Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I have an on-again, off-again fascination with productivity and attention management. Which is what prompted me to request Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee from NetGalley.

Do Nothing Book Cover
Do Nothing Self-Help Harmony Kindle 288 pages NetGalley

Despite our constant search for new ways to “hack” our bodies and minds for peak performance, human beings are working more instead of less, living harder not smarter, and becoming more lonely and anxious. We strive for the absolute best in every aspect of our lives, ignoring what we do well naturally and reaching for a bar that keeps rising higher and higher. Why do we measure our time in terms of efficiency instead of meaning? Why can’t we just take a break?

In Do Nothing, award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee illuminates a new path ahead, seeking to institute a global shift in our thinking so we can stop sabotaging our well-being, put work aside, and start living instead of doing. As it turns out, we’re searching for external solutions to an internal problem. We won’t find what we’re searching for in punishing diets or productivity apps. Celeste’s strategies will allow you to regain control over your life and break your addiction to false efficiency. You’ll learn how to increase your time perception to determine how your hours are being spent, invest in quality idle time, and focus on end goals instead of mean goals. It’s time to reverse the trend that’s making us all sadder, sicker, and less productive, and return to a way of life that allows us to thrive.

It took me quite some time to really get into the book, but eventually I found my rhythm and enjoyed it.

One problem was its seeming simplistic view of economics (at least to me). The tone and approach seemed very anti-free market and at times even seemed to have a whiff of a conspiratorial philosophy that big business is and has been controlling our lives (corporations and marketers seem to be controlling consumers rather than seeking to meet their needs; although there is a tangent on why we became addicted to disposable goods too). Lastly, I had the feeling that as a journalist she was trying to pack as much information as she could into the argument and give it a respectable amount of depth and intellectual history.

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.  When time is money, the need to get more time out of workers became urgent if profit targets were to be made.

Suffice it to say, that Headlee offers a lot of provocative and even interesting arguments about how Western society has viewed work and how the industrial, technology and knowledge revolutions have impacted that view in unhealthy ways.  But that is an argument that would take a great deal of unpacking just to get your hand arounds let alone make a persuasive argument about.

The first couple of chapters feel like an attempt to make a self-help book a much larger argument about our cultural attitudes to work.  But Headlee is a journalist not a historian or scholar and I found the attempt to build this all-encompassing argument tedious. I didn’t pick up this book to read an intellectual history of work; to have the lines drawn between the invention of the steam engine, Henry Ford and Max Weber to the productivity cults of today.  I guess I am not sure why she had to tie her message to these massive sociological, religious, economic and political issues across the centuries. But if Headlee is “seeking to institute a global shift in our thinking” then I suppose she needs to go big.

That said, once I got into it I enjoyed the way she laid out the case against workaholism and the way we constantly say we are too busy when in fact what we are mostly doing is failing to make time for what is important, what makes us human and what brings us joy and connection.

There is a deep kernel of truth here that is very much understanding and allowing it to change the way we think. Far too many in the middle and upper-middle class have brought the mindset and culture of work into their lives in harmful ways. Obsessed with productivity and time they add unnecessary stress to their lives, lose time spent with family and friends, and miss out on human connection.

The question is how much the first couple of chapters annoy you as they did me. Or how much new information you expect.  As both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus note, there is little new or ground breaking information here but if you haven’t read much in this area the advice is worthwhile and worth thinking about,

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.