The anti-productivity movement is taking hold, particularly within the breathless culture of hustle and self-improvement that is the United States. This is to say, “of course it is.” It seems inevitable that a long enough period of glorifying the grind and elevating the total optimization of your time as an inherent good would eventually result in a backlash, but who are we to say?
This sentiment is not new at all, but it really took off in 2020, when the overwhelming pressure of world events made the productivity standards of pre-pandemic seem wholly out of sync with the current reality. In March, when a good part of the world was going into lockdown, some people coped by trying to make use of their free time, assuming they had any. People tweeted their optimized quarantine schedules, and memes went around reminding us that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, so — no pressure or anything, but also, what’s your excuse?
Reliably, people pushed back against this, and it became a subtle form of resistance to reclaim the ability to simply be with yourself, or merely get through the day without feeling bad you didn’t do more, or do something for pleasure without needing to monetize it.
Of course, this version of anti-productivity only makes sense in the context of a culture that’s adopted tech startup brain as its primary set of reality goggles. Now, there’s a whole genre of books that can help you learn to stop worshipping at the altar of busy and to celebrate your own boredom for a change.
What does anti-productivity mean to other cultures around the world, particularly when those concepts are much, much older than the one just described? Here are a couple evocative examples of words in other languages that basically mean “doing nothing,” but with interesting subtleties that can reveal something about the people who brought them to life.
What Anti-Productivity Means In Other Languages
The French term flâneur comes from the verb flâner, meaning “to stroll” or “to saunter.” If you’re a flâneur, you are a person who strolls or saunters. You are “a person who walks the city in order to experience it,” in the words of French poet Charles Baudelaire, who helped bring the concept into the literary mainstream of the 19th century.
There’s a bit of a stigma attached to this term, though. Depending on who you ask, some say flâneur as though to say “loafer” or “loiterer”; others say flâneur as though to say “someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets he walks – and is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.” That’s an Edmund White quote, by the way.
The concept of the flâneur has in many ways become shorthand for a certain kind of participation in (and alienation from) modernity. It’s a position of privilege to be able to be a flâneur, and it’s also a harkening back to a certain mood of romance that mostly made sense within the context of 19th century French literature.
This is specifically relevant in the context of post-Revolution France, where burgeoning egalitarianism meant that anyone could be an observer with important and significant observations to share, or someone who was capable of having experiences that justified their right to leisure time. To be fair, “anyone” in 19th century France mostly meant “men,” but you get the idea.
In Chinese, wuliao basically means “bored to the point of silliness,” and it’s generally used as a pejorative. It can sometimes refer to something or someone who is boring, or less frequently, someone who is unskilled, vapid, or perhaps full of nonsense.
Refinery29‘s Connie Wang writes that though she grew up with this word leveraged against her by adults as a sharp rebuke of her childhood frivolousness, she has grown up to appreciate this notion of “boredom as an art form, the specific mindset in which spectacularly chaotic, meaningless bullshit springs to life.”
Rather than spend her free time learning or practicing things that would contribute to her academic development, Wang chose wuliao instead by itemizing her American Girl doll catalogs and caking pond scum onto her legs. And she also observed wuliao was afoot during the early stages of the pandemic, when people were making increasingly absurd Rube Goldberg machines and painting their legs using every shade of eyeshadow they owned.
Though this is a nontraditional take on wuliao, it is something that was always available to be reclaimed. “Instead of spending the free time you have maximizing, optimizing, and churning, consider frittering it away. It’ll feel good,” she writes.
Niksen is the Dutch art of doing nothing, and you’ve probably seen it trending lately because there’s now a book out called Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing.
The author, Olga Mecking, wrote a viral New York Times article in 2019 called “The Case for Doing Nothing,” and its success made a case for why people might be especially receptive to a message like this right now.
By the way, “doing nothing” means literally doing nothing — not distracting yourself by scrolling through your phone, or online shopping, or watching Netflix. It means just sitting there, hanging out and definitely not worrying about tomorrow’s to-do list. Sometimes it can involve activities that let your mind wander, like coloring or cooking or running, without a specific purpose in mind. And you don’t even have to set aside a whole day for it — sometimes a short dose of niksen in the middle of the workday can reset your mind and creativity.
It’s anti-productivity that ultimately helps our productivity, if that makes sense. We’ve known for a while that ample rest makes people more productive in the long run. However, to do niksen properly, you kind of have to do it “just because,” not because you’re hoping it’ll make you more efficient. It’s a weird mind-meld, but that’s why it’s called an art form.
“We don’t do nothing to become more relaxed,” Mecking told Apartment Therapy. “We do it ‘just because’—or because it simply feels good.”