Uncovering the Cult of Busy

The longer I’ve worked, the more I have noticed that my greatest productivity comes from the spaces between my busy times. Those times when my mind is free to consider other ideas or none at all. Sometimes inspiration on a problem hits when I least expect it, and so now I have come to expect it. The best of example of this in my experience comes from when I was programming for a living.

During those years, it was not unusual for me to find myself stuck on how to accomplish a particular task when I was programming. I would try different ways to tackle it. I researched on the internet to see what others in similar situation had done. Still, sometimes I stayed stuck. But I would not give up. I stuck with it, missing dinner with my family before reluctantly giving up and going to bed.

The next morning while I was showering or shaving, I almost always had some sort of inspiration, something to try or a new direction. Slowly, I started to recognize this and stopped spending so long down those blind alleys. I’d move along to some other task, leaving that stuck one unresolved, confident that a new idea would present itself. And it always has.

Ever since then, I’ve been interested in this idea. I look for it in articles and books. One book I started reading recently goes in depth into this idea. It is called Doing Nothing by Celeste Headlee. This is a well-researched book about the benefits of leisure and idleness as well as the history of how we got to the current cult of busyness.

In the Introduction she explains a bit about how she thinks about leisure and idleness and their effects.

I’d like to inspire a new consideration of leisure and a new appreciation for idleness. Idleness in this sense does not mean inactivity, but instead nonproductive activity. “Leisureliness,” says Daniel Dustin of the University of Utah, “refers to a pace of life that is not governed by the clock. It tends to run counter to the notions of economic efficiency, economies of scale, mass production, etc. Yet leisureliness to me suggests slowing down and milking life for all it is worth.” That’s the kind of leisure I hope we can all make time for. It’s what humans were meant to enjoy and what we need in order to function at our highest levels.

Introduction, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

In the first chapter, Mind the Gap, the author describes a train ride she took around the country. It was a disconnected, slow journey, one she found difficult and challenging at first. But by the end, she came to appreciate the benefits she experienced. “The idea is not that everything should be slower, but that not everything needs to be fast.”

The sense that something could go wrong at any time, or that something urgent would arise that might require my immediate attention, was gone. I was no longer in fight-or-flight mode. Breaking away from the relentless pace of connected life felt uncomfortable at first, but as I ended my trip, I dreaded joining that joyless parade again.

Chapter 1, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Interestingly, until about 250 years ago, we didn’t have this hurried sense and need to be always on and always doing. In the author’s words, “Everything we think we know about work and efficiency and leisure is relatively recent and very possibly wrong.”

In chapter two, It Starts with a Steam Engine, the author shows that prior to the Industrial Revolution humans just didn’t work that many hours. Without electricity, the day only lasted as long as the sun was up. Most workers owned their tools and were paid by the project. They worked as much as you could physically and enough to support your needs. Beyond this, there wasn’t much point. “Before the nineteenth century, people worked an average of six to eight hours a day and enjoyed dozens of days off throughout the year.”

But with the rise of factories, people began to move to cities where they were no longer in control of their tools. These were provided by the employer, and one employee could replace nearly any other. Work became priced by the hour and the world of busyness began. “Quite suddenly, people were expected to work punishing hours with no time off.”

Interestingly, all these extra hours turn out not to be all that productive.

Yet we’ve known for more than a hundred years that long hours of toil don’t actually increase productivity. We have data on this going back to the 1800s—at the time when unions forced employers to cut hours, factory owners were surprised to find that productivity increased while accidents decreased. Overwork was counterproductive in the days of the sweatshop, and research shows it still is, even in the age of the knowledge worker.

Chapter 2, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

In chapter three, Work Ethic, the author shows that the work ethic we have today is due to both a religious and an economic myth.

This belief in hard work as a virtue and a life philosophy started on the door of a church in Germany. Over the course of a couple hundred years, the religious notion that working long and hard makes you deserving while taking time off makes you lazy was adopted as an economic policy, a way to motivate employees and get the most out of them.

In the end, this story is about how the industrialist desire to have fewer workers doing more hours of work merged with the religious belief that work is good and idleness is bad, along with a capitalist faith in constant growth.

Chapter 3, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

We stopped taking the time to enjoy pastimes and hobbies. These were a waste of time. We no longer pass time, we spend it. And we need to be careful how we spend it lest we be seen as lazy.

In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 people would only work fifteen hours a week. That would be enough to support all. We would have unprecedented time for leisure. The problem would be what to do with all that extra time. But that hasn’t happened. Why?

CEO pay has grown out of all relation to that of workers, showing that the benefits of the increased efficiency that Keynes rightly predicted have not been evenly distributed. “The profits that Keynes thought would fund a more leisurely lifestyle for all have mostly gone to a tiny percentage of the population.”

We marvel at the luxury enjoyed by English dukes and German barons of bygone eras, but the top earners now live more lavishly than the Crawley family in Downton Abbey. The only difference is the income gap is wider today between CEOs and their workers than it was between the fictional Earl of Grantham and his valet.

Chapter 3, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I’ll continue my review in my next post.

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