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The importance of being lazy

Take it easy – The importance of being lazy
Take it easy – The importance of being lazy 07:35

For most of her working life, Celeste Headlee never made any time for any time-off. "I used to say, 'I can outwork anybody.' That used to be, like, my calling card," she said.  

A single mother, at one point she was balancing childcare with seven different jobs: "I am a professional opera singer, so I sang for the Michigan Opera Theatre. I also did a lot of writing jobs. I wrote for the Detroit News. I was filing freelance pieces for National Public Radio."

Celeste Headlee when she led a very busy life. She now calls herself "a recovering workaholic."  CBS News

But in 2017, at age 47, she hit a wall. "I was irritable all the time," she said. "I was tired all the time. I started getting sick. And I'm a very healthy [person], I don't generally get sick. So, obviously, I was overworked. And that was a problem that had to be solved."

First step: She quit her full-time job. Second, equally drastic move: She took a two-week cross-country train ride, much of it without Wi-Fi, just to see what would happen. For the first three or four days, Headlee said, she felt panic: "You know when you leave your house and you realize you don't have your cellphone on you, and you're like gasp!!!? But eventually it just started to feel okay."

By the time she got home, she'd had an epiphany: "Idleness, leisure time is necessary for our own health and well-being," Headlee said.


The title of her recent book says it all: "Do Nothing." But she argues social pressures make doing nothing hard to do. After all, we might be accused of the dreaded sin of laziness! "If somebody's 'lazy,' they're not earning their place in society, they're a bum," Headlee said.

Professor Lonnie Golden, who teaches economics at Penn State Abington, said, "Laziness gets a bum rap from religion, it gets a bum rap from capitalism, it gets a bum rap because we are trying to be productive in our lives."

And productivity is the real priority in America, says Golden. "The big payoffs in the U.S. are making yourself available for a promotion, or building your own business from scratch. So, there's many good rewards from that. There's no reward for being lazy, I think it's fair to say. When you're at your high school reunion, you don't want to be saying, you know, 'I've been doing nothing'!"

According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NORC survey on the importance of values (ranking them as "very" or "somewhat" important), Americans value hard work (94%) over just about everything else, including self-fulfillment (91%), marriage (70%), patriotism (73%), religion (60%), and tolerance for others (90%).

Even retirees have a hard time doing nothing. "It gets to be what's called the conspicuous busyness," said Golden. "Like, Hey, look how busy I am, and look how much time I'm spending [on doing things]. Maybe it's volunteering. But it should be okay to say, 'I'm retired. And as a result, I can be lazy when I feel like being lazy.'"

But, it's not, Headlee says, due to a culture of anti-laziness. "We have all been basically brainwashed to believe that we have to work hard, or we're not of value," she said.

Which may explain why employers seem to love employees who say they can multi-task. Really, what could be less lazy?

Professor Earl K. Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, said, "We hear this all the time.  Businesses ask candidates, 'Are you good at multi-tasking?' And they want to hear, 'Yes!' But what they should want to hear is, 'No!'"

Miller has sobering news for a culture obsessed with juggling jobs – that it is physically impossible for us to multi-task: "Out brains are very one-track," he said. "We can hold only one or two thoughts in mind at a time. That is it. We're very single-minded."

Our poor brains, when struggling to multi-task, instead simply slow down, and make mistakes. A far better plan, says Miller, is to try doing no tasks at all: "You know, a lot of times some of your best thoughts come to you when your conscious mind is out of the way, when you allow these unconscious thoughts to bubble up. And sometimes it's good to be lazy – not be lazy, but to tune out a bit, and let these thoughts bubble up."

That advice is a way of life at the 93-year-old Institute for Advanced Study, an academic research center in Princeton, New Jersey, where – remarkably – doing nothing does not have a bad name, says director David Nirenberg.

There is no "typical" day at the Institute, according to Nirenberg: "You can do whatever you want. The day is yours."

What constitutes a work day at the Institute for Advanced Study, an academic research center in Princeton, New Jersey. CBS News

When not gathering for tea each day, scholars may take a walk in the woods, sit by the pond, or even nap (!). "We all need space for non-intentional activity, non-intentional thought, contemplation," Nirenberg said. "That's why weekends exist. I think that's why so many of our faith traditions have introduced days of rest."

"But we think of that as being 'lazy,'" said Spencer.

"I think it's a crucial part of being human," Nirenberg replied.

Not to imply that anyone's slacking off at the Institute; it has been an intellectual home to Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and 35 Nobel laureates.

Headlee points out that some of the productive and renowned people in history worked a limited number of hours per day: "Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Henri Poincaré, I mean, these are people who had a focused time of four hours. And the rest of the time, what were they doing? They were dining, they were sitting in the garden, they were hanging out with friends."

In other words, being lazy? "To our 21st century eyes, yeah, they were being lazy," Headlee said. "To them, they were living their life."

And she wants all of us to start living our lives, too. Asked if she had one message to share about laziness, Headlee said, "The most successful animals on the planet are the laziest. Think about how long lions lie around on the savanna. And when they need food, there's a burst of energy and activity, and they get it. And then they go back to lying around. If you look at the apex predators, some of the most successful species on planet Earth, they spend a good amount of their time doing nothing at all."

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Story produced by Amiel Weisfogel. Editor: Remington Korper. 

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