You can do a lot by doing nothing: Emily Dickinson © Flickr

Why it's time to stop working

The burnout, the slob, the daydreamer and the slacker—which could you be?
January 28, 2019

We live in a culture where activity is imperative. Work and distraction are the rule and doing nothing is frowned upon—even if it’s secretly what we would all like to do. In his new book Not Working, the academic and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen recommends that we all stop.

Inactivity, Cohen says, can be a fertile ground for both creativity and fulfilment. Citing Freud rather than Marx, this book is a welcome supplement to the growing literature on modern work.

Cohen invites us to attend to our inner inertia by presenting four inertial types: the burnout, the slob, the daydreamer and the slacker. Each has, for whatever reason, “stopped working, or at least working blindly” and points us to possibilities for living differently. Cohen notes that his “types” offer not so much a neat instruction manual for “how we should live” as prompt worthwhile questions about “how we do live.”

He offers biographical sketches of figures roughly matched to each of his four types: Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, Emily Dickinson and David Foster Wallace. None of these are lives you might want to replicate yourself, but, as Cohen sees it, each “channelled feelings of indifference, slothful indulgence, withdrawal and boredom into remarkable cultural achievements.” They hold lessons on how inactivity can work.

Despite brilliant discussions of Dickinson and Tracey Emin, there’s a disappointing dearth of women in Not Working. In addition, Cohen’s focus on studying the psyche leaves out proper consideration of the practical solutions needed to fix our failed system of work.

However, the author makes clear that this book is no policy tome. Much like psychoanalysis, Not Working offers no quick fix. But if you’re in the process of trying to stand still in a culture that won’t let you, it may help you hold your nerve. It’s certainly cheaper than an hour on the couch.

Not Working: Why We Have to Stop by Josh Cohen (Granta, £14.99)