Author of ‘Do Nothing’ book says quarantine gives us a rare chance to slow down, reassess

Canceled plans and stay-at-home orders have many (especially teenagers) singing the latest TikTok anthem: “Bored in the House.”

Journalist Celeste Headlee, however, sees the silver lining in being forced to slow down.

In her new book, “Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving,” Headlee writes that we need to relearn how to appreciate idleness and leisure and rethink our relationship with work and productivity.

Being constantly busy and always striving for efficiency has caused us to cut out “expressions of our basic humanity,” such as long, undirected phone conversations, chatting with neighbors, personal hobbies — even being bored.

We talked to Headlee, who lives in Washington, D.C., about the toxic side to being busy, why texting isn’t an authentic social connection and why being bored can be a good thing. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What do you say to all the kids (and adults) who are complaining about being bored?

Answer: Frankly, that is music to my ears. When I think about how many times I complained to my mother about being bored and she threw me outside the house and told me to find something to do. And that’s not true anymore. We’ve engineered our way out of boredom. We just hand the kids a tablet, or a (Nintendo) Switch or something.

Question: So being bored during quarantine can be a good thing?

Answer: There is the side of this which is serious, and tragic and life-threatening. But for those of us who are keeping others safe by staying at home, there might be some benefits. We are forced to slow down now. And we are forced to find things to do that are unconnected to our jobs.

Question: Is that a plus?

Answer: I think that a lot of people have started to realize how much of their life was wrapped up in their job, how much of their identity was wrapped up in their job. That may be a real eye-opener for people. That may not be what you wanted — to have your whole life be structured around going to work. And so maybe this is an opportunity.

My goal with the book was to create a global conversation and convince people to rethink their relationship with work. And I think that’s happening right now.

Question: What should we be focusing on instead?

Answer: Authentic social connections. Everyone has a limited amount of social energy. Let’s completely hypothetically say you have 100 watts of social energy every day. We’re spending 90 of those watts on social media, on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. The problem is that social media does not fulfill your needs.

It’s really important right now that people understand that digitally mediated conversations, email, texting and social media, do not fulfill your innate need for social connection. Put limits on that, and invest in authentic social connections. By that I mean, social connections in which you hear another human voice.

Question: Texting doesn’t count?

Answer: It doesn’t. I could cite you study after study. It’s the human voice that connects us, that allows us to recognize one another as human beings. It’s the human voice that triggers things within our own brain, in our physiology, that helps us to feel comforted.

Question: How can we maintain authentic connections under quarantine?

Answer: I’m not anti-tech at all. There’s good, solid research showing that teleconferencing is almost as good as an in-person interaction in terms of giving you a mood boost, helping your cognition, keeping your emotional health up.

I understand that a lot of businesses are kind of overdoing it on Zoom. The drawback is that some people might start to associate screen time with work and that might cause stress.

If you’re in that group, use the phone. Everybody else, use Zoom, have a dance party with your friends, play chess, show someone how to cook a recipe. Use the technology to your advantage to make you feel a little closer. Certainly if you have older relatives, think about how healing that is for them to see your face and see you smile.

Question: What else could we learn from your research?

Answer: One of the lessons is that our own toxic obsession with hustle culture and concentrated activity is part of the reason this (slowing down) is a struggle for us.

I mention in the book that most management has a 19th century mindset in a 21st century world. Meaning, they still think that you should reward people who work really long, hard hours.

That’s not true anymore. We can do our jobs in much less time than it used to take, and yet that attitude toward slaving at your desk for 16 hours a day, it’s still hanging around.

Question: Do you think we can change?

Answer: One of the reasons I wanted to delve so deeply into history is to remind us that Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years and change. These toxic habits have only been around for 200 or 300 years. It’s a blink in the long stair of evolution. It’s bad for us, and it’s time for us to recognize that our habits right now are anti-human and to go back to the habits that are pro-human.

Question: How can we go back to pro-human habits?

Answer: Normally I make people keep account of their hours, because they can really see how they spend their time. People don’t realize how much time they’re spending on things. But right now, here’s what I would say: If you are one of the people working from home, it is extremely important that you set boundaries. I don’t mean just mental boundaries. I mean, you need to set up physical boundaries.

Choose one place in your living space where you work. When you’re in that space, you’re working. And when you leave it, you’re not working anymore. You need your brain to understand that home is a place for not just work.

You also need to choose a quitting time. That’s up to you, when that time is. But at that point, when the bell rings, you are done working. You don’t check that email anymore. And you leave that workspace and you get back to your regular life which is unconnected from work.

Question: What’s the goal?

Answer: To find out who you are when you’re not working. Most people don’t know anymore.

Erica Pearson writes for the Star Tribune.