Now that legions of “crazy busy” workers find themselves homebound for the foreseeable future, some might learn to dial things back a bit from author Celeste Headlee’s new book, “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving.”
During an interview Friday, the longtime journalist and public radio host laughed at the suggestion that her idea was prescient. The way she sees it she started out trying to address the toxic elements in her life, and concluded the ailments didn’t just apply to her, so a book was needed. Early indications of interest made Harmony Books confident enough to do a second printing run before the “Do Nothing” was released. Her synapses seems more pertinent than ever as millions around the globe are forced to slow down, as they try to restrict the spread of the coronavirus.
WWD: In light of all that’s happened, do you think this is prescient?
Celeste Headlee: It probably looks that way [laughs.] I wish I could say, “Yes, I’m a genius.” But the thing is what I was trying to identify were trends that had been going on in society that were unheard of before.
WWD: How long has it been since you got the idea? What was the tipping point where you decided to write a book or share it with a larger community?
C.H.: It’s been over three years. I was lying there in bed really sick for the second time in eight or nine months. I was like, “What the heck is going on?” I’m almost never sick. When I am sick, like everybody else, I go to work.…If you’re that sick, it’s your body saying, “I have no more. You have completely depleted me.” That’s when the alarm bells are going off.
WWD: What advice would you give to people who are trying to deal with their businesses going through the basement and overall concern in a lot of directions?
C.H.: Here’s the thing: We’re living in very stressful times. Most people are already burned out and stressed out. That’s how people are already operating. They are overworked, exhausted and stressed all of the time. If you have to put on the brakes in this pandemic, that could lead to many things. One of them may be our bodies telling us, “Stop. I have no more to give you.” If you are supposed to be in quarantine, it seems that is a warning, “Let’s take some rest.” The best way to handle stress is to be in a state of well-being — to be well.
WWD: What does that involve?
C.H.: Right now if you don’t take some actions to take care of yourself on a fundamental level, if things go wrong, they will hit you harder because your body is already in stress. It’s really important to honor the boundaries when you are working in your home life. It’s going to be very tempting to just keep working until you’re done, but you will never be done. So you have to take some time. If it is eight hours a day, when eight hours is done, you get up and you are not at work anymore even if you’re in your home.
WWD: What else will be helpful?
C.H.: Just take short breaks every hour. Get up and walk around. Get away from your electronics. Take a walk around the block. Be sure you are maintaining social interaction. Whether you realize it or not, those little chats you have [at work] hanging around someone’s desk talking about sports — there aren’t more sports now — those little chats are stress relievers, they lower your heart rate and they increase your cognizant ability. So if you’re at home and isolated, you have to make sure you have social interaction. Call people on the phone…make sure you’re maintaining your social network.
WWD: What about the perception many people feel that they are always working, but if you stop and add up those hours you can work more efficiently in a shorter amount of time?
C.H.: People think they are working all the time. We’re not actually working more hours than at least the previous generation. That is sort of an Illusion. The reason we think that is because we’re not ever leaving our work. The point being that maybe you relax by sitting down on the sofa and paging through Instagram, doing some online shopping or whatever. You may on the surface level think that’s relaxing. But as far as your body is concerned, you’re not taking a break at all. Frankly, every time you have a smartphone in your hand, every time your computer is in your sight line, your brain is expending energy thinking about that electronic and preparing to respond. Your brain is overwhelmed with work. You’re literally never really taking a break.
WWD: Is there a mantra that people should keep in mind?
C.H.: I don’t know that there is. One that comes to mind is the line that, “Not everything has to be slow, but not everything has to be immediate.” Not every e-mail needs to be responded to. There are a limited number of urgent things. They’re just relative and rare. But right now we treat everything like it’s urgent and that is stressing us out.
WWD: How has interest in “Do Nothing” accelerated as a result of the coronavirus crisis?
C.H.: What is happening is that people who are reading it are recognizing themselves.…I wrote a book because I realized it wasn’t just me who was dealing with these problems. People reading the book [are thinking,] “Oh my God, this is about me.” Then they think of the big world and this is about us, and they branch out from there.