Don’t just do something, sit there!

by | Jul 31, 2020 | Leadership

I wish I could say that I invented the title of this blog myself but I came across it at an online session on meditation run by Cambridge Buddhist Centre (one benefit of lockdown is being able to access stuff from my sofa that would normally be out of my reach!)

It’s taken from a quote by Zen master and Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn : “Often we tell ourselves, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But when we practice awareness, we discover that the opposite may be more helpful: “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

I’ll be honest, apart from meditating first thing, I find it challenging to pause and take stock during the working day. Even in my downtime, I have a habit of busying myself with chores and admin in the mistaken belief that, once I’m done, I’ll be “free” to engage in more meaningful activities like reading one of the many books piling up on the living room table.

Sometimes, that moment never arrives because I’m still ticking off my to-do list.

How easy is it for you to stop and be still?

Many of the managers and leaders I work with are in doing mode from the moment they get up, checking emails off the bat, in back-to-back meetings, often finding they don’t leave their desk all day. Even when they stop work, they’re busying themselves around the house and checking their devices as they go.

It’s like they’re a wind-up toy hurtling around and then collapsing in a heap when its “wind” eventually runs out.

The thing is, as humans, we’re not designed to be constantly “on”.  We ran to get away from a sabre-toothed tiger and then we had a rest when the threat was over. When we’re always busying ourselves, our body secretes hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which give us boosts of nervous energy which keep us going. 

Essentially, we’re in a state of constant stress. The bad news is that chronic stress cuts off the blood flow to the part of our brain which helps us to think and problem-solve. That in turn means we’re more impulsive and less aware of what we’re doing which makes it more challenging for us to notice our behaviour and make a different choice.

If we’re all racing around doing stuff and being stressed, who’s doing the deep thinking?

Given the times we are in, we are all having to find and embrace different ways of living and working and doing business. So doesn’t that mean we need to be taking the time to think and innovate?

Research shows that to think productively and to be creative, we need to slow down and be still so that we can literally allow ourselves to hear our thoughts – not just the insistent, repetitive ones (astonishingly, 95% of our thoughts are repeated from the day before!) – but the ones beyond them that don’t often get to see the light of day : new insights, new ideas.

Doesn’t that mean that pausing to be still – to just sit, with or without a notebook and pen – is something we all need to be prioritising right now?

I’ll leave you with this quote from actor and director Jackie Chan : “Being still and doing nothing are two very different things.”

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and 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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