Time and I have a funny relationship. I never think I have enough of it, and it seems to rule me, rather than the other way around. In my family I’m known as a “time optimist” – I often think a task will take less time than it realistically will, resulting in trying to do more than is feasible or rational, and frequently being late. (This is known in psychology as the planning fallacy.) I often also sometimes fear the opposite – that a given task will take much longer than the time I have available, resulting in paralysis and procrastination.
I have been trying to repair my relationship with time, as well as with the Protestant work ethic that has been engrained in me by my Midwestern, Presbyterian upbringing (and probably straight-up white supremacy, seeing as a sense of urgency is a classic attribute of white supremacy culture).
Celeste Headlee’s book Do Nothing was top on my reading list this year precisely because she seemed to have the antidote to time optimism and the unending drive to do, do, do. It’s not that I literally want to do nothing, but more that I want what I do to be meaningful and on purpose. Headlee writes, “I think we have engineered our way further and further from what we do best and what makes us most human. In doing so, we’ve made our lives harder and infinitely sadder.”
Headlee’s argument isn’t that technology and social media have ruined humanity; it’s that we think our work must define us, and, more specifically, that the more hours we work, the better we must be. The problem, Headlee says, is partly that we think we work too hard. Americans suffer, she says, from the “busyness delusion, or the mistaken belief that we are busier than we really are.”
One of the things I love about this book is that Headlee doesn’t pretend that she’s better than this phenomenon. In fact, she seems to have written this book in order to help herself overcome her own tendencies to overwork and underest.
The key to her argument is that we THINK we are busier than we are. Headlee says that in order to get a grip on our schedules, we need to increase our time perception, that is, our accurate understanding of how we spend out time. After a three-week vacation with spotty Internet service I felt refreshed and happier; I hadn’t wasted hours each day scrolling mindlessly on social media. To capture that feeling forever (or at least for the time being) I realized I could set timers on some of my phone’s apps to prevent me from spending more time that I really wanted just scrolling away my life. I’ve started paying attention to the “digital wellbeing” info on my phone, which tracks where I do spend time. My new goal is to spend just 4 hours each day on my phone, including reading ebooks, watching Netflix and checking my email. Even that basic audit and those small changes have made me realize just how much time I’m on my phone – way more than I want to be – and to take back some control.
Headlee suggests tracking every waking moment of your life for 3 weeks, in 30 minutes increments, to record how you’re spending your time. Odds are, you (and here I mean ME) are frittering away perfectly good minutes in ways you don’t mean to be or don’t even realize. The idea is to take that wasted time, pay attention to it, and invest it not in work but in leisure. Better yet, Headlee suggests, “Stop becoming and just be for a moment.”
She writes, “Trying to do several things at once instead of taking advantage of the brain’s natural inclination to pulse between focus and rest is a waster of fertile brainpower.” If we were to just focus a single task at hand, and not let ourselves be distracted by email, Slack, texts, random Internet surfing in pursuit of a passing thought, we would be able to accomplish a lot more, in a lot less time. Focusing, of course, isn’t easy, and Headlee’s done the research: most of us can work steadily on a single task for about 50 minutes, and then we need a break. There’s nothing wrong with that – aside from the fact that most work cultures aren’t suited for that kind of sprint. But the benefit of these sprints – or, maybe it’s more accurate to say, these intervals of work and rest – is that your brain has time to recover and reflect. You can think about other things besides whatever it is you need to accomplish, and that act of reflection helps you become more creative.
Like so many people who began working from home during the pandemic, I’ve struggled to figure out how to maintain healthy boundaries between work and play. My desk is literally in my bedroom. I recognize in myself the conviction that putting in more hours at my desk will surely make me more productive and will help me accomplish all the items on my to-do list. The problem, Headlee says – and I know to be true – is that more hours working is not guaranteed to make us more productive, it’s guaranteed to make us tired.
Do Nothing is a clear and emphatic command to balance what pays the bills with what makes your heart sing, even and especially when those two things are aligned. It’s not about more hours at work, it’s about better hours at work. While I work to transform my relationship with time, I’m optimistic that everything will become possible.