Are We Doing This to Ourselves?

In the seventh chapter of Do Nothing called “Do We Live to Work?”, Celeste Headlee says that, “The question for me was not whether people enjoyed their work, but whether they needed it.” She then explores the idea from western culture that work is its own reward and that more is better, making people happier. She reviews history and research. Her conclusion?

It’s not the emphasis on hard work that’s toxic, but the obsession with it. We now live in a culture in which we are not happy being and only satisfied when we’re doing.

Chapter 7, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

One study she cited was of how some companies are seeing more productivity when they reduce hours. She tested this for herself. For a full month, she worked only when she felt most energetic and productive, stopping when her focus dropped or she became restless. During this time she kept close track of how many hours she worked and how much she accomplished. She found that she only worked about four hours a day while achieving more than she had in the previous month. “The bottom line is that work is not always good and healthy.”

Toward the end of the chapter, she declares that, “One of the tragic consequences of rising smartphone usage is the death of boredom.” With less leisure, we have less time to daydream and ponder. We truly don’t have room for this with the constant entertainment available to us in our pockets. And research has shown that, like sleep, we also need space in our waking hours to reflect on and review our lives. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this increases our productivity.

Next up in chapter eight “Universal Human Nature”, the author explores what is common to all humans. What about life is common to all of us, and how does this inform her exploration of work and leisure? “[W]hat is a natural environment for humankind? How much productivity is healthy, and at what point does the pursuit of productivity become toxic?”

Language turns out to be one of these core traits of humankind. All humans speak. And all humans are social, living in community with each other. Its how we survived and have thrived as a species. And speech is part of what connects us. In fact our brainwaves sync up with those of someone speaking to us, even when that speech is recorded. So, how much are we losing of our humanity when we move so much of our interactions from speech to text?

I’d imagine that part of the reason we are wasting our time at work and putting in long, unnecessary hours is that we are neglecting to use our voices. In replacing phone calls with email and texts, we are not taking advantage of our own evolutionary inheritance….

You receive information from the sound of a voice that cannot be transmitted in an email attachment. The email may feel more efficient and easier because you don’t have to deal with the other person when you’re writing it, but the efficiency is mostly an illusion.

Chapter 8, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

At the end of the chapter, she summarizes the inherent human needs that seem “to be consistent across all cultures and all generations.” These are:

  • social skills and language
  • a need to belong that fosters empathy
  • rule-making
  • music
  • play

And we can literally make ourselves sick by ignoring these needs with the increased isolation from our obsession with work and our digital existence. Perhaps this is what we are seeing today with increased cases of anxiety and depression.

So, “Is Tech to Blame?” asks Headlee in chapter 9. But technology isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom. The author herself tried three weeks of analog life to find more time for leisure and a break from feeling overwhelmed. It didn’t work. Her addiction to work was still there. Instead, we need to learn to manage our technology rather than let it rule us.

This is incredibly challenging. In part, this is because the technologists are using psychology against us. They make these tools as addictive and exciting as they can. In fact, they purposefully mine the same features that keep people coming back to slot machines in Vegas. And all that interruption isn’t good for our brains and productivity, as we learned before. Feeling uncertain about all this? Consider the fact that many of the leaders of the companies making these tools won’t let their own kids use them. “Would you eat a meal that the chef wouldn’t serve to his own family?”

As she winds down this final chapter describing the problem, the author points not to the technology of today as the ultimate culprit but to history.

But none of this—the addictive apps and the fear of missing out—would be quite as successful were it not for the existing emphasis on productivity and efficiency that started dominating lives in the nineteenth century….

When you’re looking for something to blame for our current state of stress and anxiety and social isolation, you can start with tech, but you have to end in the workplace. The office is where the dysfunction began, not the internet.

Chapter 9, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

The rest of the book covers some of the authors prescriptions on how to overcome this dysfunction. I’ll pick up there in my next post.

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