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Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving

Celeste Headlee

Personal Thoughts

Summary Notes

Going back as far as 4,000 years ago, to the days of ancient Greece, we find that Athenians had up to sixty holidays a year. By the middle of the fourth century BC, there were nearly six months of official festival days, on which no work was done. Work for the ancient Greeks was carried out in spurts: intense activity during planting or harvest, followed by extended periods of rest for celebrations and feasts.

  • Far too many of us have been lured into the cult of efficiency. We are driven, but we long ago lost sight of what we were driving toward. We judge our days based on how efficient they are, not how fulfilling.
  • Before the 1800s, working life was basically the same stretching back for centuries. Most people lived in rural areas, and many owned or leased at least a small plot of land.
  • In 1965, a Senate subcommittee predicted that by the year 2000, Americans would work fourteen-hour weeks and take nearly two months of vacation time. Instead, the average American gets ten days of paid vacation and nearly one in four gets no paid holidays at all. Sadly, two things occurred that prevented a drop in working hours: a rise in consumerism and a steep rise in income inequality.
  • Gallup pointed out in a 2011 report, “The more cash-rich working Americans are, the more time-poor they feel.” The reality is, when it comes to sheer number of hours worked, the United States does not top the list. In a ranking of average weekly work hours, America comes in at number 14. Mexico, Costa Rica, South Korea, and Greece all work about forty hours or more. Americans work about thirty-four.
  • When work is what makes someone worthwhile and deserving, those who don’t work as much as possible are seen as undeserving and worthless. To many in Henry Ford’s time, it was more shameful to miss a day at work than to stay home from church. I would argue that work began to replace religion. In fact, experts predict that by 2035 those with no religious affiliation will outnumber Protestants in the United States. So the faith declines, but the work ethic it created remains.
  • Studies done by the payroll services company Paychex show most workers feel stressed three or more days every week. Research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows that about 40 percent of workers feel “overworked, pressured, and squeezed to the point of anxiety, depression, and disease.”

Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
  • Parkinson’s Law made plain: Work expands to fit the time available. So if you know you only have two hours to write an agenda, research shows that task will take two hours. If you have four hours to do it, that same task will suddenly require twice as much time. “General recognition of this fact,” wrote C. Northcote Parkinson, for whom the law is named, “is shown in the proverbial phrase ‘It is the busiest man who has time to spare.’ ”
  • In the way that those with body dysmorphia see something other than the truth in the mirror, the feeling of being productive is not the same as actually producing something. The truth is, overwork reduces productivity.
  • ...if you don’t consciously choose a slower path, you will likely default to the pedal-to-the-metal speeds of modern life.
  • ...weekly hours haven’t increased all that much in recent years, but time on the job has risen dramatically if you look at it on an annual basis.
  • U.S. Census Bureau, had the average income risen at the same rate as the overall economy, most households in the United States would bring in about $92,000 right now, not $50,000.
  • Yet the idea persisted that we could all jump into that top echelon of wealth if we only worked hard enough, or that we could protect our jobs by proving we deserve them. That’s why working hours started climbing in the years just before 1970. For most people, leisure time fell by about a third in that time period.
  • This is a big part of why our overuse of email and texting is contributing to dehumanization and hatred: We simply need to hear each other’s voices. Yet I’ve found that people have a very hard time accepting this. Globally, we have come to believe that email is more efficient, more convenient, and just better than the phone. Our addiction to email is a symptom of our obsession with efficiency and productivity.

An entrepreneur known as Gary Vee (short for Vaynerchuk) has reached the bestseller list four times by dispensing advice for making money and increasing one’s influence. He tells fans: “Working nineteen hours a day every day for the last twenty years has been easy for me because it’s the only gear I ever knew.” Working at least twelve hours at a time is what Vaynerchuk calls “the straightest road to success.” He’s wrong, of course. Study after study shows that long hours are counterproductive and have diminishing returns over time. But most of us feel, intuitively, that working more will help us get ahead. Time equals money, so more time will equal more money, right? “If you want bling-bling, if you want to buy the jets?” Vaynerchuk told an audience of fans. “Work. That’s how you get it.”

  • Decades of research disprove this theory that constant “hustle” helps you achieve. Repeated studies show that taking time off boosts productivity, creativity, and creative problem-solving. It can even strengthen your immune system, making it less likely that you’ll get sick and be forced to stay home with a cold.
  • In an op-ed that protests against the unhealthy work ethic of Silicon Valley, Daniel Heinemeier Hansson points out that Charles Darwin worked only four hours a day and Kobe Bryant put in only six hours a day during the off-season. Hansson, the founder of Basecamp and the bestselling author of Rework, says, “Don’t tell me that there’s something uniquely demanding about building yet another fucking startup that dwarfs the accomplishments of The Origin of Species or winning five championship rings. It’s bullshit. Extractive, counterproductive bullshit peddled by people who either need a narrative to explain their personal sacrifices and regrets or who are in a position to treat the lives and well-being of others like cannon fodder.”
  • “Work now fulfills some of the needs for socialization that before only time with family and friends would satisfy.” As our personal lives have become lonelier and more isolated, lots of people would rather stay at work, where they at least have some social contact.
  • ...when presented with a choice between two similar individuals, we say that the busier person is the more important person.
  • ...having no free time is an indication of how hard you’re working, and hard work garners nearly immediate respect.
  • The quest for achieving peak productivity is now akin to a religion, one consisting of high priests (time management gurus, life hack specialists, productivity coaches, headlining management professionals), various teachings (apps, tools, approaches, methods, reminders, workstation re-designs, forms of discipline), and millions of willing aspirants (early adopters, workshop participants, testifiers, devotees).
  • ...we’ve lost sight of the fact that productivity is a means to an end, not a goal in and of itself. One time-use expert told Juliet Schor, “We have become walking résumés. If you’re not doing something, you’re not creating and defining who you are.”
  • ..we engage in busyness that is mostly goal-oriented and designed to create a public persona, rather than hobbies that are merely intended to enrich our lives. ... when a culture is focused on individuals and not on communities, people tend to emphasize achievement over affiliation.
  • Speed and efficiency are, by their nature, antithetical to introspection and intimacy.

When defending the idea that work is necessary for human happiness, some point to research that shows people live longer if they have a sense of purpose. I find that argument irrelevant since one’s purpose does not have to be tied up with one’s job. Stay-at-home parents, for example, can have an incredibly strong sense of purpose. Vincent van Gogh was basically unemployed. He sold only one painting during his lifetime, and yet his lack of financial success never weakened his sense of purpose or dedication to his art.

  • ...allowing some ants to focus on digging while others were idle accomplished the most while expending the least amount of energy. “If you look at energy consumed, lazy is the best course,” concluded Daniel Goldman, a professor in the School of Physics at Georgia Tech.
  • During the time when I was not watching the clock but focusing on my tasks until I couldn’t focus any longer, I wrote an incredible 1,600 words a day and read about 550 pages. My email numbers stayed about the same.
  • ...if we see health benefits from working, it could be because of tenets that have been drilled into our heads to make us feel ashamed for being idle. We feel better when we’re working because society tells us we should feel bad if we’re not.

The Idle Theory

  • If too much work causes harm, that probably means a reasonable amount of idleness is healthy and that well-being demands a balance between labor and leisure. That’s a fair summary of Idle Theory.
  • Idle Theory posits that we make ourselves weaker by working too hard and that lazier creatures have an evolutionary advantage.
  • According to Idle Theory, the entities that meet their survival needs with the least amount of work are most likely to survive. Chris Davis, one of the original proponents of this theory, calls it “Survival of the Idlest.”
  • Idle Theory suggests that placing a value on laziness is not just a good corporate strategy but a solid evolutionary one. And there are some who even say laziness is the underlying motivation behind a great deal of innovation. “The first person who thought of putting a sail on a boat wanted to get out of rowing. Whoever hitched a plow to an ox was looking for a way to escape digging. Whoever harnessed a waterfall to grind grain hated pounding it with rocks,” wrote Fred Gratzon in his 2003 book The Lazy Way to Success. One might even say the Industrial Revolution began when a Scotsman figured out he could plug a loom into an engine and avoid driving horses in a circle all day.
  • Darwin believed existence is a war and the strong prevail. If you buy into Idle Theory, existence is actually a struggle to be idle and the most successful, like lions, balance intense periods of activity with hours spent lounging in the sun of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Another study showed that people who worked about fifty-five hours a week scored lower on cognitive tests than those who worked about forty. Decades of research demonstrate that we are more creative, more insightful, and generally sharper when we allow ourselves a significant amount of leisure time. It makes sense, too, when you think back to times in your life when you worked a considerable amount of overtime.
  • Decades of research demonstrate that we are more creative, more insightful, and generally sharper when we allow ourselves a significant amount of leisure time.
  • As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, writes: “Darwin and Lubbock, and many other creative and productive figures, weren’t accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it.”


  • One of the tragic consequences of rising smartphone usage is the death of boredom. In our hours of leisure, we used to experience some measure of ennui from time to time, but we are rarely bored these days, and the younger generation almost doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
  • It’s true that we don’t enjoy boredom. That’s what makes it valuable, though, because when we feel bored, our brains are strongly motivated to find a meaningful occupation. Thoughts are not directed or controlled and are therefore free to travel in unexpected directions. “Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander,” says the psychologist Sandi Mann, author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good, “you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious.”
  • “Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander,” says the psychologist Sandi Mann, author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good, “you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious.”
  • When our minds are allowed to relax and rest, they return to what’s called the “default network.” This is the part of the brain that sorts through all the new information we’ve received recently and tries to put it into context with what we already know. The default network is integral to learning, insight, and imagination. If our minds never come to rest, there is never an opportunity to wander into new directions.

Our Strongest Need

  • In a 1995 report, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary claimed that Freud was wrong: Sex is not the strongest need after survival. “Belongingness needs do not emerge until food, hunger, safety, and other basic needs are satisfied,” they wrote. “But they take precedence over esteem and self-actualization.”
  • The need to belong underlies many of our best impulses. It is probably what underlies empathy, for example, and empathy is a crucial component of human life. Frans de Waal tells the story of a Russian scientist who was caring for a young chimpanzee. At one point, the chimp climbed onto the roof and the scientist couldn’t get him down. She tried calling to him and luring him with fresh fruit, but he wouldn’t budge. In the end, she pretended to hurt herself and then sat on the ground crying. At last, the chimp came down and embraced her, choosing to give up his perch only in order to console his friend. “The empathy of our closest evolutionary relatives exceeds even their desire for bananas,” de Waal writes.
  • Empathy strengthens social bonds and helps to foster social inclusion, which makes it crucial in helping us fulfill our need to belong.
  • These are the essential qualities of a human being: social skills and language, a need to belong that fosters empathy, rule-making, music, and play. We excel at these things, and we need them in order to be healthy.

Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving

Celeste Headlee
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