What I Took Away From: “Do Nothing” by Celeste Headlee

A book about our incapability to chill the fuck out.

Dominik Nitsch
5 min readDec 15, 2020

“We only read the first paragraphs of the articles we find interesting because we don’t have the time to read them in their entirety.

The above sentence is the fourth sentence of the opening chapter. And it describes everything that’s wrong with our society, our culture right now. So please, bear with me and don’t skip out on this post because you feel pressed for time.

Because after reading it, you may feel like you have more time.

The following takeaways are from the book “Do Nothing” by Celeste Headlee and therefore not my own intellectual material — just a summary of the things I learned. Here we go:

1. Humans are not machines.

When did working all the time suddenly become the norm? According to Headlee, rather recently. For the most of human existence, we worked depending on the cycles of the seasons: during harvesting season, you’d have to work more, but in the winter, we didn’t work at all — because there was nothing to be worked on. Our days were reigned by day and night; when night fell, it was time to stop working.

The the industrial revolution happened, and all the sudden we had electric lighting and the steam engine. With that, it was possible to work all the time, 24/7. And it was efficient — the more the machines were running, the faster they would amortize their costs and the faster your company would grow.

People worked 12, maybe even 14 hours a day — the more, the better. Time became equal to money, and rightfully so: each hour put in by a blue-collar worker was directly correlated to an increase in revenue.

Fast forward to today. Many of us still work crazy hours, but there is one major difference: if you’re reading this, chances are you are a white-collar worker. You don’t do “mechanical” work; you do creative, brain-driven work. Yet our favorite metric is still “number of hours put in”.

You cannot measure output in hours. Study after study has shown that the most productive researchers work between two and five hours per day. The researchers that work the most are actually the least productive.

Humans are not machines. We can’t work all day, expecting to generate output equal to input. We need our creative breaks, we need our recovery — and it’s perfectly fine to take them.

2. We actually work less than we think we do.

We all have these friends who constantly tell us about their 60+ hour workweeks. Which probably is true, if you measure the time between beginning work in the morning and then shutting down your laptop at night.

But in reality, we don’t work that much. We check our phones more than 100 times per day, do online shopping during the day, take care of errands (I mean, how else would we if we work all the time during the week), chat with coworkers or stare meaninglessly into the abyss, waiting for time to pass.

I tracked my actual working hours over the past ten weeks and realized that with the exception of one week, I never actually worked more than 35h. But it still felt draining.

This leaves us with two questions:

  1. Where does all the time go that we spend at the office?
  2. Which aspects of your work drain your energy?

Chances are, our perception of how much we work and how much we actually work isn’t aligned. The first step to change that is to actively start tracking your real working hours. Because if you don’t know what they are, you can’t change them.

3. Escape the cult of efficiency.

According to Headlee, tech isn’t to blame for our lost time. Instead, the culture at the workplace is to blame. A good day, for most people (myself included), equals a “productive day”. That’s what we’re taught in our jobs.

We take that into our private life. Instead of just sitting around, relaxing, and doing absolutely nothing, we try to use every single waking minute in order to improve something. Maybe you need new curtains. Maybe you need to cook a new dish that you haven’t done before. Maybe you need to figure out the next life hack to become more productive.

In reality, we don’t need all that. What we need is interaction with friends, idle time to ourselves, and the possibility to stare out of the window for an hour without having a bad conscience.

It may not be efficient, but it will spur your creativity, and recharge your energy so you can do the things that you want to do.

4. Be clear about your end goal.

What’s the end goal of your work? Certainly not getting a promotion or a salary raise — those are means to an end. Becoming a millionaire? Means to an end. Money in itself has no inherent value, unless you plan to use it. What are you going to use it for?

Ask yourself: what is your end goal? What are you working towards?

Is it living a worry-free life? Having a family? Changing the world? Inspiring others? There is no right or wrong here — but if you’re doing something that does not contribute to your end goal, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Sometimes, a book needs to come to you at the right time. I am, right now, in the privileged situation to be doing absolutely nothing (one could call it “funemployed”), so I have the opportunity to try to put these principles into practice.

It’s incredibly difficult to lose the notion that you need to be on your computer in order to be productive. Hell, I have a lot of free time and the best thing I’m doing with it is writing a blog post?

Right now, I actively schedule “leisure time” in my days, while maintaining the more essential habits. But it’s awesome — I get to do a lot of things I rarely get to do, such as reading a lot, writing, watching “24” on Netflix and playing a ton of Magic: the Gathering Arena. It’s lovely.

I can highly, highly recommend reading this book to anyone who feels overwhelmed with their work. It’s a quick, easy read (241 pages on paperback), which provides a lot of food for thought.

You can buy it here.

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Dominik Nitsch

Entrepreneur | Athlete | Writer. Reflecting on life’s challenges and figuring out ways to overcome them.