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Do Nothing

Book Notes

Similar to How to Do Nothing, this book (full title is "Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving") is a woman's journey into the realization that, hey, hamster on the hedonic treadmill is not the way to a happy life, and neither is killing ourselves for our capitalist overlords (my phrasing, not Headlee's).

This book goes through Headlee's journey to, not slowing down per se, more like recognizing that all of this attention grabbing stuff is adversely affecting your well-being. I appreciate that Headlee also specifically calls out luck for her success: there are millions of people working hard to be successful, and it's the good luck that springs them over the top into success. The parts where Headlee says, "this is true for me, so it is true for other people," well, I unsurprisingly both noted that and disagreed with them.

Also similar to How to Do Nothing, there's the history of work: how we used to work less, Industrial Revolution changed the economic landscape, labor fought for fewer hours, labor negotiated fewer hours for us, we drifted back into longer hours. And talk about longer hours: Headlee completely dismisses women's unspoken, unregistered, unpaid workload. While reading this book, I wanted to mail her a copy of Invisible Women and ask her to rewrite the book. As a single mother, I was hoping Headlee would not have been as dismissive of the unpaid work women do, as, as above, she has a "this is true for me, so it is true for other people" elements. Maybe she didn't recognize that the overwhelming amount of work she did includes that unpaid work, and that the workload is different for men and women? I don't know.

So, which of How to Do Nothing or Do Nothing would I recommend? Eh... depends on what age you want your protagonist to be. The messages are the same, one feels like it's from an early 30s point of view, the other from a mid-40s point of view, more time in the trenches. I have no idea of either of those impressions are true. This book resonated more with me, but I don't know if that was because of the parts of this book that irritated me (so I paid attention to this book than Odell's), the seemingly different age point of view of the authors, or if Odell's How to Do Nothing primed me for preferring this book by planting the thoughts of "do less."

One or the other, pick one. it is worth reading.

In 1859, Frederick Douglass first gave a speech that he would repeat multiple times in the ensuing years. It was a lecture on the “self-made man.” “There is nothing good, great, or desirable,” he said, “that does not come by some kind of labor.” This vision of a man (let’s be honest: it was almost always a man at that time) who achieved great things solely through toil and grit became an essential part of the American Dream, and some version of it took hold in many parts of Europe as well. “My theory of self-made men is, then, simply this: that they are men of work,” Douglass said. “Whether or not such men have acquired material, moral or intellectual excellence, honest labor faithfully, steadily and persistently pursued, is the best, if not the only, explanation of their success.” His argument is that the success of someone who achieves great things is mostly due to blood, sweat, and tears. Conversely, someone who is unsuccessful is obviously not working hard enough.
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Even today, despite the income gap being higher in the United States than in almost any other nation, many Americans believe they can rise to riches through honest labor, and that belief fuels a willingness to work too much, even when we’re not reaping the profits of our labor.
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A separate study from Princeton revealed that the stronger your belief that you can rise through the income ranks, the more likely you are to defend the status quo. If you think your life could be a Horatio Alger story, you’re more likely to support the existing economic and political policies instead of pushing for change. Never mind that most of my friends and neighbors earn as much now as they did ten years ago, many think to themselves. I’ll be the exception.
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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. When time became money, the need to get more time out of workers became urgent if profit targets were to be met.
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If you examine all the surveys based on self-reporting, that is, asking people what they do with their time, you’ll get the sense that everyone is working almost all the time. The productivity expert Laura Vanderkam heard from many women that they worked sixty hours a week on average. But when she had them keep time logs, she found they actually worked about forty-four hours a week.
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More than half of U.S. employees feel overworked or overwhelmed on a regular basis, according to a study from the Families and Work Institute. The president of this nonprofit research center, Ellen Galinsky, told ABC News that “many American employees are near the breaking point.” I really doubt that all of those people are imagining their stress so they have something to complain about. I believe they really feel that way because I feel that way too.
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Hansson, the founder of Basecamp and the bestselling author of Rework, says, “Don’t tell me that there’s something uniquely demanding about building yet another fucking startup that dwarfs the accomplishments of The Origin of Species or winning five championship rings. It’s bullshit. Extractive, counterproductive bullshit peddled by people who either need a narrative to explain their personal sacrifices and regrets or who are in a position to treat the lives and well-being of others like cannon fodder.”
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In a 2017 op-ed, he wrote, “Workaholism is a disease. We need treatment and coping advice for those afflicted, not cheerleaders for their misery.” If it is a disease, it’s the worst kind: the kind we won’t admit we have and therefore don’t seek to treat. Workaholic should not be a compliment or a humblebrag—it should be a cry for help.
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Another misguided effort was the creation of open office plans. In this case, the motive was noble and positive: Executives sought to create more cohesive teams and to encourage social interaction. In the end, the effect has been exactly the opposite. Years of research show open office plans actually make people less likely to talk to each other. Having no possibility of privacy causes stress and therefore discourages creative thought. We put people on display and they retreated. Can you blame them?
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A survey of golfers in 2015 showed most think it takes too long to play eighteen holes. Players younger than forty-five said they’d prefer to play for only ninety minutes or so, and many courses now offer nine-hole games. This impatience shows up in all kinds of industries: People even listen to podcasts and audiobooks at double or even triple speed in order to get through them more quickly.
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In many ways, I think we’ve lost sight of the purpose of free time. We seem to immediately equate idleness with laziness, but those two things are very different. Leisure is not a synonym for inactive. Idleness offers an opportunity for play, something people rarely indulge in these days.
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Please note that by “work” I don’t mean the activities we engage in to secure our survival: finding food, water, or shelter. I mean the labor we do in order to secure everything else beyond survival or to contribute productively to the broader society, the things we do in exchange for pay.
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For generations, we have been told that our life’s purpose is work. Religious leaders often told the faithful that a lifetime of labor is how you earn an afterlife of respite, so idleness must be put off until after death. In truth, work ethics in the Western world have often been tied to faith, especially in the United States.
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The University of Pennsylvania professor Alexandra Michel says people put in long hours not for “rewards, punishments, or obligation” but because “many feel existentially lost without the driving structure of work in their life—even if that structure is neither proportionally profitable nor healthy in a physical or psychological sense.”
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So what happens to your identity when its defining characteristic disappears? Baby boomers are known for their work ethic and were motivated for decades by a drive to constantly get ahead. What happens when that drive is suddenly thrown into neutral? It certainly makes it difficult to answer one of the most common questions in the United States: “What do you do?” That question is considered rude in many other countries but is often one of the first things Americans want to know about others, mostly because knowing someone’s profession makes it easier to categorize them and rank them. It should come as no surprise that the connection between employment and identity can be traced back to the dawn of the industrial age. Prior to that time, people were more likely to ask about a person’s family than about their job. If you’ve been told for more than half a century that hard work is patriotic, that it is what separates a good person from a contemptible person, and that labor is part of the dues one must pay in order to earn entrance to heaven, what might happen when that labor ends and your life continues?
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It’s quite true that having important work to do can lead to a mood boost. In fact, a survey of 485 separate studies demonstrated conclusively that people who like their work are more likely to be healthy in body and mind. Also, they are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than those who are either unemployed or who don’t like their jobs.
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Turns out, people are often more relaxed in the office. Damaske explained in an interview that even the most urgent of issues at work is not as stressful as a crisis at home. Missing a deadline, for example, doesn’t usually take the same toll as the death of a loved one. What’s more, Damaske says, we always have an escape option in our working lives that we may not have at home. “You still know that you can quit, you can look for something else, that you can leave—leave your boss and your bad day behind,” Damaske said. Most people don’t walk out on their families because they’ve become irritating or find a new family when the old one is causing anxiety. You are usually tied to your family in ways that you’re not shackled to your job.
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damaging. Many people in the industrialized world derive self-esteem from their jobs. Jobs confer status. It can be devastating to feel unwanted and useless. But does all this mean that work is a fundamental human need? Do we require productive work in order to remain healthy and viable? If we were supplied with food, water, shelter, and clothing, would we still need to work in order to thrive? My answer is no. I think the benefits conveyed by a meaningful career may stem from the value and emphasis placed on work by our culture, not by nature.
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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. Maintaining that kind of guiding principle has unintended consequences. For one thing, it makes us less compassionate. For example, when Protestants are prompted to think about their jobs, they experience an immediate decrease in their empathy. (Remember that Protestants are among the most likely to believe hard work is its own reward.)
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When we hear someone explain the same opinion in their own voice, we’re more likely to think they disagree because they have different perspectives and experiences. On a subconscious level, we make assumptions about the other person’s humanity based on the method they are using to communicate. If we’re reading a blog online, we tend to think of the author as less human than ourselves. Hearing someone’s voice helps us recognize them as human and therefore treat them in a humane way. Your voice might go up in pitch when you’re excited; your speech might slow when you’re trying to be deliberate. Tiny changes in tone, rhythm, and breath, the study report says, “serve as a cue for the presence of an active mental life.” Text, the researchers concluded, doesn’t provide the same cues that point to a human mind behind the message. So the possibility that a reader might dehumanize the author goes way up.
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This is a big part of why our overuse of email and texting is contributing to dehumanization and hatred: We simply need to hear each other’s voices. Yet I’ve found that people have a very hard time accepting this. Globally, we have come to believe that email is more efficient, more convenient, and just better than the phone. Our addiction to email is a symptom of our obsession with efficiency and productivity.
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We have a fundamental need to belong, a hunger for community, and we are choosing to starve ourselves.
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Most people touch their phones about 2,600 times between waking and sleeping and spend about five hours browsing on them every day. Consider that when you’re feeling pressed for time. Out of a twenty-four-hour day, you probably spend about six to seven hours sleeping and eight hours at work. That leaves just nine hours, and you spend more than half of that time staring at your phone. Eighty-five percent of us use them while chatting with our family and friends.
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The pace is even faster for texts. Ninety-five percent of them are read within three minutes, and it takes about 90 seconds to get a response. Ninety seconds!
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Researchers at Yale conducted a series of experiments involving more than a thousand people. In one study, participants were told how zippers work. Half of them were instructed to confirm the details of the explanation by searching online. Then they were all asked a bunch of totally unrelated questions like “How do tornadoes form?” Those who’d been allowed to look online for information about zippers were more likely to think they knew more about everything they were asked, even weather, history, and food. Studies show that online research doesn’t make us much more knowledgeable, but it significantly increases our confidence in our knowledge. Looking up your symptoms online, for example, is overwhelmingly likely to provide you with an incorrect diagnosis. And yet people who use virtual symptom checkers are more likely to doubt their doctor’s advice and search for alternative remedies.
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We can end this toxic habit of constant comparison. Stop checking the internet to look at how other people are doing things, for one. If you want to make cupcakes, grab a recipe and make them. Don’t scour Pinterest for the “ultimate cupcake recipe,” buy special tools to decorate them perfectly, and then forget about those tools in a drawer somewhere because you’ve exhausted your interest in actually making the cupcakes.
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That should be the new measure in most things: Is it good? Forget how it looks in photographs and ask yourself if you like it. Does it work? Instead of worrying about whether you stayed at the office longer than anyone else, focus on what tasks you accomplished and how well you completed them. Don’t look at your friends’ vacation photos and juxtapose them with your own. Instead, ask whether they enjoyed their time off.
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If you’re going to compare yourself to others, look only as far as your friends, family, and neighbors. Pardon the TLC quote, but don’t search for a waterfall, “stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”
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In this day and age, it’s unlikely that other people will strike up a conversation with you on the elevator or the subway, so take the initiative and say good morning. As the behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley has said, few people wave, but almost everyone waves back.
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Brainstorm alone and evaluate or analyze as a group. A good rule of thumb is that diverse groups who are allowed to make decisions independently will outperform even the most expensive consultant. We often decide to make decisions alone because we feel it’s more efficient. “Design by committee” is a common insult, used to describe a project that’s flawed and uninspired because it included the input of too many people. Most of us have had some experience with meetings at work in which coworkers shot down good ideas, quibbled over meaningless details, or consistently supported the safest option. The error in these situations, though, was not in gathering input from many people but in trying to reach consensus without minimal conflict. Consensus is about being comfortable and avoiding arguments, but comfort is the enemy of innovation. Cognitive diversity is disconcerting to many people because it almost always brings differing opinions, but it is essential for creative problem-solving and accuracy. It is what our big Homo sapiens brains are designed to respond to and exploit.
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Choosing means goals in haste can waste a vast amount of time. You solve this problem by starting on the other end of the spectrum. Articulate your end goals and then choose smaller, specific goals that you are reasonably sure will bring you closer to the bigger objective. Check in frequently to make sure your habits truly are helping you make progress. If they’re not, don’t waste any more time on them. Dump them and try something else.
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So here is the complete list of solutions, all designed to break your addiction to efficiency without purpose and productivity with production. Increase time perception. Create your ideal schedule. Stop comparing at a distance. Work fewer hours. Schedule leisure. Schedule social time. Work in teams. Commit small, selfless acts. Focus on ends, not means.
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The overriding message is this: Stop trading time for money. The simple act of placing a value on an hour has made us loath to waste even a minute, and the more money you have, the more expensive your time is and the more you feel you don’t have enough time to spare. Our perception of time is now horribly warped. Leisure becomes stressful when you subconsciously believe you are wasting money by not being productive. However, if one of your end goals is to be happy, then pursuing a bigger income is not necessarily going to get you where you want to go. Allow yourself to consider other options.
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