The Idler and the Lifehacker

Within me there are two people: the guy who wants to keep all his time free, and the guy who is eager to accomplish a great many things. The first guy yearns to BE, the second burns to DO. They vie for control of my brain.


Guy #1 keeps a copy of How To Be Idle close at hand (so he won’t have to get up and look for it). This book by Tom Hodgkinson — editor of a magazine called The Idler, natch — rejects the Puritan work ethic that is used by our corporate overlords to make us feel like sluggards if we don’t toil endlessly to enrich them. Hodgkinson asks: What’s the sense in pushing ourselves to clock extra hours at the office just to borrow money to buy things we don’t need because they dull the pain of working so much? Better to sleep late. Take long walks. Chat with friends in the middle of the day. Enjoy what really makes us happy: freedom, in the form of free time. So naturally Guy #1 is broke and his rent is always late.

Guy #2 is always scanning the latest posts on the Lifehacker weblog. He’s addicted to self-improvement. He wants to be more efficient and waste no time. He wants to make more money, lose weight, learn Italian, write a novel in 30 days, quantify and refine his habits, master both the slow cooker and the Instant Pot, optimize all his electronic devices, watch TED talks, automate his apartment, hone his mind and tone his body. He makes to-do lists. He looks for the best to-do list apps. He reads articles that promise to help him find the best to-do list apps. He’s jittery from staring at the screen too long, but he keeps on staring. Too much to do. He’ll sleep when he’s dead.

Gravestone Death Cemetery Graveyard Old Rip Grave
“Inbox zero at last.”

Neither of these guys is a healthy individual. The first guy knows how to live, but not how to make a living. The second guy has the opposite problem. They have a history of taking turns at my controls. The Lifehacker will push me around for a while, getting things done and making a stir until I wear out. Then Idler Guy takes charge and lets the dirty dishes pile up while surfing YouTube and eating Haagen-Dazs out of the container. “This is more like it!” says Idler Guy, until I get bored/bloated/guilty and the Lifehacker reasserts himself.

I need these guys to get along. The Idler should teach the Lifehacker to relax and stop equating accomplishment with self-worth. The Lifehacker ought to show the Idler that leisure quickly goes stale when it becomes a full-time pursuit. They need each other, and I need both of them.

So I’ve been trying to get the Lifehacker and the Idler to collaborate rather than agitate against each other. If they each get a chance to take the wheel a few times on any given day, I feel more balanced and they don’t get snippy. Two hours of work, an hour of unfocused noodling, two more hours of work (and so on) allows me to get things done without feeling like a drudge or burning out. Gradual but consistent effort manages much. “A small daily task, if it be really daily,” wrote Anthony Trollope, “will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.” He knew what he was talking about: Trollope wrote dozens of hefty books (AND invented the mailbox at his governmental day job).

pillar box
The ACTUAL mailbox, that is.

Our culture tries to turn us all into Lifehackers, or at least workaholics who enrich the stockholders and buy every shiny new item in the marketplace. (Capitalism!) Therefore I’d like to keep the Idler alive within myself. He knows that I was not born to fret over bank statements and calorie counts. But since I’d like to actually have money in the bank and not die of diabetes, I strive to keep my inner Lifehacker happy as well. He’s the guy who wrote this essay, while the Idler tried to keep it brisk and to the point. Now it’s time for a little Haagen-Dazs.

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