Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I have an on-again, off-again fascination with productivity and attention management. Which is what prompted me to request Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee from NetGalley.

Do Nothing Book Cover
Do Nothing Self-Help Harmony Kindle 288 pages NetGalley

Despite our constant search for new ways to “hack” our bodies and minds for peak performance, human beings are working more instead of less, living harder not smarter, and becoming more lonely and anxious. We strive for the absolute best in every aspect of our lives, ignoring what we do well naturally and reaching for a bar that keeps rising higher and higher. Why do we measure our time in terms of efficiency instead of meaning? Why can’t we just take a break?

In Do Nothing, award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee illuminates a new path ahead, seeking to institute a global shift in our thinking so we can stop sabotaging our well-being, put work aside, and start living instead of doing. As it turns out, we’re searching for external solutions to an internal problem. We won’t find what we’re searching for in punishing diets or productivity apps. Celeste’s strategies will allow you to regain control over your life and break your addiction to false efficiency. You’ll learn how to increase your time perception to determine how your hours are being spent, invest in quality idle time, and focus on end goals instead of mean goals. It’s time to reverse the trend that’s making us all sadder, sicker, and less productive, and return to a way of life that allows us to thrive.

It took me quite some time to really get into the book, but eventually I found my rhythm and enjoyed it.

One problem was its seeming simplistic view of economics (at least to me). The tone and approach seemed very anti-free market and at times even seemed to have a whiff of a conspiratorial philosophy that big business is and has been controlling our lives (corporations and marketers seem to be controlling consumers rather than seeking to meet their needs; although there is a tangent on why we became addicted to disposable goods too). Lastly, I had the feeling that as a journalist she was trying to pack as much information as she could into the argument and give it a respectable amount of depth and intellectual history.

In the end, this story is about how the industrialist desire to have fewer workers doing more hours of work merged with the religious belief that work is good and idleness is bad, along with a capitalist faith in constant growth.  When time is money, the need to get more time out of workers became urgent if profit targets were to be made.

Suffice it to say, that Headlee offers a lot of provocative and even interesting arguments about how Western society has viewed work and how the industrial, technology and knowledge revolutions have impacted that view in unhealthy ways.  But that is an argument that would take a great deal of unpacking just to get your hand arounds let alone make a persuasive argument about.

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How to Think by Alan Jacobs

I know what you are thinking (pun intended): a 150 page book on “How to Think” ought to be pretty straightforward.  Do this, don’t do that, avoid this, do more of that, etc.  Just like a million other self-help books.  A few anecdotes, a nice dash of pop-science and evolutionary biology and Boom! best seller and TED talks galore.

Alas, How to Think by Alan Jacobs offers a different approach. First off, Jacobs starts with something of a buzz kill: most of us don’t really want to think and for good reasons. Thinking is hard, it can be stressful, uncomfortable and result in conflict with friends and relatives.

What our brains really crave is socially approved consensus.  We like to pick a group and stay comfortably within their perspective.  Every time we toe the line we get a jolt of pleasure. Every time we stray we get angry feedback.

Not sure about what to say or think?  Don’t know or don’t know enough? Stick with the group!

Ah, I can hear you saying.  The trick is to be independent.  “Think for yourself.” Have an open mind.

No so fast, again Jacobs punctures these cliches by outlining how thinking is inescapably social and that there is not a clear connection between ‘independence” and being correct.  Having an open mind only gets you so far if it doesn’t eventually close around something.

So this is all a set-up for a three step process to proper thinking, right?  This is where Jacobs reveals his heretofore undiscovered key (which happens to be available as an online course for a low, low price for readers).

Nope. In fact, Jacobs says that you can’t get to good thinking through a set of invariable rules.  Thinking is an art not a science.  Some self-help guru!

Instead, what Jacobs (who, to be fair, is a cultural critic and teacher) does is poke and prod and circle and ruminate on things like virtue, character, and prudence; and the experiences of thinkers and writers, and yes, sometimes even scholars.  People like C.S. Lewis, John Stuart Mill and Henry James (plus, a contrarian discussion of Wilt Chamberlain).

But here’s the thing.  If you are a literate and humane person, you soon begin to enjoy Jacobs’ admittedly oblique, discursive and conversational approach.  You give up the need for a overly simplified 12-step program with handy lists and catchy acronyms. You appreciate the style of an engaging conversation with a smart friend at a comfortable coffee shop instead of the lecture slash informercial.

And what Jacobs tells you is that there are traps and hurdles in the way to better thinking.  Group thinking is a real temptation.  It is easy to act as if everyone not comfortably in your group is the Repugnant Cultural Other (RCO).  On the flip side, it is easy to pretend that science is the solution (or that better thinking is nearly impossible) and that getting rid of your emotion, your bias and your stereotypes will set you free.

But, contra some, Jacobs thinks real progress is possible.  To do so, one must first seek to develop a certain kind of character; to be a certain kind of person.  Logic and analysis, yes, but also emotion and social commitments.  A whole, healthy person thinks best.

Self-awareness plays a role as well.  Recognize when you are placing someone in the role of an RCO. Recognize when you are in a group that brooks no dissent, that punishes free debate and opinion from people of goodwill.  Seek membership in a community  of like-hearted people not necessarily those that think alike.

And there are tactics and processes that can help.  Look for the best of those you disagree with; the best arguments, the most attractive messengers, the most sensible perspectives, etc.  Look to accurately and fairly describe their arguments before offering your own.  Try out their language and perspective as a way to get inside their skin and see the world through their eyes. Like a method actor, understand how if you were in their shoes you might see the world the same way.  Plus, if you get rilled up and want to launch into refutation mode before the person has even finished speaking, wait five minutes. Don’t comment angry.

Recognize that the world we build out of keywords, metaphors and myths are necessary in many ways.  A world without these building blocks, shortcuts or mental furniture is a exhausting and maddening one.

But they can be dangerous, so develop a healthy skepticism and sense of humility about your worldview and opinions.  Don’t allow the narratives and mythology of your community to so fade into the background as to be invisible and never questioned.  Think about the blindspots of your patterns and habits.

And this brings us full circle. Thinking is hard.  Finding the balance between “intractably stubborn” and “pusillanimous and vacillating” takes time and effort.  You can’t be paralyzed by indecision or constantly be reinventing your mindset, but you also don’t wan’t to be so rigid that you can’t learn, change or adapt.  It is again, more art than science.

What in many ways lies at the bottom of How to Think is risk.  Are you willing to risk being wrong?  Are you willing to risk the ostracization of your group?  Are you willing to risk learning that the heretofore labeled RCO is closer to you than you would like to admit?

The penultimate chapter ends with what strikes me as a fundamental step in this journey/process: cultivating a healthy skepticism about our own motives and generosity towards the motives of others.

Oh, and for those of you that just have to have one. In the Afterword, Jacobs offers The Thinking Person’s Checklist with … yep, 12 steps.

But he didn’t say they were easy.


The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight

Not really sure why I decided to read The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight given my aversion to vulgarity, etc. I take that back, I recall spotting How to Get Sh*t Done at the bookstore and wondering about this approach.  I guess I was interested in seeing how the author pulled off these books within the confines of the obvious Sh*t and F bomb hooks.

I had signed up for a book giveaway for the latest book (S) and decided to check out the first book (F) via the library to get a sense of the author’s approach.

It was OK. Buried under that four letter word, and a humor based on supposedly brutal honesty, is some decent advice on how not to get sucked into pouring your time, money and energy into things that annoy and frustrate you just because you feel guilty.

The concept of balancing honesty and politeness in order to focus on things that matter to you is sound but not sure how much depth is here after you get over the style and language. This is essay/blog posts into book territory IMO. For those who need a system to follow, however, she does walk you through the process of changing you mindset and life choices. On the other hand, it is not much more than making a list of things that matter to you and those that annoy you and make tangible choices to more of the first and less of the second. Oh, and try not to be a jerk about it.

If you have trouble saying no and enjoy liberal use of the F bomb this may be just the book for you. If not, probably not life changing advice.

Step Back from the Baggage Claim by Jason Barger

I must admit I am a bit sheepish about posting this review.  You know those books you really want to like? Recommended by a friend or co-worker. Picked by your book club and praised by everyone.  A bunch of five star reviews at Goodreads and Amazon.  Step Back from the Baggage Claim was that kind of book for me. Or in this case, picked by my church for use in a Sunday school class and whose author came to speak at our fellowship dinner. Everyone on the Adult Education Council was supposed to read it. So I decided to do so.

It all seemed so innocent at first, slightly interesting in fact:

Ever experienced the way small moments impact our lives? Ever wanted to participate in a movement to change our world? Step back, Be Still, Share Compassion, Live Gratefully. Today, travel gracefully along your path! Step Back from the Baggage Claim. Jason Barger spent seven straight days flying 6,548 miles to seven different cities living only in the airports the entire time. He studied 10,000 minutes of observations at all four corners of the U.S. and reflected on how our airport experiences can teach us about our lives TODAY. The airport metaphor leaps to life through profound anecdotes about an orphanage in Mexico, a summer camp in Ohio, bamboo, the homeless, climbing Mt. Everest, a hotdog grill, and much more. The funny and inspiring stories remind us how to change our daily world through thoughtful and compassionate action! Join the movement.

My reaction after having read it? Meh.  While the airport hook is creative the overall book is just too full of truisms and cliches for my taste.

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In the Mail: No Excuses! The Power of Self-Discipline

No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline by Brian Tracy

From the Publisher

You don’t need to have been born under a lucky star, or with incredible wealth, or with terrific contacts and connections, or even special skills…but what you do need to succeed in any of your life goals is self-discipline. Unfortunately, most people give in to the two worst enemies of success: they take the path of least resistance (in other words, they’re lazy) and/or they want immediate gratification: they don’t consider the long-term consequences of the actions they take today.

No Excuses! shows you how you can achieve success in all three major areas of your life:

1. Your personal goals.
2. Your business and money goals.
3. Your overall happiness.

Each of the 21 chapters in this book shows you how to be more disciplined in one aspect of your life, with end-of-chapter exercises to help you apply the “no excuses” approach to your own life. With these guidelines, you can learn how to be more successful in everything you do—instead of wistfully envying others who you think are just “luckier” than you. A little self-discipline goes a long way…so stop making excuses and read this book!

In the Mail: Women Are Crazy, Men Are Stupid

Women Are Crazy, Men Are Stupid: The Simple Truth to a Complicated Relationship

Publishers Weekly:

Cover of "Women Are Crazy, Men Are Stupid...
Cover via Amazon

In this comic relationship self-help, semi-functional (but self-aware) couple Lee and Morris-brandishing their credentials as “a major nut bag” and “a genuine dunce,” respectively-boil down the whole of male-female relationships to a simple, provocative statement, then go about examining the evidence and implications in an alternating, occasionally overlapping, he said-she said format. Most chapters follow the same structure, giving Morris the lead on any number of subjects-which came first, stupid or crazy; keeping your big dumb mouth shut; dealing with outsized expectations-after which Lee steps in with a response. This gives the book a male-oriented feel, but it’s got enough laughs and insight to hook readers on either side of the gender divide, provided the egos involved aren’t too fragile. Morris and Lee have a warm, funny, playfully adversarial relationship that’s both intimate and identifiable, and put through the paces in lengthy, laugh-out-loud dialogues. For all its self-deprecating comedy, this volume provides valuable insight into typical relationship potholes, including chick-flick con

In the Mail: Self-Help Edition

–> Love in 90 Days: The Essential Guide to Finding Your Own True Love by Diana Kirschner


Diana Kirschner, PhD, knows the questions single women everywhere face: “Why am I attracted to the wrong kind of guys?””Why is he just not that into me?””Why can’t I seem to find the One?” In LOVE IN 90 DAYS, Dr. Diana reveals the secrets to finding Mr. Right and the crucial steps single women can take to create fulfilling love that lasts.

Most singles unconsciously make the same mistakes over and over again in love, regardless of age, work success, or the type of man they are dating. Using her unique four-pronged approach, Dr. Diana pulls no punches. She outlines a program that gets women on the path to smash through their self-sabotage and forge a healthy love relationship.

–> American Thighs: The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Preserving Your Assets by Jill americanthighsConner Browne

Publishers Weekly

Having previously written books on finding a man, planning a wedding, raising kids and coming through a divorce, Browne’s latest offers hilarious tips on enjoying our inexorable trudge into Geezerdom. Browne is already checking off the days until November 23, 2012, when she turns 60 and can move into a retirement home; at 80, she plans to start smoking again. Looking back at her youthful follies (like slathering on baby oil for all-day tanning sessions), she warns, Karma is listening and she has ears like a bat. She and her sister have a pact to Get the Pillow (smother the other in her sleep) when the time comes. In Browne’s case, that will be if I start watching reality TV, quoting Dr. Phil, riding roller coasters and seem to have forsaken bacon in favor of anything soy. While exhorting the pleasures of giving in to comfortable sandals and roomy underwear, Browne, in her best book yet, offers laugh-out-loud, slightly off-topic digressions (she passionately defends the term brick shithouse and rebukes tummy-control swimsuits).