on the importance of downtime



… I have been a chronic loafer and an enthusiast of dolce far niente all my life. This is the other side of the Taoist percept that “doing nothing is better than to be busy doing nothing.” Almost daily I spend a couple of afternoon hours in my favorite ways of “doing nothing” mentally: working in my garden, cutting the lawn, struggling with the jungle around my summer cottage, walking, swimming, fishing, and climbing mountains. … I still do … [all] kinds of physical work.

Quite frequently I also loaf by meditating on a beautiful sunset or sunrise, whitecaps or the stillness of dreaming waters, the fireworks of a thunderstorm, or the “deafening silence” of a starry night.


— Pitirim A. Sorokin, A Long Journey: The Autobiography of Pitirim A. Sorokin (1963)






I have observed it often. I am sure you have too.

Overprogrammed kids (uber-kids). Overprogrammed adults.





Uber-kids. You will from time to time read about them in the newspaper. The high school student who missed getting into an Ivy League School for some reason and perhaps feels it was because of discrimination. Near 800 scores on their SAT’s. Proficient on the cello. Captained the high school tennis team. Volunteers at a homeless shelter and spent a summer in Guatemala assisting with refugee efforts.

And so on.

I hope I don’t sound snide. Or like a know it all. When I was in high school, and was striving to get accepted to Harvard, I felt overprogrammed. I volunteered for all sorts of clubs and student organizations; participated in athletics which I did enjoy for the most part but also hoped would make me appear “well rounded”; and studied very hard. But, one can’t help wondering, is it fair to place such demands and expectations on young people, that they always perform at a high level in so many areas? With no time to just be themselves. Their wonderful, unique selves (as their parents know them to be).

I have witnessed, as I am sure most readers of this blog have, many kids brought up this way from early childhood. Swimming lessons. Tennis lessons. Music lessons. After school enrichment programs. Summer camp (no time allowed for sheer idleness). And so on.

Their parents seem hard pressed to shepherd them (usually by automobile) from appointment to appointment.





Anyway, I took a walk yesterday after a long, hectic week. And was thinking about how I often feel overprogrammed. Multitasking. I often seem to be doing everything practically at once and accomplishing less and less as time goes on.

It was sometimes this way in my own adolescence, but I do recall having a lot of time as a child — in a different age, when things seemed simpler and less competitive — to just hang out with friends or do things by myself. Long summer vacations (they seemed endless when you were a kid). Playing in the back yard, the street, or a vacant lot. Improvised games and idle conversations. Playing kids’ board games or with toys, or simple card games such as War and Old Maid. (Games that were essentially a waste of time, but we were socializing.) Days spent lolling around with a book, or a comic book. Daydreaming. Being alone, lost in thought, or playing a solitary game. The feeling we used to have of delicious boredom.





On my neighborhood walk yesterday, I thought to myself that everyone needs down time. Not only to “recharge batteries.” But for true productivity.

And, most importantly, for CREATIVITY.

When one is idling mentally, one has the time and opportunity to think or just start doing something different or new. It doesn’t have to be something momentous. It often isn’t. It could be picking up something such as a book you had forgotten you had. It could be cleaning your room or raking leaves, or doing some other menial task. But, what happens is that one finds that the mind becomes reenergized. Naturally.

It seems to be true that the mind is most fertile precisely when it is not overprogrammed. You pick up a newspaper or magazine or a book you had forgotten about. You engage in a conversation that seems to be going nowhere in particular (which is of no account). And, suddenly, you get a new idea. Or, when you are doing something nonintellectual, and a whole new idea, a new thought, comes to you, strikes you. And, feeling refreshed, you are eager to perhaps write it down, to run with it, so to speak. This happens, it seems, not only because you are refreshed, but also because the mind has been cleared, making new thoughts more likely, and so on. If I were a psychologist, I could, no doubt, explain this better.





Pitirim A. Sorokin expressed this well. But, it should be noted that it is not exactly a matter of shutting down mentally. It’s just that the mind needs freedom to idle (like a car engine) and wander a bit. It needs some freedom to “roam.”

To put it another way, using a metaphor from nature. If you can give yourself a break mentally, a germination process often occurs. You are cleaning your room or raking leaves (or perhaps doing something non task oriented, like walking). You have shut down mentally for a short while. All the thoughts and impressions, all the knowledge, is still there. They are mulch, like leaves on the ground. They are the substratum of new mental matter, new thoughts.

How truly pleasurable this is. I hope our kids will be allowed to experience it.

Why can’t they just be kids?



— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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