [laughs]. Going for long walks in the countryside, and mucking about each day. What would it take for that to happen? I don’t really know. What I find incredibly depressing is, as I tried to demonstrate in the book, some quite good people have put putting forth what I’m saying in books and essays for the past thousands of years and it just seems to have gotten worse. I don’t put much faith in the political system because it’s a question of how are you going to run capitalism, not how are we going to develop a different system to capitalism.

If you do it, other people might think, well actually, I can do it too. The book is supposed to inspire people to follow their own path. How much money do I actually need? How many pairs of shoes do I need?

MJ: When I first picked up the How To Be Idle I thought it was a self-help book, which in a way it is--but it’s actually more of a social commentary and a look at the history of overwork.

TH: I gave it that title slightly deliberately because it sounded more commercial. I didn’t want to call it A Disquisition on the Benefits of Idleness. The title How to be Idle, as you say, is self-help, but it’s a slightly satirizing self-help. The self-help thing always seems to be something like, “Ten Ways to be More Efficient,” and it’s so depressing. I used to try to do those things, and could never remember what the ten ways are. A lot of that adds to your pressures: now there’s a whole new set of rules you’ve got to try to remember and live up to.

MJ: Can you offer some practical first steps on how to be idle?

TH: Part of this individualism is you feel this pressure that you alone have to conquer the world, and if you don’t work all the hours God gives then you start feeling really guilty. If you can stop feeling guilty, then I think it’s easier to start doing what you want to do. The way to stop feeling guilty is to read stuff--I’m not saying my book, but works by Bertrand Russell or Oscar Wilde, people who weren’t losers but who didn’t believe in the work ethic, and argued this thing about guilt or wrote philosophy about idleness.

There are a lot of little tricks you can do to inject a bit more time into the day. Most important is limiting yourself to a 40 hour week, not working 50 hours or 60 or 70. It’s just crazy. It’s actually irresponsible to you and irresponsible to your family and friends. Why should your employer’s profits be more important than your own family? You’re not even going to get any of the profits—all you get is not losing your job. It’s a very negative system.

You have to ask, what kind of schedule would I like to work by, and is it possible in my life to create that way of working? That becomes your aspiration. In a way it’s ambitious, but the ambition is to be your own boss.

 

MJ: Still, how idle can you be if you managed to write this book?

TH: A lot of people say, “You say you’re an idler but there’s a lot of hard work in this book.” It was hard work. As a writer, you get these moments of despair—the black screen in front of you--it can be the hardest thing to do in the world. But it was something I’d chosen to do. Also, writing a book is a brilliant thing because once you’ve finished it, you’ve done it, and there’s the potential for it to go on earning you a living without you doing any more work on it. It’s absolutely ideal for an idler. It’s like being a musician: Paul McCartney probably wrote “Yesterday” in about five minutes but it will have earned him millions of pounds over the years without him doing any more work on it at all.

MJ: And idleness and hard work aren’t mutually exclusive; there's just a more balanced way of approaching hard work, right?

TH: Yes. And I had that approach right from the beginning. It wasn’t exactly the old “do nothing all day,” it was just that you appreciate the value of a good portion of doing nothing in your day—for your mental health, your physical health, your relationships, that sort of thing. But also you appreciate the importance of getting out of this wage-slavery thing, more or less, and try to look after yourself, and that’s the anarchist side of it. People say, “Aren’t you going backwards?” or “You’re a Luddite.” But I think it’s good to look at how people lived before, and then take the best bits of that culture and try to mix it in with your own.

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