Embrace doing nothing, especially if you're working from home

"Do Nothing" author Celeste Headlee appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss our monkey brains and how to detach/detox

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 21, 2020 11:00AM (EDT)

Three-Toed Tree Sloth Hanging on a Tree Trunk (Getty Images/Buddy Mays)
Three-Toed Tree Sloth Hanging on a Tree Trunk (Getty Images/Buddy Mays)

The world has changed exponentially since Celeste Headlee released her latest book "Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Under Living" just earlier this month. Already, the notion of eating lunch in your cubicle or  answering work emails from home seem like the habits of another era. Yet her message — of creating boundaries, of stepping away from the glowing screen now and then, of admitting that multitasking makes us less productive rather than more — seems more important now than ever. Our brains are already on high alert for the foreseeable future. It feels imperative to our mental and physical health to slow down.

Headlee, the co-host of "Retro Report" on PBS and author of the bestselling "We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter," joined us recently in our Salon studio to talk about why we aren't really working any more than our parents did, and why working from home now shouldn't mean we're working 24/7. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Celeste Headlee here, or read the transcript below:

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

We're answering work emails on a Sunday night, we're getting texts on our vacations, and all of that is very real. What is also real is that when we say, "I don't have a choice," there are choices we are making throughout the day that are making us feel this way. Talk a little bit about that, and the way that we keep self-interrupting.

There are a few things that we're doing that are bringing this feeling of being overwhelmed when it's not always reality. Most people are surprised to see the statistics that we're not working more hours than our parents were. The fact that you feel that way doesn't mean that's not real. You're not a hypochondriac or anything. It's okay. You feel overwhelmed, you probably are overwhelmed, but it's because of these habits that you're talking about.

You'll get 20 minutes break at work, and you'll head over to the break room, and you'll scan through your Facebook or your social media, or you'll pull up Zappos and scan through shoes. Your brain doesn't know the difference between that and sitting down at your computer and working. As far as your brain is concerned, you just went to the break room and kept working. You do this throughout the entire day, and what's happening is that for your neurology and your physiology, you have worked literally all day long.

The other part of this is that even if you're not trying to multitask — and most people do try to multitask, stop doing that — all the time that your computer stays visible and you have 84 tabs open in your browser, or all the time that your cell phone is sitting there visible, your brain is expending energy thinking about that and preparing for a notification to come in. The entire time, you're spending all of your days working constantly as far as your brain and body are concerned.

We have evolved to have that part of our brain on alert.

Yes, the amygdala. It is the oldest evolutionary part of your brain, but it is not the part of your brain that needs to be in charge. This is your monkey brain. It is your fight or flight brain. Let's say you're being chased by a tiger; you want your amygdala to take over. But under no circumstances should that be driving the car the rest of the time.

If someone just liked your Instagram photo, you don't need that.

This is the exact thing, and that's what gets triggered. Your brain thinks that someone's knocking at the door. It's an alert. It's a notification. It's like, "Do I need to be ready for an emergency?" So you're sitting there all day long with your amygdala going, "What, what, what?" All day long.  

Number one, a toddler is making decisions for you. You're going to make bad choices about what foods you eat, and how much you sleep, whether you take vacation or not. Not only that, but you're going to be exhausted by the end of the day. Every time you get a dopamine hit, you get a tiny contraction of your muscles. It is not enough to help you lose weight, but it is enough to help you feel fatigued by the end of the day.

Another part of this is that we live in a culture that fetishizes this feeling. You talk about telling your friends that you were writing this book, and your friend said, "I don't like to be lazy." Where does that ridiculous notion come from, where we have such a disdain for taking that breath?

They have research studies showing that we think someone is more important if they have earbuds in versus headphones, because we associate the headphones with music and the earbuds with, "I have to be on a conference call." That's how granular this gets. "Fetishize" is a really good word for it, because this goes back literally centuries, this emphasis that began in the Industrial Revolution that hard work is what makes you a good person. That hard work is what makes you worthwhile  and valuable has just intensified generation  after generation, after generation. Now, we've gotten to this point where people ask you how you're doing and your answer is, "Busy, crazy busy. I'm crazy."  It's a status symbol.

This is another thing I put in the book, because I was on the train. I took a two-week trip around the country on trains, and this one young lady, said, "Oh my, I could never. Everything would fall apart." I was like, "I'm a CEO." I feel like if I could do it, probably your business won't fall apart if you're not there. It definitely won't fall apart if you don't answer that email that says "checking in." Most of these emails aren't urgent. Most of the texts aren't urgent. This feeling that we have that things are going to go to hell in a hand basket if we're not constantly on watch, it's not entirely your fault. It's not entirely technology's fault. It's been coming for two to three hundred years, but we do have to stop it.

It's so deeply tied to the old Protestant work ethic. And idle hands, even if your idle hands are just looking on Vanity Fair at gowns. So the way I'm going to relax is by doing pretty much the exact same thing I've been doing all day at my job.

And feel guilty if all we do is watch a movie, instead of watching a movie while we're checking our email, and looking on Twitter, et cetera. If you get those guilty feelings after you sit down and just watch a movie, you may have a problem.

I have a problem. I watched a subtitled movie the other day, and it was actually glorious. I had to do nothing but watch that movie, because there was no other option.

There is this vacation in place that I go to, the Getaway Cabins, and basically this company just built a bunch of tiny homes in the middle of nowhere, where there's no wifi signal. Inside the cabin is one entire wall that's all a window. There's everything that you need, and there's a cell phone lock box, and you just do nothing. I made some s'mores, and walked my dog, and when the sun went down, I felt tired.

But all of these feelings that you're talking about, they are very real and they're not just internal. We're getting them externally as well. We have now a workplace culture that is definitely magnifying that. And that is intentional. That is intentional design, and the design of the workspace now. Talk about this because I'm fascinated. It is actually counterintuitive to our creativity, and our productivity.

I'm not saying that all of it was evil intent. Some of it was, but that doesn't mean that people put cafeterias in your workplace, and a gym in your workplace and turned it into a living room type of setting in order to make you work.

Yes, some of it was intentional to try to keep you on the job. I talk a little bit about the tug of war between home and work, and yes, some of your home life has bled into work. The number one time for online shopping is during the workday. The number one time for porn viewing is during the work day. Unlikely that porn viewing is part of your job. All I'm saying is we're doing stuff at work that is not work.

But in the tug-of-war between home and work. Work has definitely won. The bleeding went both ways, but definitely work has tried to take over all of those aspects, so that we think nothing of doing work, and looking over memos, and answering a quick email while we're at dinner with our kids. One of the things I found so striking in the book, I did all this historical research, and to just go back and look at what people sacrificed to get an eight-hour work day. They died to bring us the eight-hour workday. Now we're like, "To hell with that. I'm going to answer this email."

We also have this illusion that if I work from home I'm going to be more productive because I don't have to commute, and I don't have the water cooler situation.

There's a few reasons why that's wrong.

Number one, the boundary between home and work really needs to be real established. You are not productive when you're working all the time. One of the dangers of working from home is that, then obviously your home is your workplace. As far as your brain and your body are concerned, you're just never leaving work. That's number one.

The other thing is we do know that human beings are meant to think in groups. We do our best work in groups. We are less error prone when we're in groups. We are less biased when we're in groups, and we're frankly more accurate, and more creative and innovative when we're thinking as a team. This whole myth we have of the lonely genius Bill Gates struggling, up until three in the morning, in the middle of the night. It's kind of BS, because that's not how homo sapiens function best. We are evolutionarily designed to work in groups, and so you're not more productive when you're sitting at home working alone for a variety of reasons, but partly because you need people around you to do your best work.

But you also need privacy. Because people don't feel there's any place where they're safe then. There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

And women particularly even feel less safe, and more sexually harassed. More sexualized in open office places, than in the standard cubicle environment, basically because they are being observed at all times. People will go to huge lengths to carve out some privacy. The open office, which was supposedly designed to make us collaborate more, did the opposite. We're doing this because we think it's more efficient, and it's doing the opposite. Why are we still doing this? Email is an example. We literally email people because we think it's faster and more efficient, and it is not. It is a time suck.

Do you think some of that is also that in tandem with our isolation? We become lonelier, and lonelier, and then the idea of talking to someone becomes almost scary.

You come home exhausted, and fatigued, and stressed out after a hard day at work, and you think, "I'm just going to put on my PJ's, and grab some Doritos, and just watch Netflix, and read Twitter all night," or whatever. This is your idea of relaxing, and it is accomplishing nothing of what relaxation actually accomplishes. If you were to go out to a party, you would actually feel more relaxed, and less stressed at the end of the evening. We're doing these things because we think they're good for us, and they're doing the opposite of what is intended.

This is part of a bigger picture too, because we download as many apps as possible because we think it's going to save us time. Or we read those lists of life hacks. Why, Celeste, does that not work?

Let me give you an example of one life hack that a lot of people still use, taking melatonin. Why do we take melatonin? Because our sleep is disturbed. We're having trouble with sleep, right? So we're like, "I'll take this pill, and it's going to help me get to sleep, and get better sleep." It doesn't actually, and a recent study shows that melatonin can be really harmful, and very strongly damage your circadian rhythms, which govern your sleeping in the waking hours. Whereas, if you were to actually ask yourself, "Why is my sleep disturbed? Why am I waking up in the middle of the night? Why am I not sleeping deeply?" and make the changes in your life that you need to make in order to make your sleep better, then you don't need melatonin because guess what? Your body produces it naturally.

If I wasn't looking at my phone at 11 PM, if there wasn't a blue light making my brain think it's still bright as day, and filling my head with terror…

And stressing me out. And if I wasn't bringing my electronics to bed, making my body think that bed is the place for work, right, then probably I would have better sleep. Yet the pill is so much easier than facing the fact that our lifestyles themselves are harmful to our wellbeing.

Yet we can't go back to 1995. We can't all just get a flip phone and an answering machine. That's not the solution either. Why doesn't that work though?

Because it's not causing the problem. Tech makes it easier for us to lean into these toxic habits, but it didn't cause it. What caused it was this conglomeration of the forces of industry, and the forces of capitalism and patriotism, combining with the forces of religion, this incredibly powerful force convincing us that if we're not working, we are worthless. If time is money, then you're literally wasting money if you're wasting time, right? And you are making other people's lives worse.

It's one of the overarching themes of this book, that actually if I just focus on my work and I take a vacation, I can be more productive and then everybody makes more money. Theoretically, capitalism wins even bigger. This is the way to be better at our jobs, and to be more efficient, and if we're focusing on what we do we're going to make fewer mistakes.

If you're stressing the brain in ways that it goes into survival mode, which means it's not thoughtful. It's not creative. Look at it this way. Imagine your accountant sitting in his office in 1970. So it's probably a man, and all the things he has to do that take him say, 38 hours a week to work. Now, let's fast forward to the same accountant today. There is no way it still takes 40 hours for him to get his work done. So why is he still in the office for 40 hours a week? Almost none of us have jobs where it still takes us the same amount of time.

This is one of the things that I did. I sat down at one point on the couch, and I was just absolutely done, exhausted, and thinking, "I don't have it in me to make dinner. I'm going just going to order dinner." I glance through the kitchen and I started noticing all the things that I have that saved me time, that my grandmother and great grandmother didn't have. So, I went around the house with a notebook and I started noting down, "Washing machine, dishwasher, robot vacuum, convection oven." All the things that save me time I have a good 20 to 30 hours more time per week than they did. Just based on those things, and yet my grandmother had barbecues at her house, and cooked cakes for the school, and volunteered, and book clubs, and rotary, and bowling leagues, and all these other things. I was thinking, "Where is all that time?"

I saw this ad from the '60s, of this housewife, with her beautifully curled hair, and her skirt flying out. It's showing the washing machine and saying, "Fly away, let it do the work, and fly off to you glorious life." Where's my glorious life? I've got the machine. Why am I not twirling around in my petticoat and skirt?

Celeste, do you have hope? Do you have hope that we can change our ways collectively? Even as an individual, this is a big task. Is this possible?

[It] totally is possible. It feels like two or three hundred years ago was a long time, but we've been on the planet for 300,000 and change, right? We lived a certain way for hundreds of thousands of years and we changed it 250 years ago.

I'm hoping this is the beginning of the conversation. I want people to start actually talking about this, and questioning their managers. Or if you are a manager, please read this, and think about your priorities. That's what needs to happen, a global conversation.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams