Book Review: Doing Nothing, by Tom Lutz

The New York Times reviewed the book when it was published 7 years ago and did a better job than I could hope to do, so I won't bother trying to compete with them. Instead, I'd like to highlight some interesting points Lutz makes and discuss what the implications of those are for our time.

Our Values About Work are Subjective and Constantly Changing

The first trend I noticed in Lutz's history of cultural attitudes toward slacking is that any time someone tries to live a radically different lifestyle than someone else, both become personally offended by the other (I tip my hat to David Streitman for noticing that in his own life). Hard workers view slackers as personally attacking them, and vice versa. All the writers Lutz mentions, both the workers and the slackers, were public intellectuals in their time, so what do they do when they feel offended?

You got it! They try to change the attitudes of everyone in the United States to match their own!

And the national attitude does change. At the start of the industrial revolution, factory owners couldn't get their employees to stay in the building for more than ten minutes at a time before they exited en masse to grab a pint. The time of day didn't matter, let alone the day of the week. The idea of actually staying in one place for the duration of the day, five days a week, is a cultural construction Americans have managed to establish as gospel over the last 250 years.

Nor was it a smooth transition. Americans flipped and flopped like Nemo escaping the dentist. This brings us to the next point.

We Suffer in the Extremes, Find Contentment in Balance

Americans taught themselves to work hard, overdid it, called work the enemy, and then erred in the other extreme. Hardly any public intellectuals advocated work-life balance until recently. They would tout either leisure or industry as the purpose of life and demonize the other.

If you're working too hard, you tend to hate your life and if you work too little, you tend to hate yourself. Also, if you find yourself surrounded by people who take the other position from you, there's a lot of social pressure that can make you miserable even if you're happy with your lifestyle, ceteris parabus.

The Kind of Work You Do Matters

I'm not going to beat a dead horse here, because I think it's obvious. Intellectually-inclined people doing knowledge work tend to like their work and value it higher than fishermen who are afraid of water. Duh.

What's the Right Balance?

Lutz doesn't go into it because, as I mentioned, nobody he cited actually thought you could find contentment in moderation. (I think it's selection bias; probably most lay people thought work was good, but only in moderation.) According to the writers in the book who name a figure of any kind, it seems like about three to eight hours a day, four to five days a week, is right, depending on the person. This would seem to contravene Tim Ferriss' "4-Hour Workweek," but if you look at how much the man seems to put in, I'd say his should be called the "Never Ending Workweek." The dude hustles.

Find work you enjoy. Put in those hours. Then enjoy your play time.


Back in sunny California. I cannot express how excited I am to get back on my bike.