in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #602: The Case for Being Unproductive

Decades ago, economists thought that thanks to advances in technology, in the 21st century we’d only work a few hours a week and enjoy loads of leisure time. Yet here we are in the modern age, still working long hours and feeling like we’re busier than ever. What happened?

My guest today argues that we’ve all been swept up into a cult of efficiency that started centuries ago and has only been strengthened by advances in technology. The remedy? Do nothing. At least nothing productive.

Her name is Celeste Headlee and she’s the author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. We begin our conversation taking a look at what work was like before industrialization and how we moderns work more than medieval serfs. Celeste then explains how industrialization moved us from task-based work to hour-based work and how that helped change our perception of time and usher in “the cult of efficiency.” We discuss how we’ve taken this penchant towards over-optimization which prevails in work life, and applied it to our personal and family lives as well, adding stress and stripping us of hobbies and social connections. We then dig into how this current moment of being forced into doing less can be used as a time to reevaluate our relationship to work, and how we can reconnect with the idea of doing things for their own sake, especially cultivating relationships with others.

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • Why Celeste felt like she had less time and more overwhelm as her income went up
  • What was work/life like prior to 200 years ago?
  • What is the cult of efficiency? 
  • Task-based work vs. hour-based work
  • The idea of “wasting” time 
  • The religious origins of our nation’s work ethic 
  • Why don’t Americans use all their vacation time?
  • Why more work doesn’t equate to more productivity 
  • Do we have less time and energy than previous generations?
  • The insidious nature of our modern technology 
  • How has our home life gotten more stressful?
  • How the pandemic has impacted Celeste’s thinking in regards to her new book
  • The value of doing something that isn’t worth anything 
  • Focusing on ends rather than means
  • The case for talking to people on the phone 
  • The devastating effects of loneliness 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of Do nothing by by Celeste Headele.

Connect With Celeste

Celeste’s website

Celeste on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Decades ago economists thought that thanks to advances in technology in the 21st century, we’d only work a few hours a week and enjoy loads of leisure time. Yet here we are in the modern age, still working long hours, feeling like we’re busier than ever. What happened? My guest today argues that we’ve all been swept up into a cult of efficiency that started centuries ago and has only been strengthened by advances in technology. The remedy: Do nothing. At least nothing productive. Her name is Celeste Headlee and she’s the author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. We begin our conversation taking a look at what work was like before industrialization, and how we moderns work more than medieval serfs. Celeste then explains how industrialization moved us from task-based work, to hour-based work, and how that helped change our perception of time and usher in the cult of efficiency. We discuss how we’ve taken this pension towards over-optimization which prevails in work life and applied it to our personal and family lives as well, adding stress and stripping us of hobbies and social connections.

We then dig into how this current moment of being forced into doing less can be used at a time to re-evaluate our relationship to work and how we can reconnect with the idea of doing things for their own sake, especially cultivating relationships with others. After the show is over check out our show notes at

Brett McKay: Alright, Celeste Headlee welcome to the show.

Celeste Headlee: Thank you.

Brett McKay: So you published a book Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking and Underliving. So as I say research is me search. Is there a personal story behind this book, why you decided to write about this topic?

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, the book ended up being a combination of deep research, interviews with experts, and then my own personal journey, ’cause frankly, it didn’t start… I wasn’t trying to write a book. I was writing about something completely different at the time, but I was miserable. I was more financially stable than I’d ever been before in my life. I had these ideas about what that would look like when I was really financially stable, about… I would have time to take Salsa lessons and I would travel, and it turned out the exact opposite that the more money I brought in, the higher my income went the less time I had, the more overworked I was, the more overwhelmed. And I ended up getting severe bronchitis, like, bed-ridden severity for two times within five months, and that’s when I sort of knew I needed to figure out what was happening. So the research did begin as me search; it was simply, I was just trying to figure out what was going on with me and how I could solve it.

Brett McKay: And in your research, you found out that lots of other people feel the same way. And even the research with sociologists, psychologist, they have found the same thing. And in the book you start the first half of the book discussing the problem, the source of this problem, and you take a look at something you call the cult of efficiency. So before we get into this sort of cult of efficiency that we live in, in the western culture today, what was work and life like before this cult of efficiency took place.

Celeste Headlee: That’s a really good question because it’s important to remember that human beings, our species homo sapiens, lived a certain way for most of the 300,000 years we’ve been on the planet. And it’s only been in the past 200 or 300 years that we changed all of that. That’s super important to remember because it feels right now, like the way we live is the way it’s done and it’s always been this way, and that is just not the truth. So I had to go back quite a bit through whatever labor records we have. And frankly, our labor records are mostly centered around the European countries and some a little bit from the Mediterranean. Mostly because that’s where the records still survived. But we happen to know that going back to the days of the Greeks and Romans, people even low, the lowest echelons of society like peons and serfs, worked less than half a year for most of our history of our species.

Not only did they only work about eight hours a day, but also if someone got married, they took a two-week holiday to celebrate that marriage. Things ran in pulses, high activity followed by a great deal of leisure. So they’d have an intense period of labor during harvest, and then all over the world they would celebrate the harvest with weeks of feasting, and dancing, and music, and very, very little labor. So, that is sort of the way we lived for a very long period of time. Intense labor followed by periods of rest.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, the numbers. Like how much medieval peasants worked, I’m like, “Man, I work more than a medieval peasant.”

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, you wouldn’t wanna go back to that state of hygiene, but certainly in terms of work hours, they had had it better than we do.

Brett McKay: And another point you made in the book is the way they worked was differently in that today we tend to work by the hour, where time is money. Back then, it was based around a task ’cause they just… “Okay, I gotta harvest this field or I gotta paint this painting or carve this sculpture,” and that was it.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, that’s right. If something broke or you needed something, if you needed a new railing for a staircase, you went to the person who does that, the wood worker, and you hired them for a certain of amount of money and they did that and then that task was done. And then they moved on to whatever the next one was. We don’t… When I learned about the industrial revolution in high school, in college, I really don’t think I grasped the significance of that moment. I really don’t think so because through my research what I discovered was almost everything changed after that. So in terms of like when time becomes money, this is one of those things that we assume has always been, but it really is recent, when the amount of time is you spend on something is worth something. ‘Cause if you were making a staircase, you made that staircase, you finished, and you went home with your check. But when factories opened, you were never done. You just kept making more stair steps or whatever it was you were in charge of. And there’s even these records of employers changing the time on the clocks in order to trick their workers into working more hours. They were essentially stealing from them by stealing their time. So yeah, it was a massive change when our time it began to equal the amount of money we made, when we started calculating our value based on our hourly rate.

Brett McKay: And not only that changed the way we worked, but it changed the way we think of time even when we’re not working. We always think, “Well, there’s money associated with that time.”

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, and it changed our language. I traced a number of words whose meaning changed when this all happened, but also in terms of wasting time. People feel guilty if they are wasting time, and what they’re really talking about is if your hourly rate is 20 bucks an hour, then if you waste an hour, you’ve wasted 20 bucks. And this goes back to Benjamin Franklin. We wanna blame this all on technology, but frankly it’s been coming for a very long time. They did this one study which I found fascinating, where they brought people in and they had them listen to what is really just a gorgeous piece of music. It’s the Flower Duet from an opera called Lakme. And it’s luscious. But for half of those people, when they were doing the questionnaire before listening to the piece of music, one of the questions they asked is, “What’s your hourly rate?”

Meaning they prompted them to think about how much their time is worth, and that group of people thought it was too long. This three-minute piece of music. They were really impatient for it to get over with. The other ones would just listen to a beautiful piece of music and they were done. They said, “Okay, that’s it, that’s all I had to do?” But if the people were prompted to think about how much their time was worth, they couldn’t wait for that to be over with. And if you apply this to your own life, even things that you enjoy, you may become impatient with because underlying it all is the sense that you’re wasting time, which means you’re wasting money.

Brett McKay: So that switch from task-based work to hour-based work. And even if your salaried, you’re still thinking in terms of hours, every hour has an ROI when managers are thinking about that. That was a big change. That was the big shift in the cult of efficiency. Then also, you discussed this in the book too, Max Weber, the sociologist made famous that the idea of the Protestant work ethic, particularly with Calvinism there was this idea that, well, if you have wealth, if you’re successful financially it means that you’re favored by God. So if you work hard and make money, that is a sign you’re favored. So there was a religious element at least that was helping spur this idea of just being efficient with your time and constantly doing stuff.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, interestingly enough, it was sort of the merging of these different forces, economic, and philosophical, and religious that really cemented it into our psyche. So there was this idea among religious folk that idle hands are the devil’s playground. If you’re not working, you’re a bad person. And that in fact it’s the amount of work that you do. Not just any work, but hard work, hard labor that earns your way into heaven. And there was also this idea that leisure and enjoyment needed to be put off until after death. So this all sort of combined with what was already bubbling up from industry, and factories, and owners to create an incredibly strong force. This Protestant work ethic… Even though the number of Protestants has gone down globally, the ethic remains behind and not just in the US, we’re talking about all over the world.

Brett McKay: And yeah, as you said even though religion has been on the decline for the past 50, 60 years, that idea of work has become a new religion for a lot of Westerners. We take pride or we see being busy as a virtue.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, and it’s interesting. That’s one of the things I had a trace is when this happened because if we think back to the days of Downton Abbey or whatever, we’re talking about wealthy people who demonstrated their wealth by their leisure. They played croquet, and did hunting, and dabbled in painting, and they would do amateur theatrics. That’s all over Jane Eyre. But at some point, that became contemptible. And in fact, how busy you were was a marker of how important you were. That’s incredibly true right now. Researchers have documented this in a variety of ways. But one of the ways they did it was by tracking how many times people mentioned being busy or overwhelmed in their holiday letters. And in the past 20 or 30 years, it’s gone through the roof. And I ask people all the time, I’m like, “How many times per day does someone ask how you are, and you say busy?” Or “How many times do you get that answer when you ask someone how they are?” That’s not normal. That’s new. And it’s not a particularly good sign.

Brett McKay: Alright, so being busy is the new sign of being part of the aristocracy. But you’re just making the case, we need to go back to that old Downton Abbey idea of aristocracy; you’re an aristocrat if you can play croquet whenever you want. [chuckle] My wife…

Celeste Headlee: I’m not sure I wanna go back to the income. I will say this. I’m not sure I wanna go back to the days of the aristocracy, but I will say that our income inequality is actually higher now than it was during those times. So, in fact, now, the difference in income between a CEO and their average worker is hundreds of times percentages higher than it was between the Earl of Grantham and his Valley.

Brett McKay: So, okay, let’s talk about how the whole cult of efficiency manifests itself in work life. One thing it’s interesting, at least in America, is that even when Americans don’t have to work, they still work. For example, most Americans don’t use all their vacation days. And what’s going on there?

Celeste Headlee: Isn’t that interesting. I think what’s one of the things that sort of hit me the hardest, just viscerally hit me, was to go back through the history of what it took to earn the eight-hour work day. If you go back to the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, there were no regulations in place, ’cause they hadn’t needed them. And people were working 16 and 20 hour days. I mean, it was just incredible. They had to fight in England to put limits on a child’s working day to only 12 hours a day. So then began this battle between laborers, workers, and management. And people died. I mean, they died to earn us the eight-hour work day. And here we are, just a few decades later, voluntarily giving it up. We go on vacation, paid vacation, those of us who have that privilege, and answer work emails and phone calls, and read stuff from the office, like we just give it up.

And the other thing that’s amazing is, the millions and millions of dollars we donate to our employers by not taking our paid vacation. So, yeah, we’re at this place where we’re choosing to continue working, and frankly that’s not entirely our fault. We have been brainwashed, in many cases totally intentionally, by the ruling powers of industry. We have been brainwashed to think we have to do that. There’s a number of reasons why that has become the ethos, why that’s the underlying culture, and it’s not entirely us.

Brett McKay: What’s interesting, though, you also had the research is that when… That’s actually making… We think that we’re being more productive when we work more, and we’re working on vacation, working on the weekends, working at nights. Well the research actually shows people are actually less productive whenever they do that.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, and most of the cases in terms of this kind of research, when you look at the actual data and statistics, it turns out to be not what you thought. So for example, people who take their vacation time, take at least 11 days or more of their paid vacation, end up, not only being more productive, but they’re also more likely to get a promotion than people who take fewer than 10 days. People who work excessive hours, say, 50 hours a week or more, only make 6% more. But as you say, they’re also… The least productive among us are the ones that are working incredibly long hours. And I wanna go back to a study that was done pre-tech because this is not the fault of our technology. They did a survey of scientists at the University of Illinois sometime in the 1950s, and followed them for a very long period of time. And they found the least productive were those who worked more than 50 hours a week. The most productive were the ones who worked 12 to 20 hours a week.

Our brains are simply not designed to do their best work when we push them. So we are more creative, we’re less likely to make errors when we’re rested, when we’ve had time away from work. We are more productive, we’re more efficient. You have to give your brain an ideal situation in order to do its best work. And that is never, never, never, never, never when you are working really long hours.

Brett McKay: I think there’s also something you talk about, there’s that principle, “work fills the time allotted”, so if you know, like, “Oh, I’m gonna work 50 hours.” Well, a thing that could take you just a few hours, you’re gonna use all your time to do that thing.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, exactly what you’re referring to is Parkinson’s Law. Its an adage that was created by a sociologist that says, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So if your boss gives you until Friday to write a memo, it will take you until Friday. But if they say this needs to be done until two hours, you will get it done in two hours. That’s the basic idea, and we will fill our time with meetings that take way too long, and we’ll sit around the meeting table. You’ve been in those kind of meetings, right? Where people just keep going on and on and on and going off on tangents, and you feel like you wanna die. We will fill our time that way, instead of just getting the thing done.

So that’s another part of the problem. And one of the things that I note is that while we are bringing work home with us, we’re also bringing home to work. The number one hours for online shopping are during the workday. The number one hours, the busiest hours for porn viewing are during the work day.

Brett McKay: No, we noticed that, too. With our website analytics… We have these real-time analytics, and we can see when traffic… And it’s always 10 o’clock in the morning, 11:00, that’s when it starts. Like noon, like lunch time. It’s like when it peaks, and then it starts this decline. It’s like… I can see everyone is just surfing The Art of Manliness those first few hours of work, and they’re not actually working.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, exactly, yeah, believe me. The scales definitely tip toward work. Work is definitely winning that tug of war, but home life is in there.

Brett McKay: I think it’s one of those unintended consequences of equating money with time ’cause if you say, “Well, I gotta be at the office. I gotta work for eight hours. Well, I gotta do something.” So you’re just gonna kinda diddle around and fill up that eight hours. But if you would just like say, “Hey, just get this job done.” Well people are gonna get that done as fast as they can, ’cause they don’t wanna do it. They don’t wanna spend any more time at the office or at work. So, I think that’s interesting. We think we’re being more efficient by going to an hour base, but it might even be more efficient to just do work as on a task basis.

Celeste Headlee: Oh, yeah, there’s tons of research showing that not only is task-based more efficient, but it also is better for a lot of well-being measures. So it’s much less stressful to us. It gives us these feelings of accomplishment. So it raises morale, it raises team work. When you’re task-based and you just need to get this one particular task done, you’re more likely to rely on the help and expertise of other people as opposed to when the task… It just never ends. You’ll just put your nose down and just keep typing, just keep typing at your desk. So there’s a huge number of benefits to being a task-based workplace rather than a treadmill-based one.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned when you started this book it was you were trying to figure out why did it feel like even though you were in a place better financially that you still felt like you were just treading water, and that you didn’t have any time. And you highlight research that people today often think like we have less time than our grandparents or great-grandparents that were just crunched for time. But what the research actually shows, our grandparents and great-grandparents worked more than us in often case and even did more stuff at home, more chores than we are today.

Celeste Headlee: Oh yeah, this was an exercise that I ended up doing. I came home one day, I was exhausted, I was like, “I do not have it in me to make dinner,” and cooking is something I enjoy, by the way. [chuckle] So it had nothing to do with that. I just felt overwhelmed and I happened to glance in my kitchen and started noticing all the things that I owned that saved me time that my grandmother didn’t have. So then I took a notebook and I walked around my house and I started adding it up. How much time did I save each week ’cause I had a dishwasher, or microwave, or robot vacuum, or Google Home that tells me the weather in the mornings. How much time does this all save me? And it turns out, I’ve got at least 20 to 30 extra hours every week than my grandmother did. And yet, and yet, she sewed quilts, and grew her own herbs, and made food and cookies for the PTA almost every single week, and she was a member of the Rotary and the Lotus club, and all these other activities that she did in addition to doing barbecuing. And our grandparents, they’d go on a vacation and then they’d invite everyone over to look at their slides.

Brett McKay: Look at slides, yeah.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, and we look back and we think, “Oh my God, how ridiculous is that? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have that kind of time?” Well, don’t we? Why don’t we have more time? Right?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Celeste Headlee: There’s no godly reason why we don’t have more time. There is no reason why a banker’s job today should be taking the same amount of time it took in 1975, zero. So what are we doing?

Brett McKay: So what are we doing? What is going on? Why do we feel overwhelmed?

Celeste Headlee: Well, there’s a number of reasons for that. And then this is the part where I start to talk about our technology. So here’s a big reason why we feel overwhelmed. It is that if some people if they get a few minutes during the day to take a break, the way we take a break is we pull out our smartphones and we page through social media, or we check our email, or we do a little online shopping. The thing is is that your brain can’t distinguish between that and working. As far as your brain is concerned, you’re basically still sitting at your desk working at your job; you have not taken a break. So you get to the end of your work day and you have taken no breaks at all. And it gets a little bit worse than that when you actually look at the neuroscience. So even having that smartphone present and visible is a drain on your brain. I’m trying not to make a rhyme, but there we go. Your brain is thinking about that phone whenever it is visible. If you work on a desktop and your email inbox is open all the time, your brain is sitting there thinking about it; it is preparing itself, it is expending energy to respond to a notification in case it comes in.

It’s in that ready mode all day long. And we know that it’s so… It has such a huge impact on your brain that if you have your email inbox open in the background all the time, your IQ drops by 10 to 12 points. Same basic concept if you have your smartphone visible. So that’s part of the reason we feel overwhelmed is because as far as our brains and our physiology are concerned, by the way, we aren’t ever taking a break; we even take those phones into bed. Something like a third of people admit they’ve answered their phone while they were in the shower.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s… You’re in a bad place if you’re doing that.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah.

Brett McKay: The other thing too you talk about why we’re feeling more overwhelmed than say our grandparents or great-grandparents is that we treat our family life, our home life, we’re starting to treat it more like work. And we’ve raised the expectations of what we’re supposed to be doing with our free time. And so now that you talk about how that research, people, men and women, particularly women are spending more time working on chores like cleaning the house than your grandma did or great-grandma did. And you’re spending more… Parents are spending more time with their kids than say grandparents or even parents did. It’s like why are we… What’s going on there? Why are we making home life more stressful than it needs to be?

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, the standards for cleanliness have gone through the roof. The standards for what your house looks like, how new all of your things must be have gone through the roof. If you’re gonna garden, you can’t just have a garden, you have to have the ultimate garden. If you’re sitting at home and you have a few extra minutes, you say, “Hey, I could make some curtains. Let me go on Pinterest.” Pinterest is the devil because it just forces people to think that what they have is not good enough. It means that you don’t wanna make a cookie recipe, you wanna make the ultimate cookie recipe. We just never stop improving ourselves. And this is tough because the impulse for self-improvement is good and healthy. We’ve just taken it way too far.

Brett McKay: Yeah, speaking like recreational activities, even the standards for that have gone up. You’re mentioning your grandparents, they do a barbecue or you’d come over and look at slides and that would be like, “Hey, that was a nice evening.” Now, you would never think about… If you were gonna do a barbecue, it had to be Primo Lux, the best. And so people don’t even do it because they’re just completely overwhelmed by the thought of it.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, exactly, the stakes are too high. Or you end up like a friend of mine who did a barbecue, she lit her grill and then ordered a caterer to bring barbecue over so it would be perfect. But she lit her grill and all that so it would look like she just was pulling these ribs off the grill. Come on, who cares? Who cares?

Brett McKay: Who cares. Man, if someone invites me over for free food, I don’t care what it is. I’m coming over, eat some food, have some conversation, that’s all I need and I’m happy.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, the bar is so low.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s incredibly low, incredibly low. So, okay, so we’ve talked about the problems. Now, this is kind of a unique situation we’re talking right now, we’re in the middle of this COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic where everyone is shut in their home, they’re not working. Now, for some people, they’ve lost their job, they’re not… But for other people, they’re working from home, they’re not working as much; it’s causing a re-evaluation of work in their life. What have your thoughts been about this whole thing in regards to your book as you’ve been seeing this?

Celeste Headlee: First of all, I would say I lost my job. Essentially, my income is almost entirely event-based. I do keynote speeches and workshops and consulting for companies. And that’s all been cancelled for the foreseeable future. I totally get it. I’m not complaining, I’m in a much more secure position than other people who’ve lost their job. I’m not living paycheck to paycheck. I’m just saying it’s an experience many people are going through all over the country. And I also get that if you are forced to do nothing, it might sound insensitive for me to say, “Hey, you should do nothing.” But there’s a difference between what I’m telling you to do, and then being forced out of an employment. I can’t make any comments about how difficult it is for people right now to make their bills, that’s horrible, and I hope that the policy makers step up and make that easier for people. But I can talk about the fact that people are bored at home because we’ve gotten rid of the things that used to occupy our time. I was looking at Twitter about a week ago, and I saw these nurses who started to put out the call for people to sew face masks because they’re better than nothing.

And they put out a sewing pattern. And I was thinking to myself, how many people still sew? How many people still have a sewing machine in their home because it really hasn’t been that long since there was a sewing machine in almost every home. It hasn’t been that long since almost every guy had a work bench and a bunch of tools in there garage or somewhere in their home and could tinker and fix things. Right now, if something breaks, you’re SOL because we don’t know how to fix stuff anymore. So we have gotten rid of these hobbies that don’t have a value, a capitalist value, that can’t increase our brand or work as a side hustle or bring in any kind of income or career building value. We’ve gotten rid of that stuff. And so when we go home not only is our home permeated with the tools of our actual work, but it also… We emptied it of the stuff that we considered to be a waste of time. So my advice to people is try to do something that’s not worth anything, try to do something right now that you just enjoy for its own sake and it can’t be Instagrammed effectively or shared and it won’t earn you money on Etsy. Just try it. Maybe you’ll stink at it, but that’s okay. It’s okay to fail in a world where everything doesn’t have to be leveraged.

Brett McKay: And that’s one of the… In the book you said one of the solutions to this overwhelming overwork is to focus on ends and not just means.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, that’s so important, and I think there’s some confusion about goal setting. We’ve become very, very goal-oriented, and in moderate amounts, that’s totally healthy and fine; goals can really motivate you and keep you on track, but there is a difference between means goals and end goals. One of my end goals is to make the world a better place, to leave the world at least slightly better than when I found it. End goals are non-negotiable. They generally don’t change over the course of your life for the most part; they can, but they’ll last for a long time. They’re not trackable, they’re not specific, they’re not measurable like the smart system of goals, so that’s an end goal. And what it means is I can choose all kinds of means goals for that. I can have one job that might help me get there or another one might work just as well. I was a… All my training is as a professional opera singer.

And if I had stayed with that, absolutely, that would have fed into my end goal, but I became a public radio journalist. And that also is totally fine to help me reach that end goal. Your means goals can change all the time, but you have to be careful to make sure that your means goals are helping you reach one of your real end goal. What we’re doing right now is just willy nilly choosing means goals and even worse, we’re choosing means goals that worked for somebody else, but may not work for us. We’ll read these articles that say, “Five things successful people do every single morning.” And so we’ll be like, “Okay, from now on, I’m getting up at 4:30 every morning and I’m making my bed and I’m drinking 20 ounces of water just like Tom Brady.” But we never stop and evaluate whether that means goal is actually accomplishing something significant for us, ’cause if it’s not, dump it; that’s just adding and yet another thing for you to do, adding stress and complexity to your day and not moving forward.

Brett McKay: One thing when you’re talking about we’ve emptied our homes of these hobby things, I think one reason people work more, at least before this whole thing started, this COVID thing happened is they didn’t know what to do with themselves in their free time. They’re just like, “Well, I guess I’ll work. It’s something to do.”

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, I think that’s very much true. And part of that is because we’ve gotten rid of our hobbies. It’s also because we’re so much more isolated and anti-social than we were in the past; human beings survived because we were community-based because we were a hive mind. I say that sometimes we like to think we survived, ’cause we were the smartest or the more logical which is balderdash. So the way that human beings have survived and thrive is through community. The only way human beings can take down a bison and I might say that there’s only two species that really take down bison ’cause bison are freaking impressive animals, and that’s wolves and humans, and they’re both pack animals. It means we rely on each other. We can have very sophisticated communication skills that allows us to figure out who’s the best on horseback, who has the best aim with a spear, who knows how to butcher that kind of animal.

And it means that as a group, we are so much more powerful than we are as individuals. It means we need each other. But also we’ve stopped joining clubs. We’ve mostly stopped playing pick-up baseball or pick-up basketball. We don’t belong to the Rotaries anymore. We don’t have those neighborhood barbecues. A third of Americans have never even met their neighbors. So yeah, we don’t know what to do because we don’t have a home life. We’ve just integrated our home lives with our work so much that when we’re not at work, there’s nothing.

Brett McKay: People pull into the garage, shut the garage door, go into their house without any… And so right now, doing all these social things kind of hard.

Celeste Headlee: Right.

Brett McKay: But you talk about in the book you’re making the case, bring back talking to people on the phone.

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, wouldn’t that be great. Use your phone as a phone.

Brett McKay: Why? What’s it about, what’s the superiority of phone talk conversations over text conversations?

Celeste Headlee: This was one of the most interesting areas of research that I got the opportunity to go into, which is the power of the human voice. It is really underestimated. This is the example I use all the time. Like have you ever called up a friend and they said, “Hello”, and you immediately said, “What’s wrong?”

Brett McKay: Yes.

Celeste Headlee: That is some incredibly sophisticated information that you have just picked up in a fraction of a second. That is how much information is encoded into the tone and volume of our voices that we are so far on an intangible level, right now we can’t track it, now. We are evolutionarily and biologically designed to pick up on the information coding that’s in the sound of a voice. And it goes deep, man. They’ve even done studies where they’ve had people read opinions they don’t agree with, in any form, on the Internet, in a book, in a newspaper, and they find that when you read it, you are much more likely to think that person disagrees with you because they’re stupid, and they don’t understand the core concepts. But if you hear them say that same opinion in their own voice, you’re more likely to think they disagree because they have different experiences and perspectives, which suggests that it’s the sound of our voice that actually humanizes us to one another; that we have been reliant on our voices for so many hundreds of thousands of years that that is what allows us to recognize another human being, another member of our species.

So it’s totally understandable that as we stop hearing voices as people reject phone calls and send text backs that say, “Can’t talk, what’s up?” That of course we’ve begun to de-humanize one another. We’re not making that connection that allows us to create connections. But it’s also, it’s ridiculous to me that we keep coming up with ways to replace the human voice when the human voice is so spectacularly efficient and effective. There just is no other way to communicate that is more effective than the voice. Defaulting to email is one of the dumbest things that we do. It’s such a time waster.

Brett McKay: I’ve noticed sometimes, things can be solved with a phone call a lot faster. Five-minute phone call and then instead you try to do it an email that goes over hours or even days. These is this chain; it’s like that could have been done fixed in just five minutes with a phone call.

Celeste Headlee: Absolutely, and I recount one of those in the book, this ridiculous chain of emails that went on into the… I think it reached almost 140 emails, and then I said I put my foot down and said, “Call each other.” It was taken care of in five or six minutes. Not only that, but emails make you more likely to escalate conflict. They make you less likely to cooperate. I mean, there’s some things that email is very, very good for, but most things your voice is gonna be better, and it’s gonna make you feel better.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I found myself when I read that, I’ve noticed that I found myself in the past year, calling people more often. I called people all the time when I was in high school ’cause that’s how you talk to your friends. But now I’ll call my friends who live in town, just to talk, and I’ll go for a walk, catch up, “Hey, what’s going on?” I’m like, “Man, I feel like I’m in 1997 again, this is pretty cool.”

Celeste Headlee: Yeah, and I imagine I’m probably a bit older than you are, but I can remember how awesome it was to sit there at the phone and lie down on my bedroom floor and just talk to my friends for hours. And like you say, they lived like down the street, and I’d probably just seen them in history class or something. Still found a ton of things to talk about. Yeah, it’s really comforting and we are naturally biologically rewarded for talking about ourselves, anyway; talking about yourself activates the same pleasure centering the brain as sex and orgasm and heroin, I should say. So it’s gonna be very pleasurable, but it also brings that comfort of a human voice. The human voice increases your sense of belongingness.

And this is the one of the things I emphasize the book is that, after survival, after you’ve supplied your need for shelter, food, water, etcetera, sleep, the number one need that a human being has is for belongingness. Freud was wrong. It’s not sex, it’s community. And if you don’t have that, if you don’t fulfill that, then you will have health consequences. I mean, it will not directly kill you, but it will lead to earlier death. That’s how serious it is. Loneliness degrades your internal organs. And one other thing I would say about this is that social media and digitally-mediated conversations do not fulfill the need to belong.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you need that voice. And so, one thing that people are doing now, because they’re at they’re stuck at home, and they can’t go out and talk to their friends, like they’re using Zoom, like getting group chats going in. Have you been doing that? Have you found that… Does it scratch the itch?

Celeste Headlee: I have. I know some people are finding it now to be exhausting to use Zoom. And that’s partly because of what I said before, that if you’re using your screen that you also use for work, then your brain, while you’re zooming is confused. It probably thinks you’re still working; in addition to getting the social benefits, you’re also getting a little tired. So it’s okay to not use Zoom. Zoom is great. Absolutely, I suggest it. But if you’re feeling tired, just use the phone, it’s totally okay. But we do know through research that tele-conferencing is almost as good as being in person when it comes to the effectiveness of the communication and fulfilling social interaction. So, absolutely, use Zoom or Skype or whatever your platform is of choice. But also remember, it doesn’t have to be Zoom, you just need to hear a voice. . .

Brett McKay: a lot of people that they’re home because maybe they’re out of a job or maybe they’re working from home. What do you think people can do during this time? This is a time to re-evaluate, alright, besides trying to take care of the day-to-day stuff, this is a time to re-evaluate your life. What do you hope your book… Questions people can start asking about their relationship to work?

Celeste Headlee: I mean, that’s exactly what I want, is I want people to start asking themselves some questions. And one of the best responses I’ve seen, and I’ve seen it over and over is, “I’m gonna buy one of these for my boss,” because we need a global reconsideration of working hours. We need a global reconsideration of what is healthy work-life balance, but even more so, we need a global reconsideration of what are pro-human habits. Because I would say I would go so far as to say our habits, right now, are anti-human. They lead to the early death of human beings. In the United States, the life expectancy has dropped for three years in a row. And the doctor, who was the lead author on the most recent report, they asked him what was killing people and he said, “Despair.”

So, I need us to start talking about this stuff, but talking about it in a way that takes into account history, because we’re about to get a bunch of thought think pieces and books and people blaming it all on the smartphone. And if that’s as far back as you go, we aren’t gonna solve the problem. We have to really come to grips with what has changed over the past 300 years, why it’s changed, whether some of these changes occurred without us really putting thought into them and the consequences, the unintended consequences. And if it happened as recently as 200 or 300 years, that means it can change back.

Brett McKay: Well, Celeste, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Celeste Headlee: The easiest thing is just go to I’ve gathered all the stuff there, and there’s plenty of links to buy the book from a big retailer or from Indeed book stores as well, so that’s the easiest.

Brett McKay: Fantastic, well, Celeste Headlee, thanks for some time. It’s been a pleasure.

Celeste Headlee: Thank you, have a great day.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Celeste Headlee. She’s the author of the book “Do Nothing.” It’s available on, and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website Also check out our show notes where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another addition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you like, you can enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head on over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out. Once you’ve signed up, download the Stitcher app Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


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