Why we should all embrace our lazy side

Hi Tom, in Idler style we’d like to ask you 10 important questions. What’s an idler?

I think most people are naturally lazy. When you’re growing up parents - and the world - constantly encourage you to work hard. This isn’t completely bad, but I think everyone is an idler deep down.

We started the magazine after being inspired by a collection of essays written by Dr Johnson (he wrote the first English dictionary in 1755) called The Idler. He was basically lazy but also really ambitious and successful. I realised that these two things were connected and could work quite well together.

Often idlers are people who can’t - or don’t want to - fit into more conventional ways of working.

These individuals can come across as anti-establishment, lazy and petulant – a punk or a teenager not wanting to get a job. But they’re actually very creative people.

For example, Jarvis Cocker was on the dole for years. You can’t really imagine him working in a factory, can you? I imagine that’s where they would have liked to put him, but what would have happened to Brit Pop if Jarvis or Noel Gallagher had been forced to work in a call centre?

It’s about those sorts of issues. I think everyone is, or wants to be an idler. We love going on holiday, we love the idea of retirement, we love doing nothing on a Sunday afternoon. It’s something deep down.

For most of my life I’d been pushing this idleness away: “I must work harder, I must get up earlier” etc. I was torturing myself with these resolutions. And then I read Dr Johnson’s essays and I realised I should embrace my own idleness. It’s good for creativity and it’s good for health (being overworked is dangerously unhealthy).

It’s also a way of looking at the world. I realised the people who have given the most to the world have been the least hardworking, in a sense. Think about the greatest leaders – they didn’t particularly do anything, or write anything down. Socrates famously talked about philosophy all day (and drank copious amounts of wine). He’s the type of person Donald Trump would call a loser. He didn’t earn money for him and his family, he didn’t even wear shoes!

It’s all about not feeling guilty about being idle, instead, embrace it. I’m not saying that we should give up and sit in our underpants drinking beer while watching Jeremy Kyle. It’s about finding a way of expressing yourself and finding work you enjoy. It all starts from doing nothing.

Who are idlers?

Poets are idlers. Philosophers are idlers. Artists are idlers. And people don’t like the idea of this, because it makes hardworking people look bad.

But often you’ll find that creative people have - or have had - a very basic, monotonous job to encourage their idleness. We spoke to John Cooper Clarke recentlyand he told us that back in the 60s there were lots of jobs like this. Night watchmen, for example. He just had to sit there and do nothing. He read books and wrote poetry. So it’s great for idlers – find a job where you don’t have to do any work.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

I’ve had every job you can imagine. It started with a paper round. I worked in warehouses, it was pretty awful. You just listen to the commercial radio all day long. And the dull banter with other people is terrible.

I actually quite enjoyed being a removal man though. I was in a little team and drove around eating bacon butties and smoking rollies. That was really good. I also liked working in the skateboarding shop in Rough Trade Records in Covent Garden. I met so many interesting people while working there.

The job I found quite depressing was my first proper job in journalism. It should have been a good opportunity but I was right at the bottom of the barrel working as a junior researcher for the Sunday Mirror. I ended up staying there for two years. But it wasn’t for me, and I was too big headed for it. I was very lazy, a bad employee – I was sacked eventually. But while I was there I had the idea for The Idler.

We actually published a book called Crap Jobs. We asked our readers to contribute with their bad experiences.

How many hours does the editor of a successful magazine like The Idler work? How does an idler deal with this?

These days it’s 9-5. Although it’s probably more like 10:30-6. There are three of us who rent an office.

Once, my then-partner Gavin and I went on the radio and talked to Mark Lamarr about issue one of The Idler. He had Paul Bradley on too (Nigel Bates in Eastenders). He flicked through the issue and said: “You call yourselves idlers, but you’ve obviously put a lot of work into this magazine.”

I’ve now had that comment every day for about the last 25 years. 

It’s my own fault for starting a magazine called The Idler, but I do actually work quite hard.

You’ve got to allow yourself plenty of time off. I overworked when we had our own shop. It was very long hours which made the work less fun. In contrast, doing a 9-5 feels like quite a breeze.

Where do the topics come from?

A lot of it stems from journalistic training. It has to be something that other people want to read. It’s a mixture of my own interests and something that has an audience. My time at the Sunday Mirror magazine and the Guardian helped me a lot, and I’ve written a few books too.

It’s also counter intuitive. We’re running a story today after doing an interview with the actress Sally Phillips. I spent a couple of hours in the pub with her and in the middle of the interview she said: “I’m anti-Bake Off. It’s turning baking - which ought to be something you just enjoy - into a race.”

I thought this was a great point and something I hadn’t thought of before. I thought we could run with this as the main angle to get the most from it.

In the current issue we’ve got an article called The Idle Home written by our art director and her boyfriend who’s our typesetter. They live on the 20th floor of a tower block in Rochdale. I thought that it would be a great story considering what’s happened with Grenfell Tower recently. They took photos of their interior and it looked amazing and they talk about how tower blocks are a great place to live – they just need to be looked after. There’s something topical there that we managed to tie in.

We also like to teach people things. Often it’s quite eccentric stuff: the snail in medieval art, for example.

And I badger my favourite writers into writing something for us. That’s usually a good technique.

What would you put in Room 101?

All of the top five technology companies: Apple, Uber, Google, Facebook etc. And maybe my old boss at the Sunday Mirror magazine.

Who inspires you?

I’m definitely inspired by The KLF. They had all of these ‘crazy’ ideas and they actually did them.

Anybody that has an idea and actually follows it through impresses me.

I’m still inspired by The Beatles and the Punk movement. And John Bird who started the Big Issue. He’s a very inspiring character.

There are lots of inspiring people all over the place. A friend of mine called John died a couple of years ago – he never really did anything. He was just fun and he wrote lots of poetry. He inspired me as he somehow managed to live outside of the system.

What’s your favourite idle pleasure? (Or constructive idleness)

I really enjoy playing the ukulele, I’ve been playing for a few years now. I also love going for long walks with my wife or my friends.

Digital moves faster than print – how does an idler keep up with modern life?

We keep an eye on digital. And we also have a ‘young person’ in the office who’s a lot more digitally-minded than my wife and myself. Having an actual millennial in the office – everyone needs one!

I really like Youtube and video. I think video works really well on computers. We’ve recently turned 30 of our courses into video tutorials. You can buy these three or four hour videos and take an online video course in playing the ukulele or ancient philosophy.

A few weeks ago we had an email from a woman who told us how she was a single parent and stuck at home a lot but our courses offered her a way of feeling connected. That’s really great to hear.

Sometimes we do offers on Facebook, but Facebook changes so often it’s hard to know the best way to use it. It’s getting to the point where you have to pay someone to teach you how to use it – I don’t like that.

In some fantasy land I’d be completely anti-social media. But that’s silly because everyone is on it and it’s kind of expected. We use Facebook and Twitter to promote our blog posts.

I like email marketing, it’s what works best for us. We get lots of replies and people using the offers.

How can we be more idle in 2017?

Like I said, some of the most important people don’t do anything. They’re thinking and philosophizing.

Being idle makes people feel guilty which is the first problem. We always feel like we should be doing something. So firstly: there’s nothing to be guilty about, it’s a noble thing.

The second thing: you owe it yourself to be idle. There are so many untold health problems that arise from overworking yourself – physically and mentally.

The most simple ways of giving yourself more time to be idle? Turn the television off. It’s an old fashioned idea, but it’s so useful. Cut down on screens really. Unplug the telephone. I don’t even have a smartphone. I have a ‘dumb phone’ if you like. That creates a lot of time. We’re all drawn to our phones – it gives our hands something to do. But I can’t do anything with my phone except make calls, so it gives me a lot of time to take in my surroundings, look out the window and do nothing. It rests you and your mind.

Go for walks – there are so many places when you can do nothing, for free! I love cycling around London. You can go slow, fast, whatever and wherever: it’s liberating.

And don’t have children. They take away your chances of being idle.

Shannon Watson