How to Break Away From Workism: Forget Lifehacks, Focus on ‘Life Backs’

Journalist Celeste Headlee on how to escape our modern-day cult of efficiency and endless hustle

Gavin Lamb, PhD
Mar 7 · 7 min read
Photo by Sophia Müller on Unsplash

‘Pushing Harder Isn’t Helping Us Anymore’

In her 2020 book, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, Journalist Celeste Headlee delves into the history behind how we’ve come to this modern-day cult of efficiency, and how it is slowly eating away at our health and happiness.

One reason for why we place so much value on overworking, says Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, is a growing belief in the gospel of ‘workism’: “What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

The first half of Headlee’s book provides a rich history on how we got to this point. The second half delves into strategies for getting out of it. She argues that to move beyond our deeply ingrained religion of workism, rather than superficial lifehacks, we need to embrace several deeper transformations or ‘lifebacks.’ She writes,

“It was self-interest that led me to this field of study. I had reached a stage of my life where I could not continue doing what I was doing. I was anxious and irritable and perpetually exhausted. That’s not what I wanted my life to look like, and a vastly increased income had made it all worse, not better.”

Headlee outlines several ‘life back’ strategies for breaking away from our culture of workism and rebalancing the important role of leisure (non-work) in our lives. But here I just outline three of Headlee’s ‘life back’ strategies that I’ve found useful in my own life and work.

#1 ‘Challenge Your Time Perceptions’

One way I could divide my life up is like this: the years before I started keeping a journal of my daily accomplishments and the (2 years) after I started doing so. Ever since I started doing this simple activity at the end of each day, I noticed my general satisfaction and sense of accomplishment with how I spend my time has increased. Headlee writes that this is because there are two kinds of ‘time perceiving’ people.

On the one hand, there are people who have ‘low time perception’:

  • These folks don’t have a very good sense of what they do with their time all day.
  • Each day ends with a feeling of being overwhelmed and not having enough time to get things done. They don’t track what they do with their time during the day.
  • If asked to write down what they did throughout the day from hour to hour, they likely only have a vague idea of ‘being too busy’ and ‘not having enough hours in the day.’
  • Low-time perceivers also tend to spend more time on social media, since they’re less aware of how much time they’re actually spending on it.
  • Finally, low-time perceivers often suffer from ‘busyness delusion,’ says Headlee, since they have low awareness of their busy time and their free time: it all seems to blend together.

On the other hand, there are people who have ‘high-time perception’:

  • They keep track of what they do throughout the day. For example, at the end of the day, they know they spent about 30 minutes on social media from 9:30 to 10:00 am or spent 45 minutes answering emails from 2:00- 2:45 pm.
  • In other words, they are highly aware of their schedule since they track their time.
  • They tend to have a better idea of all they accomplished during the day, and as a result, tend to have a greater sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.
  • And since they have a greater awareness about how they spend their time all day, they also set aside more time for leisure and relaxation.

In sum, people who have ‘high-time perception,’ as you might have guessed, tend to be happier and more satisfied with their accomplishments at the end of the day than low-time perceivers.

Takeaway: Create a reverse-schedule of how you spend your time each hour of the day, and do this for a couple of weeks. Keeping a ‘time diary’ of your daily activities — that means recording everything you do including those 10 minutes you spent scrolling through Instagram — helps give you a better sense of what your habits are, and how you might better prioritize your time. As Headlee says, “you can begin to ask yourself some important questions,” like how much time do I actually want to spend on email, social media, or preparing meals.

#2 ‘Stop comparing yourself to others’

One of the most frustrating parts of doing a Ph.D. was the constant feeling of not being enough. Not writing enough, not publishing enough, not doing enough conferences, not networking enough, not devoting enough time to teaching, and on and on.

But it was only after a few years into my Ph.D. program that I realized my background stress of feeling constantly ‘less than’ had a lot to do with my bad habit of comparing myself to others.

Looking back now, this fueled an unhealthy level of perfectionism in my work that led me to face periods of unnecessary stress and exhaustion. Some advice I could have used back then would be to ‘Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.’

But it isn’t just comparing ourselves with others in our field of work. Social media has immersed us in an entire world built around a business model of endless social comparison. And we’re suffering from it.

For example, in her book Do Nothing, Celeste Headlee writes that,

“Most people believe their friends’ social lives are richer and more interesting than they actually are. This was demonstrated in a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.”

Because we live in a comparison-driven society, there is growing evidence of an arms-race in how we compare ourselves to others: in how many hours we work, how much money we have, and how exciting our social lives are.

And all this can steadily mount up feelings of stress, exhaustion, and depression. “As the report from that 2017 study says,” writes Headlee, ‘Social comparisons can be associated with feelings of inferiority, envy, anxiety, and depression.’”

Takeaway: As Headlee writes, “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.”

“We work best when we allow for flexibility in our habits. Instead of gritting your teeth and forcing your body and mind to work punishing hours and “lean in” until you reach your goals, the counterintuitive solution might be to walk away. Pushing harder isn’t helping us anymore.”

― Celeste Headlee, in ‘Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving’

#3 ‘Invest in Leisure’

I’m a latecomer to LinkedIn. It’s not used in academia much, but I wish someone told me that networking in the platform might come in handy someday! However, one thing that popped out at me instantly was the slick entrepreneurial language of ‘the grind’ and ‘the hustle’ shared constantly on the platform.

After emerging from my cave in academia, and logging onto LinkedIn, I was soon confronted with ‘love the hustle’ messaging from people like Gary Vaynerchuk or ‘find your why’ people like Simon Sinek. These messages are vaguely motivating, and probably what I need to hear from time to time. But one thing I notice about this messaging is that what you do for work, and who you are as a human being, are fused together.

And when what we do for work consumes our identity, where even leisure time is strategized and publicized to fit our ‘personal brand,’ what happens to old-fashioned leisure time? You know, just doing nothing, spacing out, things that aren’t especially Instagrammable?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that you should “Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.”

In her book Do Nothing, Headlee shares a similar sentiment. As she writes, “Work is necessary and can be fulfilling when you feel a sense of purpose in what you do, but it is not the justification for your existence. Remember that we are not biologically and evolutionarily “born to work.”

Takeaway: It’s okay to ‘take your foot off the gas pedal when it comes to the world of endless self-improvement. Yes, we all want to be the most authentic, realized version of ourselves, but sometimes brute force or the latest lifehack to ‘optimize our leisure time’ defeats the purpose. Sometimes it’s okay to just be. As Headlee writes, “Whatever it is that you like to do when you have nothing on your calendar, do it and don’t think about work.”

Conclusion

If you’re feeling like your work-life and leisure-life are becoming a little too blurred, and in ways that are detrimental to your overall well-being, then I highly recommend checking out Celeste Headlee’s book Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. If nothing else, it will give you the scientific evidence you need to make you feel better about watching all those cat videos on social media.

I only just scratched the surface of this fascinating book, but I’ll end here with a quote Headlee cites in her book by the philosopher Bertrand Russel (1872–1970) that sticks with me:

“It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

— Bertrand Russel, “In Praise of Idleness” (1932). Cited in “Do Nothing” by Celeste Headlee.

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Gavin Lamb, PhD

Written by

I’m a researcher and writer in ecolinguistics and environmental communication. Get my weekly digest of nature writing ideas/tools: https://wildones.substack.com

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Gavin Lamb, PhD

Written by

I’m a researcher and writer in ecolinguistics and environmental communication. Get my weekly digest of nature writing ideas/tools: https://wildones.substack.com

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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