Going from Life Hack to Life Back

The title of this post is the title of part two of Celeste Headlee’s book Do Nothing. It’s divided into six short chapters that address how to overcome the cult of busy and learn to do nothing.

Challenge Your Perceptions

“As we have become more efficient, we have also become more fragile.” This reminds me of another book I recently read called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Systems are more resilient when they are inefficient, when they have redundancy and backups. But our modern life has become more and more efficient. This is great until something breaks. Then it breaks big time.

Many of us are convinced that we work many more hours than we actually do. But simply believing we work more has real negative affects. We need to challenge this perception.

This one small change—becoming more aware of what you do between waking and sleeping—could have a cascade of benefits. As I mentioned, it may leave you with a sense that you have more time to take care of both your needs and your desires and, as it turns out, that feeling is better for you than a raise in pay….

We work long hours in order to make more money, not realizing that once we’ve met our fundamental needs, it is leisure time that increases happiness, not necessarily extra cash.

Celeste Headlee

As a remedy the author suggests tracking your time and then making your ideal schedule. You won’t always achieve this ideal, but simply having it will direct your days more intentionally.

Take the Media Out of Your Social

Stop making comparisons. Social media encourages us to compare our everyday lives to the best snippets of our friends and celebrities. This is a recipe for unhappiness. Comparisons aren’t bad on their own. They can even be motivating. “So the urge to make comparisons is not necessarily bad unless our perception of others is inaccurate and therefore the comparisons aren’t valid.”

Step Away from Your Desk

Even when our bosses encourage us to go home and take our vacation, we don’t. We should. Working that crazy schedule will likely only get us a ten percent raise, if that. Why do we work those extra hours to get that promotion? We hope the extra money will buy us more time and peace of mind. It rarely does as we then equate time off with even more lost money.

If your goal is less stress and more happiness, years of scientific research have proven that rather than trading your time for money, it’s best to trade your money for time…. In other words, paying others to mow your lawn, clean your car or house, or do your laundry is a great use of your money, even if it means you can’t afford a bigger TV or an expensive vacation.

Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing

Working hard doesn’t even make us more productive, but less so. Back in the 1920s Henry Ford instituted a five day week and an eight hour day not because he was a humanitarian but because it made his employees more productive. It seems our focus on working more is counterproductive.

Research shows that if you work without interruption for fifty to fifty-seven minutes, then take a short break, you’ll get much more done, and because you’re more likely to engage the executive part of your brain while using this schedule, your work may be more insightful and creative.

Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing

Invest in Leisure

You need to take breaks. The human mind is not capable of focused concentration for more than an hour. And these breaks need to be filled leisure or nothing at all. Don’t just switch to another task. That’s not a break. We need boredom and daydreaming. Like dreaming in sleep, daydreaming allows our brains to go into a kind of “rest and refresh” mode that it can’t otherwise. This is when we process what we were focusing on. That makes leisure and time off essential to the focus needed at work.

Make Real Connections

Make sure you set aside some time to spend with friends in person. You can even strike up conversations with strangers like the checkout person at the grocery store. Humans are social animals, so it is important to our well-being and health to interact with others. Even just making eye contact with and sharing a smile with a passing stranger can make your day better.

If you take away nothing else from this book, I hope you understand that human beings are at their best when they are social, and human minds work best in connection with other human minds. It may not be the most efficient way to live, but it’s the most likely to foster well-being.

Celeste Headlee

We also need to work more in teams. “Brainstorm alone and evaluate or analyze as a group.” This will ensure a wider diversity of ideas for the group to look at. And do one kind act each day. This isn’t a moral instruction but a practical one. “I’m telling you to do this because years of research proves that doing nice things for people, even small things, is incredibly good for you.”

Take the Long View

The final chapter encourages us to focus on ends rather than means. When we focus on means we lose the purpose behind what we are doing. Practice asking the five whys to find out what your ends are. If your means aren’t bringing you closer to your desired ends, why are you doing them? Don’t give up on your ends; find better means.

The complete list of solutions she suggests in this last part of the book are:

  • Increase time perception.
  • Create your ideal schedule.
  • Stop comparing at a distance.
  • Work fewer hours.
  • Schedule leisure.
  • Schedule social time.
  • Work in teams.
  • Commit small, selfless acts.
  • Focus on ends, not means.

All of these actions are backed by science and by my own personal experience and research. They will probably work for you. But if they don’t, or if it’s not possible to carry out one of them, that’s perfectly fine. The point of all this is to simplify your life and increase well-being, not create another source of anxiety….

The overriding message is this: Stop trading time for money.

Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing

None of these are hard in and of themselves. However, if you are struggling to make ends meet, some may be harder than others.

If there is one flaw in this book, it is that it is primarily addressed to those who are salaried rather than hourly workers. It’s hard for hourly workers to slow down and take time off when doing so means lost wages. Difficult but not impossible.

I’ll leave the last word of my posts on this book to the author herself.

It’s time to stop viewing your off-hours as potential money-making time. It’s not worth it. You can’t put a monetary value on your free time, because you’re paying for it in mental and physical health.

Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing

Are We Doing This to Ourselves?

In the seventh chapter of Do Nothing called “Do We Live to Work?”, Celeste Headlee says that, “The question for me was not whether people enjoyed their work, but whether they needed it.” She then explores the idea from western culture that work is its own reward and that more is better, making people happier. She reviews history and research. Her conclusion?

It’s not the emphasis on hard work that’s toxic, but the obsession with it. We now live in a culture in which we are not happy being and only satisfied when we’re doing.

Chapter 7, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

One study she cited was of how some companies are seeing more productivity when they reduce hours. She tested this for herself. For a full month, she worked only when she felt most energetic and productive, stopping when her focus dropped or she became restless. During this time she kept close track of how many hours she worked and how much she accomplished. She found that she only worked about four hours a day while achieving more than she had in the previous month. “The bottom line is that work is not always good and healthy.”

Toward the end of the chapter, she declares that, “One of the tragic consequences of rising smartphone usage is the death of boredom.” With less leisure, we have less time to daydream and ponder. We truly don’t have room for this with the constant entertainment available to us in our pockets. And research has shown that, like sleep, we also need space in our waking hours to reflect on and review our lives. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this increases our productivity.

Next up in chapter eight “Universal Human Nature”, the author explores what is common to all humans. What about life is common to all of us, and how does this inform her exploration of work and leisure? “[W]hat is a natural environment for humankind? How much productivity is healthy, and at what point does the pursuit of productivity become toxic?”

Language turns out to be one of these core traits of humankind. All humans speak. And all humans are social, living in community with each other. Its how we survived and have thrived as a species. And speech is part of what connects us. In fact our brainwaves sync up with those of someone speaking to us, even when that speech is recorded. So, how much are we losing of our humanity when we move so much of our interactions from speech to text?

I’d imagine that part of the reason we are wasting our time at work and putting in long, unnecessary hours is that we are neglecting to use our voices. In replacing phone calls with email and texts, we are not taking advantage of our own evolutionary inheritance….

You receive information from the sound of a voice that cannot be transmitted in an email attachment. The email may feel more efficient and easier because you don’t have to deal with the other person when you’re writing it, but the efficiency is mostly an illusion.

Chapter 8, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

At the end of the chapter, she summarizes the inherent human needs that seem “to be consistent across all cultures and all generations.” These are:

  • social skills and language
  • a need to belong that fosters empathy
  • rule-making
  • music
  • play

And we can literally make ourselves sick by ignoring these needs with the increased isolation from our obsession with work and our digital existence. Perhaps this is what we are seeing today with increased cases of anxiety and depression.

So, “Is Tech to Blame?” asks Headlee in chapter 9. But technology isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom. The author herself tried three weeks of analog life to find more time for leisure and a break from feeling overwhelmed. It didn’t work. Her addiction to work was still there. Instead, we need to learn to manage our technology rather than let it rule us.

This is incredibly challenging. In part, this is because the technologists are using psychology against us. They make these tools as addictive and exciting as they can. In fact, they purposefully mine the same features that keep people coming back to slot machines in Vegas. And all that interruption isn’t good for our brains and productivity, as we learned before. Feeling uncertain about all this? Consider the fact that many of the leaders of the companies making these tools won’t let their own kids use them. “Would you eat a meal that the chef wouldn’t serve to his own family?”

As she winds down this final chapter describing the problem, the author points not to the technology of today as the ultimate culprit but to history.

But none of this—the addictive apps and the fear of missing out—would be quite as successful were it not for the existing emphasis on productivity and efficiency that started dominating lives in the nineteenth century….

When you’re looking for something to blame for our current state of stress and anxiety and social isolation, you can start with tech, but you have to end in the workplace. The office is where the dysfunction began, not the internet.

Chapter 9, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

The rest of the book covers some of the authors prescriptions on how to overcome this dysfunction. I’ll pick up there in my next post.

You Can’t Be Efficient with People

In Celeste Headlee’s new book Do Nothing, chapter 4, Time Becomes Money she writes:

In the end, it all comes down to time: our relationship with it, our understanding of it, the value we put on it. Before the industrial age, time was measured in days or seasons. However, when workers began punching in and out of work, our understanding of time changed, as did our enjoyment of our time off.

Chapter 4, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

As time has become viewed as a commodity to use efficiently, we’ve become more and more impatient and busier and busier. Why should I just sit here? I could be earning more money. But that begs the questions, To what end? Yes, more money is needed when we are struggling to provide for the necessities of life. But once we are comfortable and can provide for ourselves and our loved ones, why do we keep trading our time for more money? The truth is that we aren’t, working more hours, that is.

Because we value time more, we tend to think if it as scarce even when it is not. Most workers are clocking fewer hours than they did ten to twenty years ago. But we feel like we are working more because of the increased value on time. And the challenging part of all this is that despite not working more hours, the stress we feel as a result is very real and affecting our health. “Regardless of how much people are actually working, the stress these people feel is very real and should be taken seriously.”

Because of the stress and the blurring of lines between work and personal life, we have begun to experience “polluted time”. “This is a phenomenon caused by having to handle work duties during off-hours, being on call, or even having to think carefully about work issues or problem-solving while technically not on the job.”

This is in part due to the rise of flex work, where workers often don’t know what their schedule will be for the week until just before it begins. And sometimes their work hours are cut short and they are sent home because of slow business. And other workers are expected to be essentially “on call” ready to respond at a moment to emails and texts from their boss. This pollutes their time, and they never have any real time “off”. “With work intruding on our home life and home life encroaching on work hours, many people now never have a sense of being completely separate from their jobs.”

Despite the growing prevalence of unlimited vacation time, most Americans don’t even take two weeks of vacation in a year. They feel like they can’t or they will fall behind, becoming less productive.

Here’s the irony: Staying on the job may well be impeding your career advancement. It accomplishes the opposite of what’s intended. Even though Americans say they’re afraid to take time off because they may be punished, research shows that people who take at least eleven days of vacation are more likely to get a raise than people who take ten days or less.

Chapter 4, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Another big reason for not taking a break is the American myth that “hard work, on its own, is the key to success.” Also contributing to this blurring of the lines between work and the personal is the furnishings of our offices. We make them feel like living spaces with fully appointed kitchens and lounges. “While it’s important to create an environment that’s safe, comfortable, and supportive of creative thinking, it’s also crucial that there be a clear distinction between being on the clock and off.”

Chapter 5, Work Comes Home, starts with a discussion of “quality time” and the phenomenon of “latchkey kids” in the 1980s. Due to both parents working and the kids being home alone, it was thought at the time that this could be overcome by spending “quality time” with the children. While nothing beats quantity when it comes to time with children, quality time was an especially challenging concept because we ended up treating it like we did work. Turns out children don’t respond particularly well to being managed in a time efficient way. Go figure.

She then goes on to show that even when we try to apply efficiency in what seems a logical way, it doesn’t all work out the way it was intended. One example of this is the rise of students taking notes on their laptops. Sure, this means that students can essentially take down every word the teacher says. But are they learning? Studies show that taking notes by hand, where the student must summarize points, leads to better retention. “We strive to achieve peak productivity but forget that it’s taking us further from our ultimate goal—learning.”

And we are beating this “time efficiency” into our children at younger and younger ages. Many parents cram their schedule so full of activities for their children that the children sometimes ask to just stay home. This doesn’t always go over so well with the parents. Many children today have never played a pick up basketball game or played an unorganized (by adults) game of baseball with their friends. And the parents don’t fare much better. They have less time for hobbies. Or worse, these activities are seen as a waste of time.

Speed and efficiency are, by their nature, antithetical to introspection and intimacy.

Chapter 5, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

One of the most valued skills today seems to multitasking. This is despite the fact that there is no such thing, at least for human beings. It can more accurately be called task-switching, and it has a high cost.

Neuroscience has taught us that not only is multitasking not efficient, it is bad for us. The more we try to do it, the poorer at it we actually get.

And here’s the worst news of all: “Heavy multitaskers” have the same trouble sorting through information and organizing their thoughts even when they aren’t multitasking.

Chapter 6, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Headlee points out that we often think women are good multitaskers, but they aren’t. They’re just better at it than men, but only at cognitively simple tasks. For complex tasks, it just doesn’t work.

… when it comes to more complex tasks, including most of the things we do while on the job, there’s no evidence that women are better at multitasking, and there’s plenty of evidence that trying to do it is really terrible for your brain.

Chapter 6, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Multitasking causes stress because it is bad for us. And women tend to do more of than men, and not just because they are “better” at it. They have more to manage. Despite the many changes in men and women sharing work at home, women still do the majority of the work around the house. “Research shows that when men watch their children, they often end up doing the more enjoyable activities, like taking kids to soccer games, while mothers tend to do more of the cleaning, cooking, and logistical management.”

Another byproduct of bringing efficiency to child raising was the greater involvement of parents, sometimes called helicopter parenting. Spending more time with your kids is better if you want to make sure they become healthy and successful adults, right? It turns out that when you do too much for your kids, they never learn to do it for themselves. This may be what has led to unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression among to today’s youth. “Overparenting may feel like a good use of time, but it does not ensure success for your child. Most of the time, it does the opposite.”

And the situation gets worse for mothers. Mothers are less likely to get hired than fathers or childless women. They also make less money. The real kick in the teeth is that fathers are seen as more competent than mothers. So mothers are doing more work and being paid less and being seen as less capable while the exact opposite may be true.

One reaction to all the busyness is to avoid the self-care we all need. After all, we simply don’t have time for it. So instead of socializing, we tend to scroll through social media for a quick break. Turns out this is not refreshing. “Going to the coffee shop and chatting with friends for a couple hours will leave you feeling refreshed and upbeat; the time you spend surfing the web will exhaust your brain and deplete your resources.” Paradoxically, we need to take time out to refresh in order to be our most productive.

More to come in my next post.

Uncovering the Cult of Busy

The longer I’ve worked, the more I have noticed that my greatest productivity comes from the spaces between my busy times. Those times when my mind is free to consider other ideas or none at all. Sometimes inspiration on a problem hits when I least expect it, and so now I have come to expect it. The best of example of this in my experience comes from when I was programming for a living.

During those years, it was not unusual for me to find myself stuck on how to accomplish a particular task when I was programming. I would try different ways to tackle it. I researched on the internet to see what others in similar situation had done. Still, sometimes I stayed stuck. But I would not give up. I stuck with it, missing dinner with my family before reluctantly giving up and going to bed.

The next morning while I was showering or shaving, I almost always had some sort of inspiration, something to try or a new direction. Slowly, I started to recognize this and stopped spending so long down those blind alleys. I’d move along to some other task, leaving that stuck one unresolved, confident that a new idea would present itself. And it always has.

Ever since then, I’ve been interested in this idea. I look for it in articles and books. One book I started reading recently goes in depth into this idea. It is called Doing Nothing by Celeste Headlee. This is a well-researched book about the benefits of leisure and idleness as well as the history of how we got to the current cult of busyness.

In the Introduction she explains a bit about how she thinks about leisure and idleness and their effects.

I’d like to inspire a new consideration of leisure and a new appreciation for idleness. Idleness in this sense does not mean inactivity, but instead nonproductive activity. “Leisureliness,” says Daniel Dustin of the University of Utah, “refers to a pace of life that is not governed by the clock. It tends to run counter to the notions of economic efficiency, economies of scale, mass production, etc. Yet leisureliness to me suggests slowing down and milking life for all it is worth.” That’s the kind of leisure I hope we can all make time for. It’s what humans were meant to enjoy and what we need in order to function at our highest levels.

Introduction, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

In the first chapter, Mind the Gap, the author describes a train ride she took around the country. It was a disconnected, slow journey, one she found difficult and challenging at first. But by the end, she came to appreciate the benefits she experienced. “The idea is not that everything should be slower, but that not everything needs to be fast.”

The sense that something could go wrong at any time, or that something urgent would arise that might require my immediate attention, was gone. I was no longer in fight-or-flight mode. Breaking away from the relentless pace of connected life felt uncomfortable at first, but as I ended my trip, I dreaded joining that joyless parade again.

Chapter 1, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Interestingly, until about 250 years ago, we didn’t have this hurried sense and need to be always on and always doing. In the author’s words, “Everything we think we know about work and efficiency and leisure is relatively recent and very possibly wrong.”

In chapter two, It Starts with a Steam Engine, the author shows that prior to the Industrial Revolution humans just didn’t work that many hours. Without electricity, the day only lasted as long as the sun was up. Most workers owned their tools and were paid by the project. They worked as much as you could physically and enough to support your needs. Beyond this, there wasn’t much point. “Before the nineteenth century, people worked an average of six to eight hours a day and enjoyed dozens of days off throughout the year.”

But with the rise of factories, people began to move to cities where they were no longer in control of their tools. These were provided by the employer, and one employee could replace nearly any other. Work became priced by the hour and the world of busyness began. “Quite suddenly, people were expected to work punishing hours with no time off.”

Interestingly, all these extra hours turn out not to be all that productive.

Yet we’ve known for more than a hundred years that long hours of toil don’t actually increase productivity. We have data on this going back to the 1800s—at the time when unions forced employers to cut hours, factory owners were surprised to find that productivity increased while accidents decreased. Overwork was counterproductive in the days of the sweatshop, and research shows it still is, even in the age of the knowledge worker.

Chapter 2, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

In chapter three, Work Ethic, the author shows that the work ethic we have today is due to both a religious and an economic myth.

This belief in hard work as a virtue and a life philosophy started on the door of a church in Germany. Over the course of a couple hundred years, the religious notion that working long and hard makes you deserving while taking time off makes you lazy was adopted as an economic policy, a way to motivate employees and get the most out of them.

In the end, this story is about how the industrialist desire to have fewer workers doing more hours of work merged with the religious belief that work is good and idleness is bad, along with a capitalist faith in constant growth.

Chapter 3, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

We stopped taking the time to enjoy pastimes and hobbies. These were a waste of time. We no longer pass time, we spend it. And we need to be careful how we spend it lest we be seen as lazy.

In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 people would only work fifteen hours a week. That would be enough to support all. We would have unprecedented time for leisure. The problem would be what to do with all that extra time. But that hasn’t happened. Why?

CEO pay has grown out of all relation to that of workers, showing that the benefits of the increased efficiency that Keynes rightly predicted have not been evenly distributed. “The profits that Keynes thought would fund a more leisurely lifestyle for all have mostly gone to a tiny percentage of the population.”

We marvel at the luxury enjoyed by English dukes and German barons of bygone eras, but the top earners now live more lavishly than the Crawley family in Downton Abbey. The only difference is the income gap is wider today between CEOs and their workers than it was between the fictional Earl of Grantham and his valet.

Chapter 3, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I’ll continue my review in my next post.