Do Nothing: A Life-Changing Philosophy from Celeste Headlee

June 18, 2024 | 9 min read

Celeste Headlee was working on a book when she realized that she was overwhelmed and unhappy. She was constantly getting sick and never had enough time for anything.

And she quickly learned that she was not alone. Burnout is real, and it's everywhere.

Like a true journalist, Celeste set out to find out why.

Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

What Celeste learned was that we modern Homo sapiens live a very different life than the way our species has lived for most of our time on Earth. Through extensive research, she discovered where our unprecedented levels of burnout originated and decided to write a book about it.

Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving is a call to reject the culture of overwork and live more intentionally. It's a call to help change our toxic culture of productivity — the “cult of productivity,” as Celeste calls it.

We chatted with Celeste about the historical evidence that humans are too busy these days and how we can all navigate the modern world in a healthier way.

ANNIE COSBY:How did Do Nothing come to exist?

CELESTE HEADLEE: I was actually working on a different book at the time but found that my life was not working the way it needed to. I was overwhelmed all the time. I was unhappy and getting sick.

I realized I needed to figure it out or I would never finish the book. So I started doing research in my spare time to try to figure out what was going wrong.

Pretty much everybody I talked to about my research would say, “Well, when you find the answer, please tell me!” And that's when I realized I wasn't the problem — I wasn't just one person having productivity and focus problems. It was us.

So it became a book.

AC: You’ve said before that you expected your tech use to be the problem, but you figured out it wasn’t.

CH: I did expect it to be technology. I expected to find that my web-surfing habits and my phone were too distracting for me. So I did some experimentation. I found studies saying that having your phone visible distracts you — and it does, absolutely.

So I would say, “OK, for the next two weeks, if I'm trying to focus, or when I’m sleeping, I will leave my phone in another room.” At one point, I got a dumb phone. I went without my tech for at least six weeks. And it helped.

But it did not solve my problem.

That's when I started to peel back the historical layers. To figure out: “OK, when did this start? When did we first start seeing complaints about this state of overwork, this addiction to busyness and productivity?”

And I found that [complaints] really begin after the Industrial Revolution. That's when we start to see all of these mentions of overwork and complaints of “I don't have enough time.”

Complaints started with the Industrial Revolution

Turns out we lived a very different life for most of the time that Homo sapiens have been on this planet.

AC: Can you speak to some of the habits and specific harms we’re talking about?

CH: We don't have enough time in the world to go into all the harm this lifestyle has caused, but I'll touch on a few things.

One thing, for example, is multitasking. Not only do we know that most people try to multitask, we also know that it’s very damaging to your brain. And when I say damaging, I mean literally.

There have been studies — replicated, peer-reviewed studies — showing that people who try to multitask on a regular basis get shrinkage in their brains.

There have been studies

We know that you are damaging your gray matter, and we don't know at this point if it’s reversible. Unfortunately, we also know that over 70% of people think they're the exception and that they can multitask.

It's really, really hard to get people to stop doing this. I will pass by people's computers and see 80 tabs open.

AC: That feels like a personal attack.

CH: And they have their cell phone sitting on their desk, straight up, looking at the screen so that they know as soon as a notification comes in.

AC: You're describing my workspace.

CH: This is very, very bad for your brain. And we do it because we think we're actually getting more done … when all of the evidence says the opposite. Not only are you getting less done but the quality of the work you're doing is terrible.

That's one of the reasons I use Freewrite to write.

Even minor multitasking affects you. There were tests in which researchers had people simply have email open somewhere in the background on their computer, and their IQ dropped by 10 to 12 points.

AC: That's terrifying, honestly. I think by now we've all heard that multitasking is bad for you, in some vague way, but to hear the details on brainpower is a bit shocking. 

CH: And this is not a shaming thing! I'm not saying, “Oh, everybody's dumb.” We picked up these habits because we have been told to do so by experts or because it feels as though it actually makes us more productive.

We read those articles that say, “Here are the five things successful people do first thing in the morning” or whatever, but we never interrogate them.

We never say, “Wait a second, just because Bill Gates is doing this, is it actually better? Am I getting more work done? Am I experiencing better well-being?” The whole point of Do Nothing was to interrogate this, investigate it.

One of the conclusions that not just I found but that researchers have found, too, is that the concept of “being busy” is now a prestige issue.

When you ask people how they are, they'll say, “Busy!” And the busier you are, in our minds, at least, the more important you are.

AC: That’s so true.

CH: And it’s quite recent.

AC: Did you get any critical responses to the book that either disagreed or argued that it's not possible to “do nothing” in our society?

CH: Well, first, a lot of people thought I was telling people to stop working, which is clearly not possible. And that's not what I’m telling people to do. I’m saying: make work your moon and not your sun.

Another criticism, and this one is fair — in fact, I bring it up multiple times in the book — is that not everybody has flexibility in their work hours. I've been there. At one point, I was working several different jobs and was a single parent. I completely understand. Not everybody has flexibility in either what they do, when they do their work, or how they go about it. I tried to include solutions in the book for people in that situation.

Another criticism that is 100% fair is that I didn't talk a lot about the kind of systemic changes that have to happen to solve these problems. Because this is not a problem people can solve individually, not really.

If you look at the clinical definitions of burnout and the causes of burnout, you will discover that none of the causes can be treated through "self-care." None of them.

And so that's fair criticism. This is a book for people, so I’m just trying to provide some things individual people can do that will help in their everyday lives.

We do need a revolution, and I'm fully aware of that.

We need a revolution

But the rest of the criticisms, I think, come from people who are still very, very invested in the cult of productivity. Some of them are even consultants and public speakers who are focused on helping people dig deeper into the cult.

AC: Did the response to the book vary by generation?

CH: Yes, I got a number of messages from Baby Boomers who thought I was giving Millennials and Gen Z a pass to be lazy.

If any of those people are listening at this moment, you are wrong. Millennials and Gen Z don’t work any less hard than you did. In fact, they most likely work harder than you did, statistically speaking, as a young person.

I'm Gen X, and our reputation is kind of that we just don't care. But I have a lot of faith in Millennials and especially Gen Z. Gen Z does not tolerate what we tolerated, and I mean that in the very best way.

We put up with a lot of abusive crap from not just employers but from parents as well. And Gen Z seems to be aware of it, to be cognizant that it is not fair or just, and not be willing to tolerate it — for the most part. I mean, they're part of the system just like everybody else is.

But I have a lot of faith in them. Look at the rise in the union movement. That is being led by Millennials, with the strong support and sometimes leadership of Gen Z. That can be nothing but good!

Baby Boomers are struggling more, I think, and we can tell that by how many of them are staying in jobs well into their 70s and even 80s.

I am going to be the best retired person. If they gave grades, I would get an A+ every semester. I'm going to be the best. 

And I look at somebody who's 75 and still working an office job, and I'm like, “What are you doing?” Of course, I don't mean to — in any way, shape, or form — disparage those who have to. We have a system of inequality in our nation where there are plenty of people who do not earn the amount of money they need to retire, and Social Security doesn't cover that gap. I'm talking to the rest of you, who could retire and won't.

For one thing, these are very often the highest-paid people at their level. And as layoffs of younger people go on around them, they won't retire. That's terrible for the economy, it's terrible for society, but for you, too — it's terrible for you. 

Didn't you work your whole life for this very moment, when you can go live your life?

And I think that's a really good example of how much Baby Boomers are struggling to let go of this identity. Their work has become their identity, so it can be very scary to retire, because then, who are you?

Their work has become their identity

AC: Yeah, just anecdotally, in my own life, I do see a lot of older folks identifying as their job, and I see Gen Z repelling that. I'm a Millennial, so I'm somewhere in the middle, but I'm definitely at the age where I’m starting to feel defined by my career and I don't love it. What advice would you give to break away from that?

CH: The first section of Do Nothing explores how we got here, and how this is not the way human beings have lived for most of our history on this planet. All of that is aimed at changing our psychology.

And the reason that's the bulk of the book is because that's the hard part, right? Helping people recognize that we have a problem and also realizing that this is not your problem. This is our problem. Our whole society has been brainwashed.

That's the hard part

And once you realize that, you'll see it everywhere. It’s like when you get a new car, and suddenly it seems like everyone drives this model of car. But it requires complete change in perspective to see that thing that has been sitting in your vision the entire time.

AC: Do you see this as a specifically American problem?

CH: I examined all over the Western world, but I would love to see African, Asian, and Middle Eastern writers add in their own history and culture to this discussion. From what I found, the worst places in the world for being addicted to productivity are the U.S., Canada, UK, and Australia. Essentially, all of the countries that were colonized or ruled by Britain at some point.

Now, that is not to say that Europe is doing great. They're just doing better. And I will say that they are much more willing to experiment with what Americans see as radical changes, like the four-day work week, a six-hour workday, shutting off company email at 5 p.m. All those things that are a lot healthier for both your brain and body.

But in the end, most countries are following the lead of the U.S. and the UK, meaning that if they have to get up at 4 a.m. to make a business meeting because it's based in New York, they do.

AC: Since writing Do Nothing and moving on to other projects, do you still have to challenge these ingrained notions, or do you find it easier to overcome?

CH: I'm a work in progress like anybody else. It's a daily battle because, like I said, this is systemic. This is society. And the pressure is constant to get just one more thing done.

But my life is a lot better across the board since I started making the changes outlined in the book. I'm not perfect at it. But life is just better now.

I rarely get sick. I have hobbies now — useless hobbies that don't “add to my brand.”

AC: [laughs] You're not going to monetize them?

CH: I don't monetize them! I throw parties. I have a ridiculously active social life. I'm not irritable all the time. I don't snap at people.

That’s my message. It gets better.

It gets better.

--

“Do nothing.” As a command, it sounds a bit ominous. Like a warning. Like you’re a hindrance rather than a help, or circumstances are beyond your control.

But as the title of Celeste's book, it’s an invitation to eschew humanity’s innate urge to do something.

Because that urge to do something – anything — is innate to human beings, right?

No, Celeste argues, it’s not. For most of humanity's existence, we've lived very differently. More slowly. With less work. And less stress. And it's long past time we embraced that humanly urge to do nothing once again.

Find Do Nothing and all Celeste's books, including We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter and Speaking of RaceWhy Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It, wherever books are sold.

Learn Celeste Headlee's Research and Writing Process with Freewrite

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 Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

 

 

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