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Podcast

Do Nothing (2020)

The following are notes of a podcast interview Brett McKay did with Celeste Headlee. Headlee is a radio journalist and author of the books We Need to Talk and Heard Mentality besides Do Nothing.

Do Nothing
Image Credit: Celeste Headlee

It has only been about 200 years since the industrial revolution that human beings are living the way we do now. Before the industrial revolution and for a large part of human history, human beings worked in spurts. There were spurts of intense activity and work and then there were long periods of relaxation. As an example, Headlee says that peons and serfs worked less than a year.

From Task-based to Time-based Work

With the onset of the industrial revolution, work switched from being task based to being time based. Before the revolution, people worked on a task and then rested till they got their next task. With the coming of factories, people worked by the hour. Their pay was not by the output they produced but by the amount of hours they worked.

Earlier people demonstrated their wealth by the amount of time they spent in leisure. Now, people demonstrate their wealth by showing off how busy they are. Headlee says that people were almost brainwashed, perhaps by the education system, to believe that we are considered more productive by working more hours. This belief is unsubstantiated by research.

Research, even from the 1950s, show that people who worked 12-20 hours per week were more productive than people who worked 50-60 hours per week. It was noticed that employees who work 50-60 hours per week and took little time-off, vacations and paid leaves were less effective and got only a 6% pay-raise compared to employees who worked 12-20 hours per week.

Also, changing pay from a time-based method to a task-based method has advantages for both the employer and the employee. Task based methods are more efficient as the employee tries to spend the least time to get the work done and leave. Task-based method is considered more humane, boosts morale on accomplishment of task and gives joy on completion of the task. Employees on time-based method of payment may spend more time on other pursuits while completing the task.

Taking a Break

Headlee says that taking a break should involve a break from all screens. She says that when we open our smartphones and check email, shop or stay on social media, our brain thinks that we are still working. It cannot distinguish between these activities, done for work or pleasure. So, when we think we have taken rest, we have actually not taken any. When we keep pings from our email program or notifications on our smartphone on, the brain goes into a ready mode all the time expecting and ready to do a task.

Home Work

Headlee says that at the end of a long day at work, we don’t look forward to coming back home. She says that the reason could be not having anything to do at home. Some people fell lonely at home or even isolated. Some also treat home as something they have to work on or even as a chore. They treat all home work to be top of the class with each thing to be shared with the world. As an example, it can’t just be a simple garden, it has to be the ultimate garden with all the bells and whistles. We are not satisfied with what we have.

Earlier, people used to return home to spend time with family and participated in tasks or hobbies that did not have a capitalist value. Women sew and men worked on their workbenches and fixed things. Now, when the call came for stitching cloth masks at home, we didn’t have sewing machines at home and if anything broke, we could not fix our own stuff without help from a technician. Headlee suggests that we do something that you simply enjoy as a hobby and which may not have any capitalistic value.

Means Goals and End Goals

Time-based tasks created the efficiency cults we see today. One way to escape this based on examples like sewing and fixing our own stuff is to understand the difference between Means Goals and End goals. Means goal follow the SMART acronym whereas End Goals do not follow the SMART acronym. We must try to create End Goals and use it to trim the Means Goals by seeing if the latter helps in the accomplishment of the former.

Using a Phone as a Phone

One of the radical ideas that Headlee suggests based on research is that one uses the phone as a phone. As discussed above, a smart phone tricks the brain into thinking that we are working when we think that we’re taking rest. Besides this, she says that the human voice carries information and depth that other humans know to identify immediately. Text can lead to a lot of misinterpretation that a call can solve in minutes. She says that listening to a person making a case for a point of view makes a person with an opposing view more considerate about the person’s stance. It fosters connection.

Headlee thinks that people are getting disenchanted by the over-use of video calling services like Zoom because the presence of a screen indicates to the brain that it is work. This makes us feel more tired after a video call. Teleconferencing has been proven to be as effective as being in the same room with other people.

Human connection

Humans are pack animals. We need a sense of belonging-ness. If the need for human connection is not fulfilled, it has been shown to lead to earlier death besides having several health consequences during a person’s lifetime.

Headlee thinks that when we re-emerge after the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to rethink the human connection to work. She hopes there is a global reconsideration of working hours, having a healthy work-life balance and creation of more pro-human habits (habits that don’t kill us).

She hopes that in going back, we don’t just go back to an era before smart phones but to an era before the industrial revolution.

By Pradeep

I work as a technical writer by day. At night, I mostly just sleep.

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