The Secret to Improving Your Life: How to Do Nothing.: Sometimes doing nothing is the best action we can take.

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
5 min read
Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash

Weare inundated every day by circumstances that we feel compelled to take action against and solve. These ambushes take us out of our groove; they wear us down and distract.

Here is a simple method to combat decision fatigue and stay focused: take time to reflect before you react.

This approach can apply to be a better parent, friend, lover, partner, boss, or stranger.

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow”

T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I have taken this quote to mean that action is vital. Ideas are great, but if they are not acted on, they are squandered.

There is a Latin phrase, “Fac, si facis.” Do it if you are going to do it. It’s the basis of the Nike slogan, “Just Do It.”

It’s part of the success mantra of entrepreneurship. Ready, Fire, Aim. Take action, any action, and course-correct based on the feedback.

Imperfect action beats perfect inaction. Sometimes.

I have come to realize that perfect inaction has its place. Imperfect inaction is not good. Tentatively, or half-heartedly, doing anything is not worth the while. As Yoda said, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

That shadow space T.S. Eliot describes can also be an oasis of thoughtful repose. One of the goals of meditation is opening up the space between a stimulus and our reaction so we can have more thoughtful responses.

One of the best response options that we should always consider is: do nothing.

Like with anything, this is not one-size-fits-all. Knowing when to apply it and when it is appropriate is critical. If you choose not to fix a leaky faucet, chance are it won’t remedy itself. That said:

Before you act, ask yourself: what will happen if I choose to do nothing?

Before you speak, ask yourself: what will happen if I say nothing?

Take a wait and see attitude.

Take a moment to think contrarian and question your premises.

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.

Juan Ramón Jiménez

Our initial impulse is to fix things. And we are conditioned to believe that to fix something we have to do something.

Let the first impulse pass, wait for the second — Baltasar Gracian

Those are wise words. They apply to personal relationships and professional management situations.

A pause for the cause is especially important now that we feel compelled to answer communiqués immediately. We have cell phones and voicemail, and text and email. As soon as we receive a message, we think we must reply ASAP.

Here is how Napoleon handled the urge to action.

Napoleon had his secretary hold all his letters for three days. He had his mail held to let problems work themselves out. When he finally got around to reading a message, the issue had inevitably resolved itself without him getting involved.

He conserved his cognitive and emotional resources so he could apply them where they were most effective.

Perfect inaction appeals to my innate laziness. “Just don’t do it” has an appealing ring to it. But actively not doing is hard.

We always want to help. Our instinct is to jump in and solve the problem and fix things. When issues resolve themselves, we mistake the state of resolution as feedback that we contributed to the solution. Most of the time, our efforts are orthogonal to the solution.

We mistake correlation, the fact that we were involved, for causality, we were agents of resolution. We pat ourselves on the back and prepare for the next call for our superpowers.

The illusion of being an irreplaceable problem solver is emotionally rewarding. There is glory derived from stopping a big screw-up at the last second. We are owed a round of applause for putting out the fire and saving the day.

Here is a lesson from mythology:

Atlas didn’t have to hold up the world. No one forced Atlas to shoulder the world. He thought that if he didn’t, it would fall apart. He was convinced that his effort prevented the world from crumbling.

Saving the day feels good, and heroism is addictive. We desire to feel needed. We relish those manic, meet-the-critical-deadline adventures.

Maybe that is why we pull all-nighters in college the day before the paper is due.

It can mask a manufactured situation that is just chaotic or confusing. Frantic activity applied to a misplaced sense of urgency does not equal being productive.

What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is rarely important. Check out the Eisenhower box as a tool for evaluating and prioritizing.

Create slack. When we are reactive, we get distracted from the important stuff we are better off doing in the long-term and trade that for a short-term focus.

Any major dude will tell you that any world that falls apart falls together again.

Our fix-it mode is not only irrelevant but can be quite detrimental.

Many times people want to be heard and understood, not fixed. Not everyone wants you to solve his or her problem.

Jumping into fix-it mode, implicitly says that we don’t think the person can solve their issue on their own. Patronizing like this can have a stultifying effect and keep a loved one, or an employee, from taking action on their own and exercising their agency.

Allowing people to solve their problems allows them to grow and develop confidence in their capacities and capabilities.

It is our responsibility, to ourselves and others, not to overthink, over-do, or over worry.

Marcel Proust said, “we kill those who love us by the worries we give them, by the anxious love we inspire and constantly alarm.” It is crucial to be mindful and do our best not to fall into either side of that trap.

Our loved ones don’t mean to erode us with fatigue from worry. And we need to be aware of the needless concerns we are engendering in others. We need to be rocks of responsibility and self-reliance.

Misplaced energy dilutes our abilities and fatigues us and leaves us less capable of making the impact that will most help others and ourselves. Separate the important from the urgent.

So, before we roll up our sleeves and jump in, take a breath, and ask yourself: what will happen if I choose to do nothing?

Add taking a wait and see attitude to your arsenal of responses. Adopt it as an antidote to going berserk.

Let me know how it goes.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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