How to Get More Done by Doing Nothing

Have you ever heard of Do Something Syndrome?


I hadn’t either until I came across an article of the same name on Farnam Street.

The gist of the article is that we all have a built-in bias toward action. Both psychologically and culturally, our default assumption tends to be that it’s better to do something rather than nothing:

  • Not sure if you should go ahead with that startup idea you’ve been excited about for years? Just do it.
  • Not sure if you should get that risky and expensive surgery? Well, they’re the doctor, so… Just do it.
  • Not sure if you should pack it up and backpack across Europe after graduation? Just do it.

Consequently, it’s not surprising that when faced with challenges around being more productive and doing better work, our default response tends toward action and doing more:

  • Not sure if that client report is good enough? Add a couple more sections.
  • Not sure if your new app is ready for launch? Add a few more features.
  • Not sure if your website is growing fast enough? Write more blog posts.

The Busyness Trap: When More is Less

I’m all for hard work and perseverance, but there are times when doing more can end up meaning less gets done in the long run.

In particular, our obsessive drive to be productive by doing more stuff can make us blind to The Busyness Trap—Being in constant motion so that we look (and feel) like we’re productive but not really doing truly meaningful work.

The word meaningful is key.

Most of our problems with productivity aren’t a result of not working enough; they’re the result of not doing the right kind of work.

Thoreau nailed it when he said:

It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?

This illustrates two important things about productivity that an action-first mindset can blind us to:

  • Quality matters. More quantity in our work can be a good thing if it’s in the service of quality. But it’s easy to get into a cycle of frenetically and mindlessly producing lots of stuff. This usually happens either because it makes us feel productive or because it leads to short term benefits (e.g. quick sales). Instead, we need to make time to remember why we’re producing what we’re producing and keep the value of our work clear.
  • Creativity matters. A major downside to constantly doing is that it robs us of time to be creative and insightful in our work. True productivity often comes from imaginative leaps and creative insights. But if we’re constantly rushing around doing stuff, we don’t give our brains the quiet space they need to make interesting connections and see new opportunities for the future.

How Intentionally Doing Less Can Lead to More

In order to avoid the Busyness Trap and become more genuinely productive, we have to deliberately cultivate habits and routines that allow for quality work and creativity. Below are three small strategies I’ve found helpful for producing work that’s meaningful.

1. Don’t write down good ideas immediately.

As a part of my 30-Day Digital Declutter experiment I did a few months ago, I had to abstain from using my phone for non-essential things. In addition to not checking social media or email during little breaks or gaps in my day, for example, it also meant I couldn’t simply jot down little ideas I had at odd times when I couldn’t write them down —while I was exercising or driving, for instance.

Initially, this caused me a lot of anxiety because I was worried that I’d lose all of my brilliant ideas! But I quickly found that not only was I not forgetting nearly as much as I worried about, but I was getting an unexpected benefit from not writing my ideas down right away…

I found that the quality of my ideas ended up being far better when I didn’t write them down right away.

See, when we jot an idea down immediately, we’re effectively telling our brain that it’s ok to move on to thinking about something else.

Unfortunately, this means we stop thinking about the idea, and we lose out on all the creative momentum that gave rise to it in the first place.

But if we hold off on immediately writing ideas down our ideas, we allow our minds to elaborate on them more and fill them out. The result is much more interesting and useful ideas.

2. Just drive.

As I’ve written about before, one of the most productive things I’ve ever done is to stop listening to podcasts (or anything else) on my commute. I found that just sitting in my car not thinking about anything in particular allows me to be more open and receptive to all the work my unconscious mind is doing.

In the short term this can feel unproductive (I could be learning so much if I listened to an hour of podcasts every day on my commute!). But it’s hard to overestimate the long-term value of a steady stream of creative ideas that can come from some intentional peace and quiet.

Plus, in addition to being more receptive to new ideas, this quiet time in the car also allows me to make more connections between ideas.

Something about the unstructured but semi-active nature of driving allows me to see all kinds of normally unrelated ideas “next to each other” and then make unexpected connections.

3. Schedule time to think.

Most of us would acknowledge that thinking deeply about important things is essential to being genuinely productive and doing good work. And yet, how often do we prioritize deep thinking in a concrete way? How often do we set aside time just to think?

For a long time, my answer to that was essentially never. Until I came across a great article by Shane Parrish were he explains that he deliberately makes time to do nothing but think:

I actually schedule time to think. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I protect this time as if my livelihood depended on it because it does. Sometimes I’m in the office and sometimes I’m in a coffee shop. I’m not always thinking about a problem that I’m wresting with. I’m often just thinking about things I already know or, more accurately, things I think I know. Setting aside time for thinking works wonders, not only for me but also for most of the people I’ve convinced to give it a try.

Ever since coming across that article, I make sure that at least once a week I schedule a 30 or 45-minute block of time to just think. Here’ how it usually goes:

  • I sit down at my desk with a notepad and pen.
  • I briefly review big items/categories in my life (e.g.: my relationship with my wife or daughters, the new book project I’m working on, a difficult case I have at work, etc.)
  • Usually one of these will stand out as most salient at the moment.
  • Then I start writing about it. Sometimes this takes the form of a mind map and sometimes it looks more like journaling.
  • I do that for a few minutes, then stop and continue to roll it over in my mind.
  • Then I go back to pen and paper.
  • Repeat until the block of time is up.

Something about the back and forth of thinking vs writing helps me personally to get a fresh perspective on tough problems.

But I also think there’s something important about the fact that it’s scheduled. Somehow the intentionality of it communicates to my brain that this is important and worthy of full attention and cognition.

Wrapping Up

We all have a built-in bias toward action. But in many cases, this tendency to do can come at the expense of doing well.

Ultimately, in order to become and stay genuinely productive, we have to cultivate habits that allow for quality thinking and creativity, not just staying busy and doing more stuff.

Three habits I’ve found helpful in this respect are: Not writing down ideas immediately, doing nothing on my commute, and scheduling deliberate time to think.