The Upside of Doing Nothing
The Upside of Doing Nothing
Author and journalist Celeste Headlee dedicated her whole life to work. She assumed, as many of us do, that happiness was on the other side of a completed project or a better income. But instead, the rinse and repeat of her work life left her exhausted and sick. In other words, she had burnout.
Awakening to the problem of burnout, Headlee says, is just the first step toward resolving it. The second is to realize burnout isn’t our own fault. We’ve been raised in a culture that champions hard work and efficiency at any cost—even when that cost is our own health and well-being. And the third is to reclaim idleness: the powerful and life-changing tool of doing nothing.
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A Q&A with Celeste Headlee
I used to do all kinds of time-waste-y stuff as a kid, like change all the clothes on my dolls and switch them around over and over and over. Because that was hilarious and fun. It would take me forty-five minutes to take a bath because I didn’t run out of stuff to do in there. And it’s funny because we look back at that behavior and say, “Well, that’s what kids do.” But no—that’s what humans do.
We start teaching kids to be busy and productive at a very young age now, especially in the US. We are so focused on guaranteeing that our kids are set up for success that they become walking resumes. And when we add activities and experiences to our kids’ lives just to enhance their CVs, we’re really teaching them that idle time is a wasted opportunity, that free hours could be better spent improving themselves and their future college applications.
We just don’t waste time as much anymore because it’s not rewarded. It’s not something that measurably earns you money, or that produces something, or that you can post on Instagram. Our society doesn’t value it. But taking it slow is so important—for your health, for creative thinking, and for being well.
When you’re in a state of mind of all-the-time DEFCON one, meaning you’re hopped up on the stress hormone cortisol, your amygdala takes over. That’s the part of your brain that governs your fight-or-flight response. That’s what we call your monkey mind. And when the amygdala, which is reactive and instinctive, is in charge, we’re not using the part of our brain that considers choices carefully—the part that’s rational, logical, and careful.
When you’re in a state of stress all the time, you start to become a very unhealthy decision-maker. Some of those bad decisions are about things like what to eat or how much sleep to get. You also tend to turtle in, meaning that you cut off social interactions, which is problematic because social interaction is incredibly healthy—and not just healthy but necessary to be healthy.
Burnout is shortening our lives. People who don’t relax and slow down are more likely to have heart disease, diabetes, and all kinds of negative health indicators.
We are already experiencing various stages of loneliness and isolation, which makes it all the more crucial that people make sure they get authentic social contact every day while they’re at home. The danger lies in thinking that interaction on Twitter or Facebook counts as authentic social contact. Digital interactions do not fulfill our innate need for belongingness, and they actually have a tendency to make people feel more lonely and more isolated. During quarantine, make sure you don’t end the day without talking with someone else on the phone for social (not work) purposes or, better yet, use a teleconference platform like Skype or Facetime so you can see each other’s faces as you chat. Invite your neighbors to a cocktail hour with six feet of distance between you. Call that relative that you haven’t spoken to in months. Create a virtual book club using Zoom. Those interactions, even if they last ten minutes or less, will lift your mood, lower your stress, and help you cope with the anxiety of self-quarantine.
Something about our culture is causing burnout, the chronic feeling of exhaustion that is often work-related and extends for weeks or even months at a time. Even though burnout is so bad for so many of us, it’s also really hard to get away from. The first step is to stop performing it—to stop thinking that being a workaholic is something to take pride in.
We’ve been treating busyness like a badge of honor. And we work ourselves to the point that canceling plans is the best thing that could ever happen to us. It gets us to a point of performative busyness, which establishes and upholds that it’s a status symbol to not have time for things.
When we talk about idleness, we’re not talking about laziness. We’re talking about the fact that a human being isn’t a machine. Idleness is necessary rest.
Boredom lets your brain work. Even when you’re not doing anything at all, your brain is very rarely still: It is always working and thinking and muddling through things. Your brain needs idleness, in that sometimes it needs to be not directed at work or any other particular thing.
The research that we have on boredom shows that boredom is incredibly healthy and fertile—and even productive in itself. Our minds do incredibly creative things when we leave them alone. That’s the time when the brain is synthesizing all the information we’ve taken in. It’s paging through the card catalog, sifting through all the things that have happened over the past day or so. And it comes up with unexpected connections and unexpected ideas. That’s when you’re most creative—because your brain doesn’t want to be bored. It doesn’t like it. So it starts wandering up and down the aisles of your thoughts and memories and looking at whatever’s around to look at.
But when was the last time you felt actually bored? We’ve largely eliminated boredom, and so we’ve also started to eliminate that factor of creativity.
Efficiency culture is so ingrained that it’s learned in many aspects of our lives. Our parents tell us not to waste time; TV and movies lionize people who work insane hours; ads are constantly selling us products to evaluate and improve every aspect of our lives. It’s everywhere.
I have to believe that some of the anxiety we feel when we’re not being productive is due to the guilt we put on people over idleness. We have created the societal morality that the harder you work, the more deserving you are and the better a person you are. They’re unconnected. But that’s where we live now: If we’re not producing and productive and efficient, then we feel like we don’t deserve anything. And if something bad were to happen to you in your idleness, we have this idea that you deserve it because we’re lazy.
That’s the source of the anxiety we feel when we’re idle. And it’s not something real; it’s an idea we’ve created. But it’s hard to shake.
Partly because we can’t reward what we can’t measure. The number of hours we work is really easy to track, but it’s hard to track things like creativity and innovation. If you get an app that’s supposed to up your water intake, it’s really easy to measure that. We feel accomplished when we show that for four days in a row, we drank more than however many ounces a day. It gives us this delusion of control over our lives. And it can be very, very scary to let those arbitrary measures of success go.
If we’re so focused on optimizing something and getting it all “right,” we often miss the point—and we lose the benefits of idleness along the way.
Celeste Headlee is an author and award-winning public radio journalist focused on communication and human nature. Her books are We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter and Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.
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