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Do Nothing

How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving

By Celeste Headlee
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Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Do Nothing (2020) argues that our obsession with efficiency and productivity has led us to underestimate the power of leisure. Tracing the rise of efficiency in previous centuries, as well as the present-day consequences of stretching ourselves too thin, author Celeste Headlee claims that we need to begin to allow ourselves to experience the true joy of idleness.

Key idea 1 of 8

Our modern fixation with productivity is rooted in the past.

Recently, you might have noticed that productivity is trending. Everyone seems to be getting busier and busier, and goals for our work and personal lives have never seemed so ambitious.

Maybe your friends have got you thinking about running a marathon. Perhaps you’re planning your next promotion. Or maybe you’re wondering if your kids should learn an instrument or take up another sport. 

If you're constantly adding to your to-do lists, looking to optimize your schedule, and hoping to somehow find more hours in the day, you might have fallen victim to the “cult of efficiency.”

So, what exactly is this cult? Well, it’s an attitude that supposes that the busier we are, the better. And although it’s never been more powerful than it is right now, this phenomenon didn’t grow overnight.

The key message here is: Our modern fixation with productivity is rooted in the past.

Believe it or not, we didn’t always work as hard as we do now. Even medieval peasants worked fewer hours than the average modern worker – and they also had more vacation time!

But things changed in the days of the Industrial Revolution. Rather than paying workers per task, factory owners began to pay wages per hour. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of hours people were expected to work.

In the US, popular faith in the American Dream helped to normalize these new, grueling work regimens. Who could complain about longer workdays, when everyone knew hard work helped you to get ahead in life? This American belief that diligence and perseverance are always rewarded with wealth, helped to sow the seeds of our modern cult of efficiency.

Now the distribution of wealth is a different story. Since the 1960s, worker pay has just about outpaced inflation, but in the same period, CEOs have been taking home bigger and bigger paychecks. So, in essence, the fruit of our increased efficiency is usually reaped by our bosses and not by us.

Our push for productivity has also been influenced by consumer culture. Clever marketing has convinced us to work longer hours in order to afford products we’ve never previously wanted – and the constant barrage of new fashions and gadgets has kept us working long after we’ve taken care of our most basic needs.

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