Working too hard? Learn how to live like a loafer

In China each year, around 600,000 people die from working too hard. That's 1600 employees every day, some dropping dead at their desks.

Australians may not be falling off the perch at the same rate, but many undoubtedly push too hard to keep the boss happy. A recent report revealed that the full-time hours of Aussie men in particular are much longer than the OECD norn, with Sydneysiders for example, working an average of 1829 hours per year and being rewarded with just 24 paid vacation days.

All work and no play may be good for paying off your enormous inner-city mortgage, but it does your health no favours. A study from the University of Texas Health Science Centre suggests that long office hours could put a strain on your heart and raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. A further study of 16,000 Norwegians this year showed a direct link between workaholism and mental illness, including clinical anxiety and depression.

The 'fine art of doing nothing'

UK author Tom Hodgkinson has devoted his life to telling people that hard work never did anybody any good. His 2004 book, How to be Idle: A Loafer's Manifesto, became a worldwide best seller in 25 languages, and espoused Hodgkinson's philosophy on the 'fine art of doing nothing'. He followed up this success, publishing further books on adopting a more relaxed approach to life: How to be Free (2006) The Idle Parent (2009) and Brave Old World (2011). In 2006 he created the irreverent National Unawareness Day.

When Executive Style caught up with the 47-year-old in London, he was (sort of) busy arranging an online ukulele course through his popular Idler Academy. "Being an idler is not about laying on the sofa all day, it's about freedom," Hodgkinson says. It might include the freedom to take a long walk, take a day off and have naps, but it's also about discovering work and a whole life that you find fulfilling."

I'm not necessarily telling people to quit their jobs and become a poet, but on the other hand working 100 hours a week in a job you hate is just bonkers.

Tom Hodgkinson

Hodgkinson arrived at his idler attitude in his early 20s after finishing a degree in English at university where he read the essays of Samuel Johnson, published in 1758-60. "They were quite funny little essays about being an idler. Johnson believed that every man is, or hopes to be, an idler. He  himself was an idler in the sense that although he was incredibly talented and ambitious, he was also incredibly lazy."

A more natural way to work

Johnson discovered that the benefit to his own idleness was that it gave him the time to think. "During the period of not working, you are actually working very hard in your head," Hodgkinson says. "I thought that was exactly the kind of way I would like to work, not stuck in an office, but in a freelance way. There's a lot of sitting around doing nothing and then, bang, you produce something in these intense bouts; it's a more natural way to work.

"My mission became how to find a way to create a life of freedom in a world where everybody sucks you into the corporation or bureaucracy; I needed to live by my wits. That's what the idler is all about."

After residing in London for a decade, Hodgkinson and his wife moved with their young children to a tumbledown house in North Devon, where they remained for 12 years. Hodgkinson recalls it was the most wonderfully idle time of his life.


"I was waking up in this beautiful place, writing books for a few hours, growing vegetables after lunch, chopping logs, having a nap, going for a long walk, and playing with the children. Sometimes I'd visit the country pub for a ukulele sing-along with friends, but that was less attractive after the smoking ban came in, so I built my own pub in my house. It was called The Green Man and it had a dartboard, and wall mirrors with Scotty dogs printed on them."

Idle curiosity

Eventually the cosmopolitan lights called him back, and the couple established the Idler Academy; a book and coffee shop in West London. The bookshop closed this year, but the Academy remains as an online entity, teaching such diverse subjects as elocution, drawing, modern manners, and the history of British buildings.

"You can stay in bed and learn this stuff," says Hodgkinson, only half joking. "For a lot of people life is boredom and stress all day and then some kind of escape from that via television or partying in the evening. Moving on from that doesn't necessarily mean you quit your job and become a freelancer, some people enjoy their jobs, but you might want to look at your leisure time in a different way."

Although we take the nine-to-five grind for granted, Hodgkinson says it's a relatively modern phenomenon, starting with the Industrial Revolution in Britain. "The mill owners had bought these expensive machines and wanted to get as much out of them as possible, and therefore a new attitude evolved around time," he says.

How did it come to this?

"When people were employed on the land the work was seasonal, so they might well have worked very long days at certain times of the year, but then in winter they would be doing very little, keeping warm by the fire. People have worked hard forever, but in the past it was more self-directed and self-controlled."

Although an atheist, Hodgkinson says he admires the Medieval Christian calendar because it included a lot of religious holidays where people feasted and celebrated.

"Your main job as a Christian was to get into heaven, and work was not necessarily the way to do that. Then along came the Puritans …"

Apart from his own books, Hodgkinson recommends you grab a copy of The Compleat Angler, written by Izaak Walton in 1653. "It's basically a celebration of fishing as the ultimate idler's pastime; connected to nature, doing largely nothing, followed by a little bit of excitement, plus you get to eat the fish."

Since he began his journey as an idler, Hodgkinson says the movement of like-minded people is gaining traction around the world, with some his best online customers coming from Australia. He believes Generations Y and Z will eventually drive the way towards a four-day working week.

"I'm not necessarily telling people to quit their jobs and become a poet, but on the other hand working 100 hours a week in a job you hate is just bonkers. If you keep that regimen up you're heading for some kind of crash and the other facets of your life such as family and friends will be sorely neglected."

Do you practice an idler lifestyle? Or are you a workaholic? Tell us all about it in the Comments section below.