The Importance of Doing Nothing

Stratecution is all about a bias for action and a drive towards doing things (just peek at the sub-head of my blog and note Herb Kelleher’s quote about “doing things”). There’s a demand to try things, beta-test, learn as you go. Make more stuff, and gain from your mistakes. And there’s a reaction against over-thinking, over-perfecting, and waiting and debating. However, sometimes the best action you can take is doing nothing.

That’s right, I said doing nothing. Because actively doing nothing is, every now and then, the best thing you can do.

There are three ways doing nothing is important.

The world, our lives and our jobs have become 24/7. Technology has created more and more ways to communicate and connect, more data, and more information; but also more interruption, more distraction, more attention-deficit. Between “breaking news”, status updates, text messages and work email, we never stop. But the more reactive we have become to the moment, the less time we spend on thinking about the larger context.  An article in Sunday’s New York Times, called “The Joy of Quiet,” discussed this topic. We all need to find time to unplug.

What’s worse, it appears our brains are beginning to adapt to this always-on, non-linear, sound bite driven, click-crazy reality. A college freshman said, about YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes. A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”  Our brains are being rewarded for jumping around, reacting to interruptions and not staying on task. The worry is that the next generation will actually be wired differently, due to the constant screen time and distractions.

I find that my best thinking comes when I’m off-the-grid for a bit. Most of my blog ideas come when I’m walking the dog, taking a shower, working out. I get brainstorms in the middle of the night. And this behavior has been proven – a series of tests showed that spending time in a quiet rural setting increased attentiveness, memory and cognition.

Unplugging is something that’s hard to do at work. Most of us have a need for constant communication and real-time responsiveness. However, nearly all emails can wait an hour or so to respond to. And if there’s a true emergency, someone will find you. So if you need some time to think, reflect, or develop a big idea, consider disconnecting email and text messaging for a while. Your thinking will improve.

Take work breaks.
Even during productive work, it’s important to “do nothing” for a bit. As I mentioned in my previous post, stopping work and taking a break helps to keep you fresh and operating at 100% of your capacity. Conversely, it’s been proven that employees who work non-stop tend to be inefficient and hit the “diminishing returns” syndrome. It’s almost a rule that the folks who work the latest in every office aren’t the hardest workers, they’re the least efficient. Taking breaks to refresh helps avoid the burnout that leads to inefficiency.

In addition, a break will help you return to work with a fresher perspective. Like the “cold light of day” in the saying, your post-break, mental freshness will lead to good questions, builds or connections that help improve the project you’re working on.

Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
As a leader, you have to deal with people – and a lot of input, updates, and responses. A great leader has passions and biases, so it’s natural for him or her to feel the desire to react passionately.  But knee-jerk and reactive is never good. A leader should never rush to judgment or get too angry or impulsive. A good leader knows the importance of self-regulation – of controlling his or her emotions and impulses in order to gain clarity and understanding. Per Stephen Covey, the best course is “to seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This means that doing nothing, other than asking questions and passively seeking to understand, is more important than doing something. There will be time to act afterwards, once you’ve had time to understand and think.

So there you have it – three times and reasons that doing nothing trumps doing something. What are your examples and thoughts?


  1. I think unplugging makes such sense. When I have phone issues or computer issues and cannot get e-mails on my phone I don’t bat an eye. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the break from the constant communication. If my life has had lots of technology in it for a few days, I take a day where I sleep late, do not turn anything on until I have had my coffee, gazed out the window for a few minutes and then take a deep breath. I know that part of my business life stresses me the most so I let it go as much as I can! Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I think this is one of the most important information for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But wanna remark on some general things, The website style is great, the articles is really nice : D. Good job, cheers

  3. Great article, we are trained to do things, we are not trained to do nothing and something we struggle with – it’s a good reminder of a strategy to be aware of and use when life just gets too busy. Yet it’s amazing how many of us will have a judgement around doing nothing and call it slacking.

    1. Thank you, Dawn. It’s true – doing “nothing” is looked down upon, although it is often the best course of action. Thanks for reading – and feel free to peruse some of my more recent articles!

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