DO NOTHING OPTION
Do you check your phone, turn on the TV or dash through items on your to-do list to fill every void? Authors Martina Sheehan and Susan Pearse want you to ban busyness and make space for what’s most important
Many of us don’t stay in the moment, wasting time looking forward or back. We need to spend time doing nothing.
The tension in the room was palpable. Colleagues were standing in pairs.
While those in conversation were smiling and animated, the silent pairs were clearly uncomfortable. It was a simple activity for a leadership workshop, in which pairs shared their thoughts on a particular topic without any preparation time. As the first pair finished, they turned and one asked, “What do we do now?”
“Just stand where you are and wait for the others to finish.” They shuffled from one foot to the other, folded and unfolded their arms, lowered their heads, avoided eye contact with each other, and glanced regularly at the still talking pairs, no doubt hoping this would motivate them to finish more quickly.
In turn, the pairs finished their conversations and joined the waiting game. And as the final pair fell silent, there was a collective sigh. It felt like someone had finally opened a valve and released the pressure. Their shoulders relaxed, they lifted their heads to look around, smiles touched their faces again, and as they looked to the front we asked, “Who found it difficult to just wait with nothing to do?” Hands rose and heads nodded.
How can it be that the simple act of “doing nothing” might have become one of the hardest things to do? Surely we all wish for moments in our day when we might be left alone without any expectation to do something, solve something, or respond to something? But faced with the bare and empty moment, most people baulk.
Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Virginia found that people will take extreme measures to fill this vacant space. Subjects were asked to spend just 15 minutes alone with no distractions: no devices, no music, no paper or pen and no windows to look out. A bare room except for one button. Touching this button would deliver a light electric shock, which they had all previously experienced and reported as “unpleasant”. An extraordinary two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit without distraction. One high achiever shocked himself 190 times in just 15 minutes.
CAN YOU DO NOTHING?
Have you tried to “do nothing” lately? Maybe you’ve stood for a few moments waiting for your coffee, or arrived early to a meeting, or suddenly found yourself in a quiet house after the family headed off. What did you do? Did you pick up your device, turn on the TV or radio, ring someone, read some work material or dash through one or more things on your to-do list?
The compulsion to fill every moment with activity is a dangerous trap. Cramming more in will inevitably lead you to a place where you become less productive, less creative, less inspired and less satisfied with life.
Various studies reveal that multi-taskers experience a decline in IQ of up to 15 points. Even facing the temptation to multi-task can reduce your IQ by 10 points. So it’s not surprising that busy people often make silly mistakes and bad choices.
A compulsion to fill every moment with “doing something” has spread like a rash through society. “Doing nothing” doesn’t even seem to be a viable option.
Why is it so difficult to face an empty moment between tasks? Are we attracted to constant activity for some very good reason, or are we avoiding the void?
AVOIDING THE VOID
Some people genuinely fear what may arise if they are left with only their own thoughts for company. But research on mind wandering suggests that most people are happy daydreamers, using their periods of freedom of thought to create vivid imagery of a desired future and imagine possibilities for moving towards it.
But deep self-reflection, listening to the voice within, and a willingness to face the truth will sometimes unearth a message you thought you didn’t want to hear. It may be a recognition that it’s time to make a tough change in your life; or an idea that means you’ll have to throw away years of hard work; or an insight that it’s time to let go of something that may feel safe, but could be holding you back.
The irony is that ignoring the truth within does not make it go away. While acknowledging them and acting on them may seem painful, ignoring them will just unleash a game of cat and mouse, as you seek to evade your own voice and its inescapable message.
ATTRACTION TO ACTION
While some people may intentionally be avoiding the void, for many of us it’s more about being a bit too attracted to action.
If you find it more comfortable to fill an idle moment with something else to do, you’re likely to have acquired a strong habit of diving from one thing to the next with little pause, believing this is what makes things happen.
Whether it’s the grip of habit, the pleasure of fleeting reward, the fear of missing something, the comfort of routine, or the badge of honour, busyness has been mistaken for progress and achievement.
KEEPING THINGS MOVING
Completing a task, however trivial, literally gives you a high. A delicious dollop of feelgood chemicals floods your brain, and it is the desire to repeat this reward that drives you to seek more of these “achievement” moments.
Your brain doesn’t make any distinction between a goal that was meaningful and the completion of a mundane task on your to-do list. You need to make those distinctions yourself and, when you’re busy, you’re less likely to sort the wheat from the chaff. Challenges that deserve deeper reflection and slower consideration are often put off
because they appear not to offer an immediate return. But they might be the ones with greater potential impact in the long-term.
Just to be sure you stay on track, your brain has another clever trick: if you leave tasks undone, it makes you feel uncomfortable — you are flooded with cortisol and its companion stress hormones, and they trigger feelings of alertness and anxiety.
Keeping busy and active has become a comfortable habit for so many of us. Going “off habit” feels uncomfortable. Your brain urges a return to the known, and rewards you by making things feel normal again.
There are so many forces pushing us all to do more, keep moving, catch up, go faster and never stop. But you can do nothing and achieve more.
EXERCISE: THE “NOT TO DO” LIST
When you wake up, is your first thought: What day is it and what do I need to get done today? Do you formulate a long to-do list before your feet even hit the floor?
There’s nothing wrong with having a to-do list. They are useful tools to remind you of necessary activities and, used correctly, should help to keep your head clear. But it seems like they’re having the opposite effect.
“Doing things” carries the addictive potential of a hard drug. The dopamine hit from crossing a task off your to-do list can be deeply satisfying, even if the thing on your list held no importance. It’s easy to see why it’s so tempting to keep adding things to the list and why it’s so distressing when things sit there unfinished.
When the to-do list starts dictating your day and defining your self-worth, you eventually feel like a mouse on a treadmill, working hard but getting nowhere.
Try this: … The “not to do” list. Start by writing a list of all the things you believe you must do over the next 24 hours. As well as all the physical tasks, consider the things that are occupying your mental space. For example, worrying about how you’re going to get three kids to different sporting events next weekend. Now go through each item and use these questions to help you decide if the item really belongs on your to-do list: Does this activity need to be done now? Can I identify a real need that this activity will fulfil?
Is this activity ready to be actioned, or does something more need to unfold first?
Is this activity truly a stepping stone to the outcome I’m seeking, or could it end up being a waste of time or irrelevant?
Does this activity deliver the right amount of value for the effort that will be required?
Is this an activity that is mine to do, or am I taking on something that belongs to someone else?
Will this activity make a difference to something meaningful, or will I just get a fleeting reward from ticking it off?
If this activity is something I’m taking on by choice, will it bring me joy or take me closer to something I genuinely care about?
Have you found some items can be transferred to your “not to do” list? If so, write them under the heading, “Not to do”.
Each morning, write yourself a “not to do” list. Aim to put at least three things on it each day and include all the things you are choosing to not spend time thinking about on that day. As you feel space returning to your life, resist the temptation to fill it with more things to do; instead allow novel, joyful and inspiring things to arise.
“A compulsion to fill every moment with ‘doing something’ has spread like a rash through society.”
Susan Pearce and Martina Sheehan. Picture: Tanya Love
This is an edited extract from Do Less
Be More by Susan Pearse and Martina Sheehan, Hay House, RRP $20, out now