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

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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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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

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