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:

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:

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:

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 being 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 see all kinds of normally unrelated ideas “next to eachother” 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:

Something about the back and forth of thinking vs writing helps me personally to get 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 docan come at the expense of doing well. Ultimately, in order 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.

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