In the last post, we talked about work-life balance—or how to fit everything into your life. We learned how to be blissfully busy and obscenely productive. In the spirit of balance, I would now like to turn your attention to an equally important, but often overlooked topic of how to do nothing.
Wait! What? Do I need advice on doing nothing? Thanks, Tim, I do just fine on my own!
I bet you don’t!
Well, okay, the truth is that I don’t. Like most small business owners, I’m not good at unplugging. I’m constantly running through my to-do list and solving problems. When I run out of current problems to solve, I imagine future problems, and I keep going. Whether I’m driving, showering, eating, shaving, watching TV, trying to fall asleep or already sleeping, a part of my brain is scanning likely near-future scenarios and trying to pick a winner.
The stakes are high. If I pick the wrong future, all the hard work I’ve done to date is out the window. My employees will quit. My customers will go to my competitors. I will have to scrape myself off the floor and start all over again. No, thank you. I’d rather think a little longer and get it right.
But unplug we must. The brain needs a break from the stress hormones, like cortisone and adrenaline, to “rest and digest.” Not only does your body need rest to digest your food, but your brain needs it, too, to digest your life. Ever notice how some problems solve themselves after a good night’s sleep or a long vacation? That’s the difference between a well-digested and an undigested life.
So, I decided to tackle this problem head-on. I picked a rocky stretch at work and booked a mini-vacation in Hawaii. My plan was to soak in a lot of sun, eat, sleep, and do no work.
On Day One, I sat at the pool and drank free Mai Tais. By late afternoon, I was red as a lobster. I ate dinner and passed out at 5 p.m., my laptop still in its carrying case. Mission accomplished.
Day Two, I woke up feeling rested and on top of the world. The sun was up. The sky was blue. The macadamia-nut pancakes with pineapple syrup melted in my mouth. As I surrendered to island bliss, a strange new sensation came over me.
I was getting bored with doing nothing. Removing all work-related thoughts from the top of my mind opened up a bottomless pit of energy and curiosity. Over the remaining three days, I snorkeled up and down the coral reef, took a helicopter ride, checked out every beach and waterfall on the island, read two books, and watched two seasons of Forensic Files. No email.
My do-nothing phase lasted less than 24 hours. But it was enough to make me want to explore the island (instead of doing it because it was the right thing to do).
Pausing to rest and digest makes you hungry for more action. I took in a year’s worth of Hawaii’s breathtaking natural beauty. And when I came home from my vacation, I was hungry for work.
There are only so many vacations you can take and still keep your job—but you don’t always need a vacation. You’d be surprised at how little it takes to recharge when you allow yourself to do nothing.
I hit the reset button once or twice every week. When I feel my emotions getting the best of me, that’s it; I need a break.
I’ve been using natural sunlight and Sam Harris’ meditation app. He makes it easy to take my mind off the runaway train. Sit comfortably. Notice your surroundings. Close your eyes. Notice your breath. Notice how your shoulders have crept up. Notice how tight your jaw is. Relax. Open your eyes. Notice how things have changed.
Ten, twenty minutes is all it takes for me to take the edge off; I am thrilled to go back inside and finish my day.
Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of the importance of doing nothing, sometimes in ways I don’t expect. A year ago I published a book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You, in which I laid out 23 basic principles of employee engagement.
One day, I ran into someone who read my book.
“Tim,” he said, “I learned absolutely nothing from it.”
“Cool,” I told him. “I wasn’t really shooting for the Nobel Prize in psychology. I was just trying to tell people what works with employees. I sure hope there are more guys like you out there who don’t need to be told.”
To my surprise, a few weeks later this man asked me for a meeting. He said he wanted to talk about the book.
“Strange,” I thought. “Why would he waste more of his precious time on my useless book? What does this guy really want?”
I put the meeting off until after my “do-nothing” Hawaii vacation. I came back feeling a bit more ready for surprises than I did when I left. Swimming with the fish and binge-watching Netflix wiped my brain clean of its usual second-guessing game.
“All right,” I thought, “Let’s hear what he has to say.”
He came to my house on a sunny afternoon, and we both settled into the lounge chairs outside. My guest paused to pull out a copy of my book. I took a deep breath—here goes nothing.
Holy moly! Never have I seen a book with so many folded pages, highlighted passages, and margin notes! No chance in hell he could send it back for a refund now.
“Tim,” he said. “remember how I said I learned nothing from your book?”
I sure did.
“Well, about a month later, I noticed some changes in my business. I own a software company. We now have about fifty employees, and we’re always looking for ways to make our company better. I’ve been trying out a few ideas, and I am very happy with the results. Looking back, I can trace every one of those changes to something I’ve read in your book. Most of this stuff is deceptively simple. Like having new hires meet the founders. We never used to worry about that, and now we make sure that every new employee meets all four founders right away. You won’t believe how much difference it has made for us!”
“Wow! I’m really glad to hear that!”
“Listen, I read the Amazon reviews, and you know how they all say it’s a fast read? Sure enough, you tell some interesting stories, but…”
My guest made a dramatic pause. “Oh no,” I thought, “now we have a ‘but.’”
“But,” he continued, “it’s a mistake to read it all in one gulp. When I did that, I glossed over the parts that were going to make us money. People need to read your book slowly, one chapter at a time. They need to pause after each chapter to digest it and understand how it applies to them. That’s how your book really works. I did that the second time I read it, and I found so many things my employees struggle with. We’ve had honest conversations about it, and things are turning around!”
We compared notes and tossed around some ideas. It turned out to be a great meeting, but my guest was not yet ready to leave.
“Tim,” he said, “we must make a video!”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.”
I had just had a few beers, and starring in a homemade movie was the furthest thing from my mind, but saying “no” to this guy was like pouring gasoline on a fire.
“Yes, yes, yes! We make a video now! And I will share it inside my company!!”
His story reminded me of something I’ve been fighting my whole life.
How often do we jump to conclusions before we’ve had a chance to digest what’s going on? How often do those conclusions turn out to be the same old confirmation biases we’ve been nursing for ages?
If you really want to learn something new, take it in and let it sit there. Do nothing. Give your brain a chance to catch up. You may surprise yourself.
If you enjoy doing nothing, you might like my book, because it will free you up from unnecessary work.
Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.
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