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The joy of aimless activities

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

A cure for pathological productivity

“Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness” wrote John Gray in his book Straw Dogs. To me, this quote captures the essence of what other writers have called pathological productivity; our urge to get the most out of every day and fill it with as many activities as possible. As a result, we are often not only rushing through our days to get everything done, but also end up feeling bad about the things we didn’t achieve.

The problem with goals

At the core of this issue is that, even in our free time, we often engage in telic activities (Telos is Greek for goal or purpose). Whether it’s training for your next marathon, doing Yoga with the aim of becoming more self-aware or even cleaning your apartment because you’re expecting guests, there is always an end-goal. Once you arrive at the goal, you are finished: The point of the activity has been achieved.

But telic activities generate a paradox: if you fail, you are unhappy because you failed. But if you succeed, the pleasure you get from reaching your goal is usually gone quickly after you accomplish it as you no longer have something to strive for.

Atelic activities

The antidote lies in engaging in atelic activities; doing things for their own sake alone rather than to achieve a particular goal. Atelic activities are different for every individual. However, some activities are naturally more suited to this purpose, such as taking a walk (as opposed to a hike where the goal is to reach the summit or a specific location), listening to music, or spending time with family or friends.

However much you listen to music, you can't get better or faster at it.

The beauty of atelic activities is that they don’t require you to achieve any progress (however much you listen to music, you can’t get better or faster at it), nor do they aim at terminal states; however much you spend time with your family, it’s not an activity you can ever complete. In other words, these activities do not aim at a point at which there is no more of them to do.

Being present

That is why they are also wonderful exercises in mindfulness. They enable you to be present in the moment instead of preoccupied with some future outcome. Indeed, these activities can only be fully realized in the present.

To live in the present is to appreciate the value of atelic activities.

In his book Midlife : A Philosophical Guide, Kieran Setiya writes: “There is nothing you need to do in order to perform an atelic activity except what you are doing right now. If what you care about is reflecting on your life or spending time with family or friends, and that is what you are doing, you are not on the way to achieving your end: You are already there.”

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