The Importance of Doing Nothing

The 24/7 information frenzy and unrelenting work and life demands are like rising floodwaters that have us madly dog paddling just to stay afloat. We are gasping for clarifying air, for deeper connections, for a respite from the pace and the fundamental dissatisfaction we feel from just trying to keep up without actually going anywhere. Implicit in all this is the sense that life is being done to us. The ever-rising floodwaters are outside of our control and that the only choice we have is how much we flail our arms and kick our legs to ensure that we don't sink beneath the surface.  But what if the best life preserver is not doing more but rather doing less?  In fact, doing nothing.  

Nobody does nothing anymore. Our society has established a new order that says to be worthy you must be busy. A standard that the volume of one's transactions determines the quality of a day and even a life.  That a good day at the office is a day of checking things off the to do list, versus thinking and doing the things that really matter. What if the antidote to our struggles exists in giving ourselves and our employees space to just be, to contemplate, to create?  What if the answers to our biggest questions lie not in flailing around but in the simple act of just sitting with our thoughts and feelings? 

Peter Bregman, a constant contributor to the Harvard Business Review, shares this:

So, it turns out that doing nothing is the white space in a piece of art. The white space is just as important as the art itself, because the blank space, the white space around the drawing or the painting, that’s what allows the painting, or the drawing, or whatever structure is there to really pop out and to come out.

That’s what gives it shape and form. So we need that white space in our lives in order to bring out the clearer view of where we’re headed, what we’re doing, how we want to contribute in the world. And so yes, I think we can all, myself included, continue to grow in that muscle of doing nothing.

The power of doing nothing is in its capacity to create both contrast and focus and in how it forces a conversation with the truth of our current reality. Learning how to do nothing, exercising that muscle, is just as important for every business out there as it is for each us as individuals.  And as much as people suck at wanting to be with their nothingness, companies are even worse.  At the Harvard Innovation Labs I constantly encourage the staff to stay home and not look at their computers or even work on their to do lists. I want them to sit at their kitchen table, to ponder, to imagine, to think, to create, to just be.  Because I firmly believe that in their contemplative quietude will come observations and insights that have far greater value than the value of their last or next ten thousand emails.  But the reaction to my do nothing suggestion is almost universally met with the employees’ look of fear and a reluctance to pull that particular trigger.  In part because corporate culture has taught us, maybe even beaten in to us, that being productive means being at one’s desk doing things. That if we just sit and stare at the ceiling or go for a walk, or god forbid, read a book to fuel our thoughts, we are not doing our job.  You get the absurdity, right?

But the other reason that suggesting an employee stay home and do nothing is often met with a deer in the headlights look is because doing nothing is really, really scary. To do nothing, to sit with the truth, to think anew without the benefit of transactions to mask our ignorant bliss is fundamentally frightening. Blank pieces of paper are paralyzing. Because what if we have nothing to add? Nothing to fill in? Nothing to fill up that space?  What if our time with nothingness reveals that we have nothing to offer? 

It’s an unfound fear. We all have the capacity to create something from nothing. The key is a combination of courage and time. It is only through a sustained and often uncomfortable embrace of the rawness of nothing that we can find something. We can and will find realization, recognition, and pathways that actually might help us get to a different place. Pathways that might help us eliminate some of the frenzy and froth in our lives, the issues in our workplace, and the challenges for our business. 

The importance of doing nothing is an essential truth. And to do nothing we must find the courage to let go of all that we think we have to do and replace it with a silent contemplation of what we could and should do. And we should allow and encourage all those around us to do the same.