The Lost Art of Leisure

“A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.”
― George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

“My father taught me to work, but not to love it. I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh — anything but work.”
― Abraham Lincoln

You might have noticed that I’ve gone incommunicado the past 2 months.  I haven’t been writing, as you can see.  I haven’t been answering email, or checking in on Twitter.  I had an occasional urge to write a new post here, but that always quickly subsided and I got back to doing whatever it was that I was doing. Which usually did not involve sitting at a computer.

This new lifestyle started in mid-June, when my wife was set to leave town for about a week and I was to stay home with my 2 kids.  Right before she left, I lost my phone.  I wasn’t too worried about it, and I decided to just to replace it with a prepaid flip phone rather than another smart phone.

Then on the day she left, my laptop battery charger stopped working. She had taken her laptop, as well as our Android tablet, and so between my lost phone and uncharged laptop I found myself suddenly without internet access.

So there I was, in just a few days I went from having a normal life with all the glories and pitfalls of the imaginary leash created by smart phones and laptops – to total freedom.  A sweet, quiet, liberating detachment from the constant communication we surround ourselves with by carrying the internet in our pockets.

This had surprisingly significant effects.  When the kids would escape to the playground to play with each other, I typically would have used that moment of freedom to do something really useful like check Twitter on my phone, or read some sensationalized news article on cnn.com.  But I didn’t have my phone, so I just sat there and watched the kids.  And read books.  And sometimes just stared into space and rested my brain that hadn’t been truly rested in decades (though I hadn’t realized it until then).

When my kids did something Instagram-worthy, I had to just capture the memory in my head to tell a story later, rather than chase them around with my smartphone camera.

And after just a day or two of adjusting to this scary sound of information silence, it felt shockingly great.  I had accidentally stumbled upon a powerful realization: The increasing ease of immediate information in this technology age has created a direct attack on the art of leisure.  Even when we’re not at work, we’re working.  We’ve created non-paying jobs out of thin air.  Keeping up with the news, keeping up with our Netflix queues, taking pictures and sharing them, texting constantly, checking Twitter and Facebook…  You get the picture.

“I don’t envy “busy.” Busy means having a schedule, not living life. What I really covet is leisure and peace of mind. Those who have both, have it all.”
― Donna Lynn Hope

All of this was by chance, of course.  I didn’t plan some grand scheme of becoming disconnected and, ultimately, deeply relaxed and present and in the moment. I mean, that was a state I knew I wanted to reach, but I didn’t conceive of a plan to lose my phone and break my laptop charger to achieve it.  Nor did I realize that losing those things would be a good thing.

But there I was, disconnected and present and relaxed.  Practicing real leisure for the first time in a long time.

That was two months ago, but after that I was in no hurry to return to the busy world we live in without leisure.

We’re a culture of people checking Facebook while sitting at red lights (or worse, while driving).  People rushing from place to place, always behind and stressed.  Filling their weekends with chores and activities then complaining that they didn’t get recharged as Monday morning rolls around.  People getting anxious because they’re falling behind on their Netflix queue, or because they’ve caught up on all their shows and need to hurry and find a new one to kill time in the evening (which, I’ll argue, is not real leisure).  I’ve even recently had a discussion with a friend who was stressed about making their vacation plans.  It’s insanity!

So here’s my advice: Stop!  Be still.  Rest.  Go find a quiet spot where no cars can access and people are few and far between, and just read a fictional book that teaches you nothing, one that is only meant for entertainment.  Or, better yet, forget the book and just sit quietly with your own thoughts.  Embrace that scary sound of silence.

And it will be scary at first.

Once you’ve done this, do it again.  Increase the duration and frequency until you actually look forward to truly doing nothing.

“Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.”
― Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis Of Culture

I’m sure some of you are thinking “Sure, easy for you to say BNL.  You’ve already achieved financial independence and quit your job.  You have all the time in the world now.  Have you already forgotten what it was like when you did have a job?”

No, I haven’t forgotten what it was like.  If I had, I wouldn’t be inclined to sit in front of my laptop and write this down (an activity that certainly is not leisure).  But I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to see things with a new perspective now that I’m in this early retirement, and I can see things more clearly.  And what I see is a culture of people that are so damned busy and stressed, and they don’t realize that much of the busyness and stress is self created.  Partially because it’s in our nature, but mostly because it’s scary not to be busy.  I would even go so far as to say that people are proudly addicted to their busyness, without realizing the harm they’re doing to themselves.

And after seeing all of that clearly, I realized that I was the epitome of that self-created stress, and if I could go back and give my 30 year old self any advice I would say to slow down.  Get rid of the non-essential activities, reject overly high ambitions and all the anxiety that comes with it, and enjoy each individual moment for what it is.  Proudly embrace the art of true leisure.

There’s something wonderful about finishing up a transaction at the bank, only to notice a new used book store across the street, then spending the next two hours browsing their selection completely unplanned. Or riding your bike 20 miles down an unknown trail just to see how far it goes.  Or walking 3 miles to a destination when you could have biked or driven, just because you’re in a walking mood and in no hurry.  Or listening to someone apologize for being late, and honestly responding that it’s OK because you’re not in a hurry.  I point these things out because they’re all things I did this week, while practicing my newly renewed art of leisure.

These things may not all be possible for you right now, since I’m sure most of you have jobs, kids, and other responsibilities. But if you start analyzing your time and figuring out what “responsibilities” you can start stripping out of your life, I’m sure you can all free up significant time for real leisure.  And if you do it, you won’t regret it.

“We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly lines. One works not because the work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit – a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation.”
― Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food




30 Responses to The Lost Art of Leisure

  1. Luke says:

    New reader here. I was wondering why you are not making new posts for such a long time. So when I saw this new post, I stopped everything I did and wanted to see what the new post was about.

    I have also experienced the same. A couple of years back when hurricane Irene hit the east cost I was there. Power went of for a day and a half. Initially I hated the fact that I couldn’t access the internet and my cellphone charge ran out. But as you said, I kind of felt free. Had a long conversation with my wife and had lot of laughs. Since then, whenever we thought we need a break, we put every electronic device in silent mode, sit together in the patio and just talk.

    • Sounds like you know exactly what I’m talking about.

      I’ve recently bought a 5 acre plot of land in a state park in Kentucky, and plan to build a small cabin out there to achieve the same thing. It’s barely accessible by a dirt road, has no electricity or even cell phone service. I figure this will be a great getaway to achieve the same thing as your talks on the patio.

  2. Glad to hear from you again, and very glad to hear it was for the right reasons; taking time to enjoy life and appreciate your freedom.

    I once worked a job at a kid’s activity centre in the middle of nowhere with no internet, tv or phone signal. All the staff lived together onsite as well. It took a week or so to get used to but once I had, I totally lost the desire to ‘stay-connected’ online and instead stayed connected with those around me. Instead of spending hours talking online, We would spend hours sat around a camp fire chatting or playing huge games of capture the flag. I was only there for 9 months but it seemed like 5 years.. and in a good way! I appreciated every day and so looked forward to everyday instead of wishing them away to get closer to the weekend.

    • It’s funny, it seems like anytime we experience things like you did for 9 months, it’s almost universally considered a great experience. But we always return…

      I realize there are other aspects of life, like keeping in touch with friends and family, and probably making some money as well. But it really doesn’t cost much to live the lifestyle you’re describing, so I wonder if or when our culture will shift in that direction. I hope soon. I know I plan to, at least in some ways.

  3. Shawn Isaacs says:

    This is an idea worth spreading!!

  4. Craig says:

    Awesome article!

    I love your guidance: “Enjoy each individual moment for what it is!”

    Thank you!

  5. Cindy says:

    Being and looking busy is really part of the culture now, the roads are even jam-packed during the weekend because people seem to want to ride their cars for fun… People are not driving enough during the week? Just stay home and bit and smell the flowers…

    I also feel freer when I can leave my phone behind, it’s great when people are not able to join you at all time. It’s best to live in the moment and not behind the camera or catching up on the latest internet meme.

  6. Great post. I’ve never really embraced modern tech but I’ve seen a very similar thing when I opted out of consumerism. I just didn’t realise how much happier and healthier I could be until I lived it.

    The great thing about avoiding consumerism and staying away from tech is that it really helps accelerates progress to financial freedom. This is because it firstly allows you to save more from each pay cheque but secondly because you now need less to live on the wealth required goal posts also come towards you.

    For me this means my path to financial independence journey has reduced to 10 years with me now 7 years into that journey. It’s been and is liberating.

  7. superbee says:

    What a great post. I just moved and a formerly easy TV placement just got much harder… I’m flirting with not even putting it up at all, and this post is making me lean in that direction more. More tranquility sounds so good…

    • I suggest you try not putting it back up, at least for a month or so. If you still want it after that, you can always set it up then. I’ll bet you miss it for a few days, and maybe on rare occasions when friends are discussing something they saw on TV. (Then again, how interesting are conversations about TV shows?!?)

      We have a relatively small 36″ TV now, but with no cable. I’d personally be OK with getting rid of it altogether, but there are a few shows on Netflix my wife and I watch together in the evenings after the kids are asleep, and I don’t really want to watch it on a laptop with 2 people.

  8. Hey BNL,

    Good to have you back, I always enjoy reading your posts.

    Sounds like we had vastly different summers. For some reason, we feel the need to cram everything we can into the summers months before winter sets in. I got to a point where I needed to intentionally step back and slow down. Since that has happened I’ve been much more useful.

    At some point it’s making a choice. For you it was making the choice to ignore the electronics once you had them. We all just want you to write for our own selfish reasons.

    Glad you had a good summer!

    • I think it’s easy to get sucked into squeezing as much as you can into the summer, especially when kids are involved, as they are for you and me. The first and most difficult step it to recognize that you’re doing it, then it’s pretty easy to back off if you want to. Glad you recognized it.

      I know I’ve said it before, but I really do plan on writing more. I checked this morning and I have 76 posts in my “drafts” folder, many of them mostly complete but needing quite a bit of editing. That’s a pretty high quantity considering I only have 120 published posts in the 4 years I’ve been doing this, and most of those were in the first year. I’m very noncommittal with my writing. :)

  9. Reepekg says:

    Sounds like you could use a read of “Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow” by Jerome K. Jerome.

  10. Michael says:

    We recently got a land line so we can turn our phones off and started using our 20 year old alarm clock so the phones could be in another room. It’s amazing how we’re starting to intentionally go backwards technologically.

    Regarding blogging I’m glad you’re doing it as it serves you. I’m starting to see blogging as a way for me to articulate my own journey to myself first. At some point when I’m where you are, the need may not be as pressing as it is right now.

    • That’s a great idea about the land line! We haven’t had a land line in probably 5 years, but I like the idea of turning cell phones off at the front door and only using the house phone. We’d still have our laptops, but I find that we’re much less likely to abuse our laptops, where as with cell phones it’s too damn easy to just pull it out of your pocket and check Twitter just because you have 3 minutes of idle time.

  11. AEBinNC says:

    Great post. I’m glad you’re continuing to share, reading these posts helps me stay motivated to keep working my plan. Tonight my wife and I are re-arranging the souvenir magnets, photos and postcards that we keep on our fridge. Its a chance for us to remember the trips we’ve had together and relax away from technology.

  12. Debt Hater says:

    This is a great post, and I love the story and the quotes you chose to go with it. This is something that I can fully get behind, though I’m not quite ready to do these things just yet with my current financial status.

    But it is nice to be able to just slow down every once in a while and get away from it all, and I find it crazy that a lot of people that don’t understand that. There are people at my company that get 5 weeks of vacation and only end up using 1-2 weeks of it! I couldn’t fathom doing that as I value my free time much greater than working.

  13. No Name Guy says:

    “And after just a day or two of adjusting to this scary sound of information silence, it felt shockingly great. ”

    Not only information silence, but simply silence, I would suggest. Too many people “need” constant entertainment it seems. Not only unplugging from “information” is good, but all media – take the darn headphones out and actually listen to what’s in your mind. I suspect that not many do this since, as you (IMO) rightly point out, it would be scary.

    Doing a long walk in the woods is the way I’ve been to where you are. No music, no radio, no constant internet, no TV….just one’s own thoughts along with the natural world around you.

    Its kind of funny, but in a way what you’re saying is kind of like what it takes to really see the stars at night. You have to go to a dark place away from civilization. You have to turn out all the lights you brought with you. And even then, it takes a while for ones eyes to adjust to the point where you can REALLY start seeing things as they are up there. Same thing with the mind…..

    BNL – glad you’re enjoying your new found place.

    • It’s funny that you pointed out my use of the word “information” when qualifying silence. That was actually the last edit I made to the post before publishing, and I’m not even sure why I added the word. You’re right, what I experienced was a more complete silence.

  14. […] time to “play”, except our play just ends up filling up our schedule and reducing our true leisure time that much […]

  15. […] The Lost Art of Leisure by Brave New Life.  I don’t really buy into the public panic that smartphones are ruining our lives, nor do I feel stressed out by my Facebook or Instagram apps.  (Unfollow 90% of your friends on Facebook and it suddenly becomes a much simpler place, and Instagram is either beautiful or funny, rarely annoying).  However, I will continue to rant about how Americans today are addicted to their busyness, and how that is a poor mental habit that needs to be broken.  Leisure is fantastic.  If you have young children you probably don’t have a choice but to put aside leisure for a few years, but otherwise, go carve out some time!  Get lost.  Take a long walk.  Do something completely unproductive. […]

  16. Jamie V says:

    I read this back when you first posted it, and just re-read it. I am going camping with my boyfriend starting this Friday night allll through the following week, to come home the next Saturday. And I am looking forward to it so much! No electricity! No phones, no computers, no clocks, no game systems, no televisions. Nothing to distract us from getting a little more acquainted with ourselves and each other, and with nature and the world around us. This is what is we’re going to try: http://www.thesacredscience.com/blog1/a-jungle-healing-technique-you-can-use-anywhere

    We went to the jungle last year and want to find that connection we made with life and nature and natural processes going on within and outside of us. We hope to come home with less stress, feeling less depressed and not so sick – all constant things that we seem to make excuses to never have time to heal..

    Your blog is always an inspiration and a motivator, keep up the good work!

    • That sounds great. Actually, I bought a 5-acre wooded lot in the Daniel Boone National Forest a few months ago, and once we move out east that will be our escape like the one you’re describing.

  17. Michelle says:

    Hi there, just discovered your blog today. Let me say I have a full-time job and a very active toddler but I am also doing just what you are! It all started with keeping the living room desktop powered down (which serves as the TV) in the afternoons when we realized the Toddler TV (my selection of YouTube channels)hours had ballooned out of control. I’d already been on a diet from most of the news and generic television watching for a while. I decided to expand into a break from Facebook. It feels great! I feel more content and less anxious and agitated in my down time (and my toddler seems to as well).

  18. 这篇文章十分给力~,感谢分享!!

  19. G42 says:

    It is interesting how time and peace expand when you remove the discretionary business that so many folks think is mandatory. Isn’t the silence amazing?
    I don’t have cable and no longer even have a TV. No Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter…they all seem to be things that will consume me for no real purpose. I use my laptop for the information I find interesting (like this blog) and for emailing friends and family in time zones not friendly to phone calls… I still work ‘full time’ (like you were, I’m paid for 40, rarely work that, yet still exceed expectations) as I work towards FI. I’m still astounded at how much time we really have if we eliminate all the random BS.
    Thanks for writing the blog – I’m binge reading my way to the present – fun version of a time machine!

  20. Em says:

    Digital detox can be so challenging nowadays. It takes a lot of effort to disconnect on your own and it takes a lot of willpower. I do agree that there are still things out there that can be enjoyed without the internet and there’s no need to spend a lot of money on. I’ve put on hold reading books for about a couple of years and my reading list has piled up but after reading your article I’m definitely gonna hop back in and start reading again. :)

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