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The paradox of overdoing it

Amid the ‘great resignation,’ some Americans are accomplishing more by doing less

Celeste Headlee sits on her porch in Rockville, Maryland, with two dogs in August 2021.
Celeste Headlee with her dog, Samus, left, and a neighbor’s dog at her home in Rockville, Maryland in August 2021.
Carol Guzy for Deseret Magazine

Celeste Headlee pushed her nose right through the grindstone. After years of putting in long hours as a journalist and public speaker she decided it wasn’t worth it. Despite making good money, and having control of her schedule, she wasn’t enjoying the fruits of her labor. Headlee had become impatient and irritable, and she had stopped enjoying activities that used to bring her joy. Simply put, she wasn’t happy. She wanted to enjoy spending time with friends and family again, to realign her life around the things that mattered most.

She started researching the history of labor and work culture in hopes of healing herself. She realized it wasn’t going to be simple; the right app or a digital detox wouldn’t dissolve her malaise. After talking with friends and family members who also admitted feeling more tired and stressed out than ever, she used her research to write “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.”

The pandemic has encouraged many people to reevaluate their professional lives. Call it burnout, languishing or simply the realization that life is too short, but many workers are not thrilled to return to the status quo. Four million people in the U.S. quit their jobs in April, while 40% of the global workforce was considering quitting this summer as some employers started mandating that they return to the office. Many have cited feeling exhausted from overextending themselves through lockdown and other implications of COVID-19. Economists have taken to calling this shift the “great resignation.”

In an interview with Deseret, Headlee explains some of the key lessons of her book, how she’s been managing to take her own advice and how the global pandemic gave us an opportunity to recalibrate our values.

Deseret News: COVID-19 forced many people to work from home for the first time. Do you think the past year exacerbated the tendency to overwork? Or do you think it provided some folks the opportunity to slow down and reconsider their habits?

Celeste Headlee: When the pandemic hit, I was convinced that in order to cope with the incredible stress, trauma and anxiety of COVID we were going to make the wrong choices. I was right. People started working longer hours, taking more meetings and spending hours at a time at their computers without standing up. They allowed work to claim every part of their home. People also brought home their toxic productivity habits. They became someone who not only made sourdough bread, but baked the ultimate sourdough bread. But they also had a dawning realization that it was too much. There was a purpose to all the things our parents and grandparents used to do, from playing card games to stamp collecting to polishing rocks. The purpose was leisure.

DN: I love how you mention cross-stitching as an activity that brings you joy but isn’t productive. Why is it so important to have hobbies that are simply for pleasure?

CH: One study showed that people felt even more impatient while listening to beautiful music if you made them think about how much their hourly pay was. If you want to enjoy your life and what you do, stop thinking about whether it’s adding to your brand or making you money.

DN: In your book, you talk about the concept of “polluted time.” Can you explain what that is and why it’s harmful?

CH: “Polluted time” is when work creeps in on our free time. If you’re at dinner with a friend or a family member and a work notification comes in, even if you don’t check it, your focus is going to be pulled away and it will take about 15 minutes to fully refocus on that person. When you pollute your time you start to feel like you’re short on it. That’s going to make your empathy, compassion, patience, tolerance drop. When your brain has a sense of scarcity of any kind, your IQ declines by 13 or 14 points. This has a massive impact because you become more impulsive and make terrible decisions, resulting in an even greater sense of scarcity. Things become a crisis.

DN: You write about the “default mode network,” an important mental state where we put past events into context, imagine the future and make moral evaluations, and you say it can only be accessed when we allow our minds to wander. How do you activate your default mode network? And what benefits have you seen?

CH: It’s simple. I leave my phone in another room, I move away from all screens and I sit down. And I just sit there until I start to feel bored, which happens pretty fast. I’ll let that feeling of boredom wash over me, and it’s not pleasant. But your brain basically turns into this manic librarian, racing through the stacks of your mind pulling stuff out and saying, “Hey what about this?” And that’s when you start to have these creative thoughts, when you start to surprise yourself with what you remember.

DN: You mentioned that you have one untouchable day every week where you don’t look at your email or phone. Have you been able to keep it up?

CH: I have not been able to keep it up on a weekday because people have been so anxious during the time of COVID, and, if I don’t respond to somebody for a full 24 hours, they start to worry. But I do on the weekend. I log off my social media Friday afternoon, and I won’t look at my email inbox until Monday, and it’s the best thing ever. I gotta tell you, it’s hard at first to let go like that. But at one point I was outside walking my dog, wandering down this forest path and thinking, “I haven’t even thought about email for hours.”

DN: Disconnecting to that degree seems impossible for a lot of people. The only way I’ve figured out how to do it is by backpacking in places where I am forced to live without cell service. What would you say to people who feel they need to stay connected or who work at companies where that’s the expectation?

CH: Pretend that every Saturday or Sunday you’re taking a backpacking trip and on those days put an email notification on your inbox that says, “I’m away from the office today. If it’s urgent, call me. Otherwise I’ll get back to you tomorrow.” You’ll discover that nobody calls, which means nothing is urgent. It’s been about three years since I started doing untouchable days, and I’ve only gotten a couple calls during that time. All of my fears about what would go wrong never materialized.

DN: You write that humans can’t truly multitask, and that trying to do so is just slowing us down. What’s happening in the brain when we try to talk on the phone while checking our email?

CH: There’s maybe 1% or 2% of the world’s population that can truly multitask without seeing a massive loss of productivity and intellect, but over 70% of people think they’re in that group. Probably the worst effect is that it can cause real, lasting damage to your brain, and those who try to do it on a regular basis have a loss of brain density, specifically the area where you have self-control, empathy and compassion. And it’s not helping you get more things done. That’s an illusion.

DN: You argue that our brains weren’t designed to work long hours without interruption, that working in “pulses” can be more productive. What does your own schedule look like?

CH: The International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization just released a study showing people that work more than 55 hours a week are more likely to die prematurely. It can’t get more stark than that. My schedule changes every single day, but I only have four and a half hours of focused work per day and that’s all I expect of myself. If I’m starting to lose focus, I don’t try to push through it, I get up and take a break, taking time to do the dishes or walk my dog.

DN: You write that the “key to well-being is shared humanity.” What methods do you recommend for building a community now as we emerge from our homes and are maybe a little rusty at our spontaneous conversation skills?

CH: Keep the stakes low. Have that conversation with your grocery store clerk, wave to your neighbor as you’re walking down the street. We know that these low-risk, low-cost interactions have an outsized impact on your mood and your feeling of belonging. You don’t have to invest a lot to increase your sense of social connectedness or your feeling of belonging.

DN: Your book is called “Do Nothing,” but it seems like you’re advocating for being a little more thoughtful and purposeful about where we place our energy.

CH: By working less, I have become more productive. I can’t say it more plainly than that. Some people who interview me think it’s a gotcha question to point out that my resume shows I’ve done a lot, that because I’m doing stuff I’m not following my own advice. But by not forcing myself to rise and grind every single day, I get more done — because that’s how the human brain and body are designed to function.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.