The Meaning We Need to Give to Phrase “Lying Fallow”

Karen Gross
3 min readSep 29


We use the phrase “lying fallow” (perhaps laying fallow or to lie fallow) pejoratively. We define it frequently to reference someone or some company that is standing still, hibernating, festering. To quote the sentence from the Merriam Webster Dictionary that it uses as an example of the negative meaning of the term: “There were too many promising ideas lying fallow at the company.” That isn’t a compliment.

Farmers Got the Idea

We need to look at what farmers do: they let land stay unplanted for a time period so its nutrients can be restored. It is like giving the land a rest — so it can become more plentiful. Shifting fields does this too.

Seems to me that this is an excellent concept — a positive concept — to be applied to human beings and how they behave across their lives. The opportunity not to keep pushing and constantly produce (whether one is a writer or an academic or a business entrepreneur) feels like a good prescription. Yes push at times. Even long periods of time. But, if one lies fallow for a period, the growth thereafter is better or more creative or more energized.

One way of thinking about lying fallow is to consider rechargeable batteries. They wear down and need to be recharged. Aren’t humans in need of recharging periodically? Let me be clear. I am NOT talking about eating and sleeping well. I am not talking about the importance of routines and wellness strategies including exercise. We need those things for sure. This is something additional.

I am talking about taking a time to reflect, whether for an hour or a day or a weekend or even a week or two or three (if one can and if it is affordable and one can work on some tasks and lie fallow but I save that discussion).

One doesn’t need to go anywhere to lie fallow. One doesn’t need special equipment. One needs to take the time for oneself to let the nutrients recharge themselves so the our most precious land (our mind) can be used again. It’s an approach adapted by the psychoananlyst Masud Khan (I plan on reading his essay on this topic that appears in his book Hidden Selves.)

The idea struck me for three reasons: (1) We see push back in education when we discourage play in schools. Yipes. We miss the point: play is what gives our minds an opportunity to roam and experience joy and the senses — and it enables, not deters, learning. And it does not just apply to kindergarten students. (2) We encourage children to have cluttered lives where all moments are filled with sports and activities and playdates and clubs and tutoring and meetings, and part of the reason the Pandemic was so difficult when schools shuttered was that children were “decluttered” and not used to using the space they had not had before (learning how to declutter schedules was a definite positive); and (3) On a personal note, I have been reflecting on my next chapter — not as in the next chapter of the book I am now co-authoring (which does need to be edited). It is about the next chapter in my career and personal life — a question that has arisen as I age. What is the balance I want? What is it that wisdom will enable me to do over the next decade? What do I want to plant?

And the idea of planting gives me comfort in knowing that the answers to creating nutrients does not rest in overworking; it rests in allowing oneself to lie fallow. Now that isn’t easy. We can do it with land way more easily and seemingly with greater justification.

But, instead of saying lying fallow means being idle and losing interest and forgoing ideas and plans or to cite Collins Dictionary, remaining unused and unproductive, let’s reverse the definition. Lying fallow is what we need to grow and flourish and become over time our best selves. We need to rotate the fields so to speak.

So the next time you see someone staring into space or at the ceiling — whether for a day or a week-end, consider whether they aren’t taking the best prescription nature has to offer: the gift of letting ourselves recharge.



Karen Gross

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor