Why Doing Something With No Productive Purpose Is Important For Your Health

mbg Founder & Co-CEO By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO

Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.

mindbodygreen Podcast Guest Celeste Headlee

Image by mbg Creative

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With an increase in companies offering flexible hours, options to work remotely, and relaxed dress codes, our work-life balance looks very different from the nine-to-fives of 50 years ago.

But according to award-winning journalist and bestselling author Celeste Headlee, our current work-life balance isn't cutting it, she tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. It was only when Headlee experienced a severe case of burnout that left her bedridden that she realized she (and our entire society, for that matter) had to change. 

Having more benefits and perks at work, Headlee says, has left us working more than we ever have in human history. Her solution (and the title of her newest book) is seemingly simple: Do Nothing.

In this episode, she tells me why it's time we all do less in a society that's constantly asking for more. She recommends making sure your work ethic doesn't overpower your physical and mental health by doing something (anything!) with no productive purpose. None, zero. Here's why:   

Our views on productivity are skewed. 

As Headlee puts it, a lot of our habits are actually "anti-human." Basically, we are working in a way that is not sustainable for human beings.  

"We didn't work like this until industry became our purpose for being," she explains. We have to realize that humans have been around for thousands of years, and the way we work now is a mere blip in the great scheme of human history, even if we've been familiar with it since the industrial revolution hundreds of years ago. 

"The day isn't defined by the rising of the sun and the setting of the sun anymore," Headlee says. "And we are now reaping the whirlwind of that decision. We're just not built to work this way."

Even though we have many more tools and technology that should, theoretically, make our lives easier, we're still working 40 hours a week (sometimes more). The reason being, says Headlee, we have a societal belief that the harder you work, the better person you are—when, in fact, all it's doing is burning us out and destroying our health. 

"We've all swallowed this idea that the harder you work, the more deserving you are, the better the person you are. But remember, some of the most productive people throughout history worked maybe three or four hours a day," Headlee explains. 

Take it from Headlee, who experienced a very real bout of burnout: "I was getting sick all the time. I was actually bedridden, to the point where I became exhausted every time I got up. It happened to me two or three times in a period of nine months." 

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The solution? Do something with no productive purpose. 

In order to combat this overbearing societal notion, Headlee wants you to gravitate toward the complete opposite side of the spectrum. Our society is so obsessed with being "productive" that doing something with no "productive" purpose can benefit your health.  

In addition to switching off all electronics (Yes, that includes Netflix. "You have to give your brain a break," Headlee says), a good weekly practice is to find a hobby that you love that is simply for your enjoyment—not for work and not for posting on social media either. 

Take Headlee, for example: For her unproductive activity, she decided to teach herself to make sourdough bread. It's a practice that typically takes her the entire day, but it forces her to focus on something that isn't meant for work. In doing so, she boosts her brainpower by adding variety to her life—one she wouldn't get from a standard nine-to-five (or longer).  

"I'm not good at it yet, but I don't care. It's going to take me a while to figure out how to make good sourdough bread," she notes. 

When you do something with no productive purpose, it actually becomes productive. 

It's a little counterintuitive when you think about it: Doing something unproductive can actually spark creative ideas you can ultimately use during work. "We think of that idle time as wasted time," Headlee says. "But that idle time is incredibly productive time."

That said, slow down and enjoy yourself. Journal, tend to your garden, or bake—even something as simple as washing the dishes can help slow your mind down and focus on a task that doesn't have to do with your job. 

And, according to Headlee, productivity can actually stem from an unproductive practice. "Slowing down a little bit and feeling the dirt between your fingers, hypothetically speaking, is sometimes really beneficial. Boredom is productive," she explains. So, the next time you feel too timid to take a personal day, remember that taking that necessary time can benefit your health and make you a more productive worker in the long run. 

Although our society's view of the work-life balance might still be flawed, there are methods we can put in place to prevent burnout and combat work exhaustion. According to Headlee, leisure time is an essential part of any day, and a "Lazy Sunday" shouldn't be called "lazy" at all—in fact, it's quite productive.

And are you ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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