Why do we humans always feel the urge to fill every second of our lives with mundane, useless actions? Almost like mindless, instinctual behaviors that we can’t resist no matter how hard we try.
I was in the elevator the other day on my way up several flights, and couldn’t help notice that as the doors immediately closed, all five people making the trip up with me instantly reached into their respective pockets and purses only to pull out there mobile devices. As if it was subconsciously calling them from the under-earth.
I’m pretty sure that every one of us has likely witnessed a similar scenario.
One could say this reaction is the world’s natural order of entropy. Our innate need to fill in the gaps with beeps, texts, uhm’s and ah’s, and endless swipes. Maybe it’s indeed because of a pressing issue that needs to be immediately addressed; or perhaps (and more likely) it’s just natural human instinct as we try to convince ourselves that we need to be more productive by simply doing something. It’s important to note that ‘keeping busy’ does not equate to ‘being productive’.
So I ask…is this guttural reaction for the urge to always do something actually helping us or hurting us?
I’d like to suggest that hitting the ‘pause’ button is oftentimes beneficial for us. It not only gives us time for much-needed reflection within our high-paced, high stressed world, but also provides us with an opportunity to understand what of the things we do are actually important.
In other words, I’d like to make the argument that doing nothing is, in many cases, the best strategy.
Let me illustrate my point with a few real life examples:
Example #1: Caregiving (healthcare)
As someone who is caregiving for aging parents with medical ailments, we often feel compelled to do everything in our power to ‘make things better’. This usually comes in the form of more treatments, more tests, and unfortunately more frustration and confusion. We oftentimes fail, in these circumstances, to ask the question, “why should we do this? Or what additional benefit does this get us? Or does this action create more problems than it helps?” We fail to put ourselves in the shoes of those we are caregiving for, the ones we love so much, and ask what is in fact best for them. I would guess that we have this natural reaction because the inverse of the situation, i.e. doing nothing, appears as if we do not care, when in fact, it might just be the exact opposite outcome. Doing nothing actually breathes life back into those we care for and love, rather than place them in a tortuous situation that only serves to fill our personal need to ‘fill in the gaps’. Pay attention to them, their needs, their desires, rather than trying to fill in the gaps with actions that you think are required to demonstrate that you care.
(Disclaimer: As a doctor, I am well aware that this suggestion is not relevant to those cases where specific medical intervention is indeed required. However, as a doctor, I am also aware that many medical recommendations are oftentimes unnecessary and simply done to appease the family to give them the feeling that something and everything is being done for a sense of selfish comfort.)
Example #2: Parenting
By now, many of us with kids are probably familiar with the term ‘helicopter parenting’. In short, this is when a parent hovers over every micro-action their child takes. I extend the definition to include those who always feel the need to fill in the empty gaps of their kids’ lives with more activities, more classes, and any other ‘thing to do’ so they are constantly engaged and never idle. I ask the question once again…Is this form of ‘doing something’ hurting or helping our children? As parents, I understand how easy it is to succumb to the pressures of our fellow peers making us believe that if we do not parent like helicopters, that we are doing our children a disservice. Even worse, it makes us look like bad parents. I would argue the opposite…that sometimes ‘doing nothing’ on occasion actually benefits our children. The more we micro-manage our kids’ lives, the more harm we potentially inflict on their future ability to express their creativity and acquire much-needed leadership qualities. Sometimes, we just need to do nothing and let kids be kids. Run aimlessly outside in the yard, use downtime to dream and apply their imagination in creative ways, and resolve conflict on their own.
Example #3: Product Innovation
From a business perspective, doing nothing oftentimes comes down to organizational leaders and managers knowing when to say “no”. As someone who has built products and led innovation teams for much of my career, I cannot count how many times product teams feel the urge to keep building more bells and whistles into their products. Why? Because they can. We falsely believe that the need for offering ‘regular updates’ is almost like what the industry and our customers expect of us. It’s par-for-play to stay competitive.
We need to ask ourselves, “Are all of those features actually necessary?” I, too, had succumbed to this curse having once built out a highly anticipated medical app only to gain a luke-warm audience reception after realizing many of the features were unnecessary and only distracted from the task at hand.
This is commonly referred to as feature creep in the product world. We see this every day from the apps we use such as Evernote (which I love and use by the way). But sometimes enough is enough. They have added so many features over time to the point where the product is becoming less useful and more frustrating. Were all these extra features actually necessary? Careful analysis showed that only a small percentage of those features are actually used on a regular basis. Perhaps this is why Evernote is struggling to attract new customers and keep their core customers satisfied.
When is enough, enough? Why the urge to keep ‘doing something.”? Perhaps its FOMO (fear of missing out), or inability of the team to understand when to say “no”. I encourage everyone who is in the business of building things or delivering services to carefully assess when the best strategy might be to say “no” or simply do nothing. And only when the time is right, to actually do something.
Example #4: Idea Generation
Contrary to what most believe, instinctively acting on your ideas on first encounter may ultimately lead to failure and disappointment. This is because most great ideas don’t happen in an instant, but develop over the course of time through the convergence of a number of different ideas. Steven Johnson calls this the slow hunch. Adam Grant refers to this as the benefits of procrastinating. Whatever you call it, at its core, it depends on one’s ability to recognize when ‘doing nothing’ is your best strategy. Ideas need time to marinate, the freedom to breathe, and an environment to bump into each other.
So, in conclusion, next time you feel the urge to do something, stop, take a pause and ask yourself…”Why am I doing this? Does this action help me or those it intends to serve? Does it need more time to incubate?” I’d bet that, in many cases, your best strategy might simply be to do nothing.
Go ahead, give it a try. You can thank me later :)
Disclaimer: I know this may strike as counterintuitive for many who read this, and perhaps that is what is needed to challenge our assumptions and rethink business as usual. However, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that ‘doing nothing’ holds in universal circumstances. But I do believe it holds in many situations that we oftentimes neglect due to our natural human instinct to always feel like we need to do something. Not a sermon, just a thought :)