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Too Busy? Make Time To 'Do Nothing'

Mar 12, 2020
Originally published on March 12, 2020 9:17 am

When you collapse on the couch after a long workday and start scrolling through social media, you're not doing your tired brain any favors, says author Celeste Headlee.

"Your brain sees your phone as work," she explains. "To your brain, any time that phone is visible, part of your brain is expending part of its energy on preparing for a notification to come in. It's like a runner at the starting gate."

Researchers have found that simply having your phone nearby can tax cognition. "You're carrying your work literally everywhere," Headlee says. "As far as your brain and body are concerned, you're never taking time off."

In her new book, Do Nothing, Headlee, a longtime journalist and public radio host, encourages readers to be intentional about protecting their downtime. She came to that realization after she found herself sick in bed for the second time in just a couple of months.

"I was more successful than ever," she recalls. "Things were going really well for me. So why was I not just sick, but miserable?"

Headlee started digging into the research and found evidence that the brain works best when it can alternate between focused labor (not multitasking!) and rest. Because even when it's "resting," your brain is busy doing critical tasks. In fact, the brain is nearly as active during periods of rest as it is during periods of focus, Headlee says.

"It's sifting through memories," she explains. "It's making new connections. It's doing surprising things because it's not focused on a task. So that's where a lot of creativity comes from and innovation ... making unexpected connections."

But current American culture isn't terribly supportive of that kind of unstructured mental leisure. Headlee often asks people whether they can simply sit down and watch a movie on Netflix — just watch a movie. "I often get the response of, 'No, if I'm just sitting there, I feel guilty,' " Headlee says.

Headlee wants to help readers reclaim their relationship with nothing. The cover of her book features a picture of a sloth, an animal that (speaking of baked-in prejudices about work and leisure) shares its name with one of the seven deadly sins.

"Is a sloth really lazy, or do they just move more slowly and deliberately?" Headlee asks. "Some things have to go fast, but not everything does."

Where did our work culture come from?

Headlee believes some of America's obsession with work can be traced back to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe. Ideas about working your way to heaven, Headlee explains, "meant that every idle hour was one in which you were not earning your spot with the divine. ... It was your work that made you a good person. And therefore, obviously, if you're not working all the time, you should feel guilty."

She also points to the Industrial Revolution as a "mile marker" in forming America's work culture.

"When we're learning about the Industrial Revolution in high school, I don't think they really give us an idea of how much changed when that steam engine went online," she says. "I mean, it literally changed the way our species lived and worked — almost every aspect of it."

Headlee says it's time for a reexamination of America's obsession with efficiency and speed. She believes that humans are pushing our brains and bodies in ways that are not adaptive and that this is playing a role in the nation's fatigue.

Researchers, she says, have kept good time records for decades and haven't found that Americans are necessarily working more hours. And yet, we report feeling overwhelmingly busy.

"I don't question anybody's claim that they're exhausted," Headlee says. "I know they are — I was. So you have to ask yourself: Why?"

Headlee also observes that in an age of social media, Americans are comparing themselves with celebrities — to people far outside their social circles.

"I think one sociologist said that we're no longer keeping up with the Joneses — we're keeping up with the Kardashians," Headlee says.

Decades ago, most Americans were spending time with their neighbors, but that's less true today. "A huge number of Americans have never met their neighbors," Headlee says. "The people they know the most about are the influencers on Instagram or the people on reality TV. ... People are running, and running, and running to keep up with people whose lifestyles are completely out of their reach."

It's no wonder Americans feel the need to work harder, put in longer hours, to forever self-improve.

"You're constantly reaching for a bar that you will never put your hands on," Headlee says.

So, where do we go from here?

Headlee found that simply tracking her time helped make her more mindful of the way she was spending it. When she started keeping a diary of her days, she admits, she was surprised to see how much online shopping she was doing.

"Once you subtract sleep, and work, and eating, and commuting, and all those other things, you have probably somewhere between five or six hours a day at your disposal to do with as you please," Headlee says. "If you're using up half of that idly paging through Facebook and 'liking' things, it might come as a surprise to you that you have more time than you think."

To try to reclaim that time, Headlee has tried to limit the hours she spends engaging with email and social media.

"I took almost every app off my phone," she says, and she only checks email once per hour.

She also does an "untouchable day" each week — a day she spends entirely off social media and email.

"It was really scary at first, and I really struggled to keep it up," she admits.

She set up an email auto-reply that essentially says: "If it's really important, just call."

"It's been two years. ... No one has called," she says. "Nobody. It's never been so urgent that people picked up the phone. That really is telling to me, that most of our emails are not urgent."

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of being able to disconnect that way. Headlee understands that for many workers, their "schedules are simply not their own."

But here's her advice: "When you come home, finally, at the end of your day and you're exhausted — it's very tempting to say, 'I can't do anything else.' ... [But] even making that tiny little change of, instead of looking through Instagram, walk around your block — take that time, because your brain and your body will thank you."

The good news, Headlee says, is that her solutions are simple and free.

"These changes are ingrained, but they're also recent," she says. "And what can be done can also be undone."

Jeevika Verma and Krista Kapralos produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


So how busy are you? And before you answer that question, just consider this. We often overestimate the number of hours we actually work. Often, even when we take work home with us, we waste more time - sometimes a lot more time - than we realize. In her new book, "Do Nothing," Celeste Headlee writes that the obsessive things we do to make us more productive can often have the opposite effect. And there are ways she tells us that we can reclaim our time and use it for things we enjoy.

Celeste, who has been an NPR host in the past, is with us from our studios in New York to talk about her book.

Celeste, I have so many questions.

CELESTE HEADLEE: Oh, I have so many answers. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Yeah, thanks for being here. So let's start with the title, the full title "Do Nothing: How To Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, And Underliving." And I have to point this out, there's a drawing of a sloth on the cover. I mean, does that mean that if I'm - if I stop working, I could become as lazy as a sloth?

HEADLEE: Is a slot really lazy or do they just move more slowly and deliberately? You know, some things have to go fast, but not everything does.

GREENE: Well, and that seems to be much of what this book is, assumptions that you make about, you know, something that you might think is lazy could actually be really good for you.

HEADLEE: Exactly. You know, we have gotten to this place where we think everything needs to be as fast as possible, everything needs to be as efficient and productive as possible. And in order to do that, we are pushing our brains and our bodies in a way that they're just not biologically or emotionally equipped to do.

The brain doesn't persist. The brain pulses, which means it needs alteration between rest and focused labor, rest and focused labor. That's how it works at its best. So if you push that too far, you're just overdriving the engine, and you're going to burn out.

GREENE: What was your aha moment when you - as you put it, realized that you were underliving?

HEADLEE: The big one was where I was literally bedridden for the second time in less than nine months and thinking to myself, what is happening? Because I was more successful than ever. I had all the things that sort of checked all my boxes, right? I had plenty of money. Things were going really well for me. So why was I not just sick but miserable?

And that's where I sort of had to start questioning my own assumptions about what was it I was trying to achieve. Why was I pushing myself so hard? Like, where was I pushing toward? And that sort of started the whole cavalcade of research.

GREENE: And I feel like what you talk about going through is something that so many of us can - it becomes stuff that we feel like we just need to do, there's no choice.

HEADLEE: Yeah. And, you know, what's interesting is I forced myself to not do it, right? I forced myself to not look at email for days at a time and realized nothing exploded (laughter).

GREENE: The world went on.

HEADLEE: You know, I do an untouchable day each week, which is one day a week I don't look at email and I don't look at social media. And I really struggled to keep it up. I put a vacation responder that said, look, if it's really important, just call me. And it's been two years, David - no one has called.


HEADLEE: Nobody. And that really is telling to me that most of our emails are not urgent.

GREENE: You look back at history, and you tell us that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, that if you go back in time, there wasn't this obsession with working as many hours as you could. And people did actually have leisure time that made life more fulfilling.

HEADLEE: Yeah. And that was a real epiphany for me because I think a lot of people are getting ready to blame our current burnout epidemic on technology. And although technology does exacerbate the problem, it's not the source. And that means even if you were to dump all your electronics into the East River, you would still be overworked and miserable and unhappy. So I traced it back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. And, I mean, it literally changed the way our species lived and worked, almost every aspect of it. So it's not surprising that some of those changes are not working out for us.

And I think it's time for us to go back and reexamine some of the things that are different now from the way that we were doing them for most of our species' history and ask if they're serving us. One of the things that's becoming quite clear is that the brain simply does not have an unlimited number of focused hours in the day. It works at its best when it puts in focused non-multitasked hours - focusing on one thing at a time - and then gets time to not be focused on productivity.

What your brain is doing is it's re-shifting the things that it's learned in, say, the past 24 hours. It's shifting through memories. It's making new connections. It's doing surprising things because it's not focused on a task. And so that's what a lot of creativity comes from and innovation because it's making unexpected connections.

GREENE: Well, and this speaks to some of the solutions that you suggested. And one critical one is to actually spend a couple of weeks with, like, a diary charting your days and how much time you're spending on what. And you said, you know, people might really be surprised when they do this.

HEADLEE: Yeah, I think it is a surprise to people because it does feel like we're working more. But, you know, researchers have kept pretty good records of time use for decades now. And there's no evidence that we're working more hours even if you calculate in polluted time, meaning the time that you spend at home answering emails. And I think that brings up a really good question of, if it is true that you are working fewer hours - and you probably are than, say, your parents or grandparents - why are you so much more exhausted? That's sort of the question at the heart of this because I don't question anybody's claim that they're exhausted. I know they are. I was.

GREENE: And what's the answer? Why are we feeling so stressed if we're not working harder than we used to?

HEADLEE: Part of the problem is that your brain sees your phone as work. Anytime that phone is visible, your brain is expending part of its energy on preparing for a notification to come in. It's like a runner at the starting gate. In fact, they've shown in some cases that people will lose IQ points, 10 to 12 IQ points, when their email inbox is open or their cellphone is visible. You're carrying your work literally everywhere. As far as your brain and body are concerned, you're never taking time off.

And the thing about keeping that diary is the more honest you are, the more helpful that's going to be. You know, once you subtract sleep and work and eating and commuting and all those other things, you have probably somewhere between five or six hours a day at your disposal to do with as you please. And if you're using up half of that idly paging through Facebook and liking things, it might come as a surprise to you that you have more time than you think. And I think that was my biggest surprise. Once I cut out those things, I have so much more time now.

GREENE: Celeste, thank you so much.

HEADLEE: My pleasure. Thank you.

GREENE: That was Celeste Headlee. Her new book is called "Do Nothing." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.