Do Nothing: A Simple Way to Boost Productivity and Better Serve Others


If you're like most people I know, your to-do list is pretty long.

I find it very helpful to reflect on which things are important enough that I need to be sure I'm doing them on a weekly basis, even if that means only taking a few small steps in the right direction. Otherwise, I've found it's so easy to get distracted each day by the "urgent" issues that come up that I neglect what I've determined through analysis to be most important to my personal and professional success.

Have you taken time to reflect on which activities are so important to your personal and professional success that you should definitely commit to taking at least some action on them each week?

I've also made a list of things that are so important that I commit to doing them every day.

The list includes things like doing something to help at least three people, learning something new, and working to ensure that every interaction I have with other people is positive, and leaves others at least a little bit better off than I found them.

However, one of the items on the daily list of things that I have found are most important to my personal and professional success is very counter culture.

It seems our culture is obsessed with doing as much as possible and being constantly connected to others. People brag about how "crazy busy" they are, listing off all the things they're doing and the things they still have on their to-do list, while they multi-task by staying constantly connected with others through Facebook, texting, and/or talking on the phone.

(As a side note, I've noticed that in most cases those people actually aren't that productive. I've also noticed that those people very rarely have a meaningful connection with anyone. They may be "connected with" a hundred people in a day, but they never truly connect with a single one of them.)

The item on the top of my "must-do-every-day" list is the complete antithesis of what our culture seems to value. What tops my list is taking time to do absolutely nothing.

Ironically, I have found that taking time to just be still and quiet, and do absolutely nothing, actually boosts productivity, and it is a powerful way to serve others.

If you just can't imagine taking time to do "nothing" you could put a label on that time, like "personal reflection," "prayer," or "mindfulness training." But the essence of each of these "activities" is doing nothing. We realize we most benefit from them when we stop trying to "do something" or "get something" and simply open up, notice and listen. This time is best spent just being.

Taking time to do nothing allows us to break free from the habitual, auto-pilot mode of operating that tends to dominate most of our lives. It allows us to let go of our thinking and just notice what's going through our minds. This allows us to get clarity on our thoughts and emotions, and helps us to see what's really important versus what is simply just "urgent."

This can boost productivity tremendously. Instead of doing 100 urgent tasks and not really doing anything important, we're more likely to do a few things that really move the needle. Also, after taking some time to do nothing, we approach our next tasks with greater clarity and presence.

This greater presence is the most important benefit of taking time to be still and do nothing. When we stop "doing" for a little while, we disengage from our ego-driven, habitual ways of doing things. When we take some time to let go of our constant striving, we see the ego objectively and it loses a bit of its power to control us.

Thus, we're a little better able to enter into our next interactions with greater presence and less self-centeredness. Instead of being fixated on ourselves, we're more likely to approach an interaction with the spirit of service.

And, because we're likely listening better and more empathetic, we're better able to uncover meaningful ways to add value to the lives of others. Ultimately, this may be the most productive thing we can do.

Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur, an international keynote speaker, and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.