Doing nothing is really something

by | Feb 27, 2023 | Leadership

Matt* arrived at our coaching session wondering how to get stuff done without feeling rushed all the time.

A marketing lead in a global technology company, he was in a good place after a period of adjustment bedding into a new role. However, he often felt frustrated that things didn’t happen fast enough and, between work and family life, he was constantly busy.

Constant motion

I’m a fan of folk singer Pete Morton and one of his songs is entitled Constant Motion. I think this sums up life for many of us, rushing from one thing to the next without pause in a race to get stuff done, craving rest but unable to sit still, at least not without looking at our phone or switching on the TV.

The issue is in part cultural. In the US and UK in particular, we’ve inherited the Calvinist work ethic, feeling as though we need to be useful and productive to justify our existence, something I talked about in a past blog The year of not keeping on top of everything.

Busy : a status symbol?

Yet being busy is also regarded as A Good Thing, even a badge of honour. When someone asks you how you are, it’s considered normal to answer “busy”. 

Writer and broadcaster Claudia Hammond shared a fascinating piece of research in her book, The Art of Rest, where people were asked to assess fake Facebook posts written by a fictional career woman, Sally Fisher. One version portrayed her as relentlessly busy, the other as taking a more relaxed approach to her workday. People rated the busy Sally as higher in status, more in demand and wealthier than the Sally who took a lunchbreak. 

When you can’t seem to stop

Even if you do want to slow down or take time to step back and reflect, it’s hard to do this when you’re in busy mode. The busier we get, the more agitated we become – our breath gets shallower, our heart rate rises, our thoughts race. We’re firing up our fight/flight response which means we’re geared for action – the impulsive, knee-jerk variety rather than the intentional, considered sort.  

Why doing nothing is important

In his excellent book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman suggests that practising doing nothing is one of the top ten tools for embracing our limitations as human beings : “If you can’t bear the discomfort of not acting, you’re far more likely to make poor choices with your time, simply to feel as if you’re acting”.

In summary, if you’re in constant motion, it’s highly likely that you’re not allowing yourself the space to pause and reflect on what is most important for you to focus on next. Instead, you’re caught up in a whirl of activity, much of which may not be relevant to your highest goals.

This isn’t great news when we rely on leaders to hold the vision, to keep an eye on the horizon, to make sure we’re adjusting course when required – not to get lost in the weeds.

Doing nothing is really something

Let’s go back to Matt. As Matt and I talked, we realised that Matt never sat still. He was always on the go, fuelling feelings of frustration and agitation.

I invited Matt to try something a coach suggested to me many years ago : practise doing nothing for 10 minutes. Your reaction to my suggestion may be similar to his : “You mean literally nothing? Just staring into space?” 

As we talked about when and where would be a good for this experiment, it emerged that Matt had a great spot to practise : a lovely garden he rarely sat in. Given he lives in California, sitting outside in winter is no hardship.

The next day, I received this response from him : “I just completed my first 10 minutes of nothing and it was really something. I sat outside. I listened to the birds chirp and the dogs bark. I watched the leaves rustle and a gnat crawl around my pant leg. I was mesmerised by our world and, when the timer went off, I felt pretty good.”

The experience motivated him to continue the practice, roughly every other day. Matt has found that the experience is helping him to be more intentional as he goes about his day, and he finds his “doing nothing” time provides valuable opportunity to reflect and adjust his approach. Generally, it’s helping him to slow down and be more present.

This makes sense : when we pause and rest, even for a short time, we allow our nervous system to settle which, in turn, allows our mind to open and clear. You may find that ideas pop up that you hadn’t expected – like the well-known Aha! moment in the shower – because you’re allowing an area of your brain called the Default Network to kick in which only happens when you’re not focussing on anything in particular.

Could doing nothing help you make better choices?

French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, is quoted as saying, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. Yet we can find it so difficult to do this.

As I explored in my last blog, Surf the urge, we’ve evolved to move towards rewards and opportunities and avoid discomfort.  In fact, research has shown that people consigned to an empty room for fifteen minutes chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit with their own thoughts.

However, we are all in choice. When it comes down to it, our capacity to choose where we focus our attention is what determines our life experience and the results we achieve.

You don’t need a garden or a warm climate to practise doing nothing. Just a chair, a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed and a timer.

Do you need to stop being busy and start practising doing nothing so you can make sure you’re focussing on what matters?

*Name has been changed

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps new Directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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