Book Review: Do Nothing

Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving
by Celeste Headlee

If you like reading books that are endless citations of cherry-picked studies, than this book might be for you. I really dislike this style of writing, so I guess I should get that out of the way first. I also already agree with the general premise of this book, so I didn’t really need to be convinced of its central argument that overworking is bad. Most of the book is a walk through the history of work in America and the west. While I’ve gone over all this history before, it still struck a chord with me, because I was reading this during a round of layoffs at my company (and since I wrote this last spring, I have since been laid off myself).

This felt like a Normie version of How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, which is way more radical and has way less emphasis on individual behavior. While Headlee does write quite a bit about the systemic forces at play, in the end the book concludes with a list of suggestions that amount to “track your time” and “talk to people in real life”. Hey, I’m into those suggestions. But honestly it sounded a lot like “hacking” your day youtubes—just individual behavior bandaids with no real depth, unlike How To Do Nothing, which I think offers a huge paradigm shift in thinking about society and our place in it. Perhaps this is the style of writing, it probably helps that How to do Nothing was written by an artist. Do Nothing will definitely appeal more to the masses, although I personally found it lacking in imagination, and I noticed at least one of her citations was factually incorrect, which throws most of this book's research into question.

I can draw many, many parallels between this book and Cal Newport’s writing, like Deep Work, which may seem a little odd given the names. Basically the idea is the same: if you focus on one thing at a time, you require less time to actually get things done. Isn’t it funny that a book entitled “Do Nothing” is actually about doing your work, but faster. To be fair, she also says “stop overworking and just do what’s required” which is very much the whole “Quiet Quitting” thing.

I suppose it comes down to the fact that I hated the writing style and felt like it was a real slog to get through her arguments, only to wind up with a few sad suggestions that she obviously thought were quite radical (and to people who have never encountered these ideas before, they could be quite helpful!). But I’m guessing most of us are well aware we spend way too much time on our phones. We can just open up Screen Time to see that horrorshow. I also don’t think “Focus better” is enough. I mean, obviously? If you struggle with this, I highly recommend Deep Work, which has actual concrete steps to learn to work with focus (although Newport's writing style is also not my cup of tea).