How To Be Productive By Doing Nothing

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Action Bias Soccer Goalkeeper

Photo: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock.com

I’m a doer and a fixer.

It might be a guy thing, although I suspect it’s part of my nature.

When I was younger, I assumed that everything could be fixed. Think strategically. Break things down. Make stuff happen. Done!

Yet as I grow up and take on leadership roles, I find that life throws more curve balls. I regularly encounter problems that cannot be fixed — relationship breakdowns, chronic health problems, budget constraints or team dynamics that grind momentum to a halt.

Usually I see a way forward. Yet sometimes I just can’t find a good next action.

Life isn’t like the movies. Sometimes there’s just no right answer or quick win – at least not within my own limited strength, influence and intelligence.

So what is this productivity consultant to do when he encounters an unfixable situation with no obvious next step?

The answer, according to research, is nothing!

Doing nothing is not easy

Doing nothing might sound easy, but research suggests that it’s not.

When faced with a problem, most people prefer to do something – anything – even if taking action is unwise, irrational or counterproductive.

Researchers called this ‘action bias’[1] – a phenomenon where we choose to do something, even when doing nothing is the best thing to do.

I feel like I’m moving, progressing or achieving, when in reality, I might be taking myself backwards.[2]

Action bias is particularly common when people face uncertainty or perceive that taking action is normal.

We act out of habit… and it’s often unproductive.

Why Do Soccer Goalies Almost Always Jump?

In a soccer penalty shootout, professional goalkeepers must choose their action before they can clearly see which direction the ball will go.

In a fascinating study of 286 top league penalty kicks, researchers analysed the behaviour of goalkeepers to determine the best strategy for stopping a ball[3].

Is it better to dive to the left or to the right?

The answer might surprise you – the best strategy is to do nothing at all!

Goalkeepers who jump to the right have only a 12.6% chance of stopping the ball. Jumping to the left improves things only marginally; at 14.2%. However staying in the centre – seemingly doing nothing – produces a 33.3% chance of saving the goal.

This is ironic, considering that goalies almost always dive to the left or to the right during a penalty kick. They only stay in the centre 6.3% of the time!

Why then, given the huge financial incentive to make a correct decision, do world-class goalies consistently choose action (jumping) over inaction (staying still)?

The answer is quite simple. Jumping is normal and staying still is too emotionally difficult.

Researcher Michael Bar-Eli puts it this way:

If the goalkeeper stays in the centre and a goal is scored, it looks as if he did not do anything to stop the ball – while the norm is to do something – to jump.

Against reason, if a goalkeeper misses a penalty kick when staying still, they are more likely to feel negative emotions than if they had dived.

Why? Fans expect goalkeepers to dive. So do commentators and also sponsors. So goalkeepers almost always jump – even if ‘doing something’ actually reduces the likelihood of saving the goal.

What does staying still look like in real life?

Here are a few examples from my own experience where I discovered (sometimes the hard way) that doing nothing was the best next step…

  • My department was restructured and the vibrant team that I helped to create was disbanded without consultation.
  • I was diagnosed with a long-term health problem that can’t be cured.
  • I received a rude and dismissive email from a colleague and it made me really angry.
  • My project funding dried up after a change in government – a year of work just went down the drain.

In each of these circumstances, the best response was to do nothing – at least not immediately.

Sometimes I held off. Other times I jumped in and regretted this later.

Oh, if only I hadn’t sent that email!!

To act, or not to act, that is the question

Doing nothing is not the same as being passive or idle.

In fact, it’s hard work.[4]

Richard Rohr, an authority on contemplative thinking, argues that rational Western societies have lost their ability to be still. We are hyper-active, hyper-busy and hyper-distracted, without the ability to pause or reflect or brew on life’s meaning.

Instead of rushing into action whenever we encounter uncertainty, Rohr suggests that we learn the lost art of stillness.

Fixing Verses Stillness

Think of it this way.

Whenever we face a challenge, we have two modes of action to choose from – a fixing mode[5] and a stillness mode.

The Fixing Mode needs little explanation. It’s about solving problems, acting decisively and getting things done.

At work, this involves meetings, to-do lists, policies, emails and presentations.

The Stillness Mode is the opposite of the Fixing Mode.

It’s an attitude and an internal disposition where I stop blaming, stop denying and stop judging others in order to simply be.

Ironically, problems or situations that feel like they need fixing somehow become smaller when I’m still. My dogmatic arguments become softer and kinder. I stop thinking of myself as the centre of my own universe and somehow, mysteriously, I find myself changed.

I’m a doer… show me how

If your modus operandi is to fix things, it might be hard to grasp what stillness looks and feels like in practice.

It can be hard to explain. But here goes…

  • When you feel angry, don’t blame others, deny it or push it aside – hold your anger and let yourself feel your anger fully. Lean into it. Sit with it long enough to understand what you’re feeling, what triggered it[6] and also why you feel angry (and try not to punch anyone in the meantime!)
  • When you feel excited by a new work or life opportunity, consider being still. Why do you feel tense? Why the rush to start straight away? What are the real costs in terms of time, energy and relationships? Will you need to say “no” to other things if you take this on? Don’t be a killjoy or ignore your gut feelings… just pause for long enough to make a wise and considered decision before diving in.
  • When you feel wronged by another person, try not to unfairly blame or justify your own position again and again. It’s hard, but give yourself a moment to be still. Walk around the block. Breathe. What happened? Why is it affecting you? What attitudes or behaviours might you need to change? What might you need to apologise for? Seek a wise and thoughtful response before taking action.

The time you and I spend stopping, thinking and reflecting is not wasted.

It helps us to avoid the action bias when we better understanding others and ourselves.

Act by doing nothing

In the famous words of Lao Tzu:

Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.

Sometimes the wisest response to a situation is to do nothing and be still.

Stop being busy with meaningless doing… to live well and overcome the action bias.

Do you find it hard to be still and is action bias a problem in your life?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Stefano, G.D., Gino, F., Pisano, G. & Staats, B. (2015). Learning By Thinking: Overcoming the Bias for Action through Reflection, Harvard Business School (action bias working paper), 1-39.
  2. This quote comes from my personal communications with Tim Hynes!
  3. Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O.H., Ritov, I., Keidar-Levin, Y. & Schein, G. (2007). Action Bias Among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, 606-621
  4. On a side note – for a hilarious video on how hard it is for guys not to fix things, check out Jason Headley’s short video, “It’s not about the nail.
  5. This concept comes from Richard Rohr, who outlines two modes of being: the ‘fixing mode’ and the ‘weeping mode’ in his Men and Grief CD series. We prefer the term ‘stillness mode’ as it is more suitable for a productivity context.
  6. According to Richard Rohr, anger (in men) is often a sign of repressed sadness and grief that is masquerading as anger — Men and Grief CD series
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