Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Jonathan Mead from Illuminated Mind.
What if you could actually accomplish more by intentionally procrastinating and slacking off?
Wouldn’t that be cool?
As much as we spend time trying to figure out clever ways to maximize our time, sometimes the least obvious approach is the most effective.
In other words, just doing more does not always lead to a greater value output.
The case for putting things off
If you’re having trouble creating much value in your life, it’s likely that you’re in need of some serious procrastination. If at the end of the day, you feel like you were really busy, but nothing important was accomplished, it just might be because you didn’t put things off enough.
It sounds weird, but this is a highly effective strategy. The more value I want to create, the more I realize that I will need to put off doing a lot of seemingly important things, that won’t matter in a few hours, days or weeks. Spending time doing what matters long term often involves procrastinating on short-term, trivial details.
I’ve learned that if I get too caught up in the short-term, I will drown in details. If you stayed glued to a highly detailed To-Do list, you quickly lose sight of the big picture. And the amount of real value that create quickly vanishes.
So, in order to do what will make a long term impact ”” writing a book, creating an album, working on yourself, or practicing your art ”” you will need to learn how to become skilled at putting off the minutiae.
I’m not saying let your laundry pile up so much that you wear the same socks for seven days, and make small animals run for shelter when you approach. Just don’t let having the laundry done ”” closet color-coded, perfectly matched, and ironed religiously until all wrinkles have been eradicated ”” keep you from doing the stuff that is going to make you feel fulfilled.
The case for doing nothing.
To a certain point, the more nothing you do, the more perspective you get on the things that are going to make a difference.
But most people do the exact opposite. In order to create more value, they think they need to put in more time. This is false. Value is not married to time. Its relationship is marginal at best and depends on how much you’re able to leverage your time.
Of course, in order to create anything, you have to show up. That much cannot be denied. And there is much merit in being bull-headedly persistent. Putting in the time is necessary to develop competentence or expertise at any endeavor.
But it only works up to a point. For the first few hours, focused time is highly effective. But if you don’t step away, recharge, and essentially do nothing for a certain amount of time, you’re running on an empty tank.
Doing nothing also often leads to the greatest epiphanies. It’s time spent where there is no direct correlation to the activity (walking, hiking, or taking a nap, for example) you’re pursuing that you allow ideas to incubate, grow, and percolate. If you’re trimming a tree all day, or constantly poking at a cooking fish, you’re going to ruin it.
It’s better to step away, and allow things to unfold.
If you could do nothing more, and get more done, wouldn’t that be a better way to work?
But we resist because it can seem scary when we’re not in control. It’s messy, and uncertain.
But if you want to be truly exceptional, it takes stepping away to gain perspective. Once you gain that perspective (by doing nothing) you’ll know the right path to take.
I’ve built my business on these two principles
I know that these ideas may seem a bit counterintuitive, but they’ve worked over and over for me. In fact, I would say much of my success is due to following them tirelessly. That and painstakingly killing my good ideas.
When I find that a day or week goes by and I’m not sure I accomplished anything of value, I take stock. If I didn’t really create much value, I find 99% of the time I was focusing microscopically on non-essentials. It’s at that point that I realize I need to do a better job of putting off the details and taking a more long-term view.
When I review and find that I didn’t accomplish much, but I was focusing on the bigger picture, it’s usually because I’m too close. I haven’t given my project (or myself) room to breathe. I need to let go, give it space, and allow it to grow without hovering over it like a micro-manager. And when I do that, when I do nothing for a while, I come back refreshed. I have new ideas and new energy to bring to my work, and the quality of my work improves dramatically.
Try it for yourself and let me know what happens.
I really enjoyed this Jonathan. There is real wisdom in what you are saying and I think its easy to get caught up in the whirlpool of ‘doing’ without really taking stock. I was wracking my brains last week for a 2010 post for my blog re goals etc when I realised, who I am ‘being’ is where I need to start with.
The irony is that in doing nothing we actually do a lot.
Non-doing is not an easy practice. It takes work to cultivate a spirit of mindfulness that will allow us to live in the present moment and be more in touch with ourselves. In non-doing and being present in the moment we may actually find that the possibilities are limited.
Great stuff Jonathan!
.-= Nate´s last blog ..Why Are We So Miserable With Our Jobs? =-.
In my own mindlessness…I mean to say unlimited! Cheers.
Eric Blue says
This is an interesting strategy. It sounds somewhat like Structured Procrastination (http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/). I think it’s critical that you periodically turn your attention from the ‘must do’ tasks to the ‘want to do’ ones. It sometimes take a lot of energy to reframe your perspective to transform the ‘must dos’ to the ‘want to dos’, so it’s good to take a break and focus your energy on the fun / high-impact / creative tasks.
.-= Eric Blue´s last blog ..How To Create Your Own Personal Document Viewer (Like Scribd or Google Books) =-.
Archan Mehta says
Thanks, Jonathan, for this excellent post.
That’s why that great (so-called) American transcendentalist of yore, H.D. Thoreau, wrote that “our lives are frittered away in endless details.” We focus on trivialities and banalities and lose sight of the “big picture.”
That’s why many creative people have reported that they “receive” their best ideas in moments of idleness or quiet contemplation. For example, one of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth, wrote his famous poem, “Daffodils,” while going for a stroll in the Lake District of England. Wordsworth discovered his poem in a moment of serendipity; the poem was not executed while sticking to any “to-do” list.
Kekule also discovered the structure of the benzene molecule (chemistry) when he was lying frustrated and half-asleep on his couch. Kekule day-dreamed about a snake chasing its own tail, and lo and behold, the discovered dawned on him. Albert Einstein was also famous for his thought experiments and frequently discovered ideas suddenly while he could not remember his own street address in Princeton. We know of many rock and roll musicians who relax in “altered states of consciousness” in order to let their muse run wild and create their melodies. Unfortunately, we also know too many of them dying young and not fulfilling their promise; not being able to cope with their gifts. Creativity is a process and a mystery, finally. Let it flow with grace and charm.
Naomi Niles says
I really like this! I’ve been doing the same type of thing for certain tasks.
Me and my hubby like to keep our house very uncluttered and with minimal stuff because we think it helps keep the mind clear.
But other tasks like doing the laundry, we only do once a week or even two weeks sometimes. I’d rather have time to think, read, or go hiking than wash clothes and scrub the floors every few days.
Also, I don’t know if this is really a very good method, but I have a folder called “Action2” in my email that I move all of my actionable emails that don’t have top priority. I’ve found that sometimes just leaving them there for a few days makes them non-actionable and I can then delete them.
Email makes us think we need to do everything right away, but lots of things can just sit awhile. Maybe one day I’ll get good at just directly deleting emails that may be non-actionable soon.
Thanks for the nice article!
.-= Naomi Niles´s last blog ..You know you need to hire a web designer when… =-.
Steven Ponec says
Sometimes it’s hard to do nothing! But this post really points out the benefits.
I also feel like I have the greatest epiphanies when I am just sitting around. This actually happened to me just last night! I was having trouble falling asleep, and every 10 minutes or so something would play out in my head and I would write it down!
This happened a couple of times and I got some really great ideas.
I also think that contemplation during exercise, showering, and meditation really helps let those ideas come out as well.
Oh yes. sometimes I can just feel myself banging my head against a wall instead of just letting it happen.
.-= suzanne´s last blog ..Closing Doors =-.
Kyle Hansen says
I could not agree more, when I do and work less and focus on geting the big things done, I have better results and ultimately make more money. Not to mention a better life because I have more free fun time and less stress!
I didn’t notice the reference to poking at a cooking fish at first. That’s an awesome allusion to the Tao Te Ching, Jonathan. That one sentence was some icing that I really appreciate. (Of course, you probably knew that.)
And thanks for sharing such a great post here! I look forward to more.
Andrew J. Gay says
After a title like that I had to read this! Of course I think there is a fine line here. If you are a lazy person sometimes doing nothing is a surefire way toward failure.
The idea of doing nothing to get more done though is enlightening. Often times I think, at least for me I don’t ever think there are enough hours in the day… I am a workaholic. But, you are 100% right Jonathan. Unless you take time to unplug much of your time that you are trying to accomplish something you are actually beating your head against a wall getting frustrated, stressed and ultimately un-productive.
Especially when it comes to creativity, which is what most of us online entrepreneurs need.
Everyone needs to be productive and efficient. A big part of that is taking time to do what is most important… living. Remember, we shouldn’t be living to work, we should work so that we can live!
.-= Andrew J. Gay´s last blog ..Taking Action with Passion- Success Guaranteed =-.
Steven | The Emotion Machine says
Great ideas Jon! I have written my fair share of advice on the power of “doing nothing” too, even one time wrote about taking a whole day off to do nothing. Sometimes doing less, and allowing ourselves to take a step back, can allow us to put a stronger focus on the things that are most important.
Thanks again Jon, and Productive Flourishing, for sharing this with all of us!
.-= Steven | The Emotion Machine´s last blog ..Start The New Decade By Focusing On Relaxation =-.
Greg London says
Oh, I get it. So you put off the small stuff, but seriously focus on the most important stuff.
That makes sense. Nice site man.
.-= Greg London´s last blog ..Free and Powerful takes 3 steps to a $50.00 sign up bonus =-.
Putting things off at my office requires looking over the day and the week like a chess player. When I get a project, I determine if it really needs to get done, or if the urgency will die out based on the situation. If I determine if will die out, I use my time to learn, read things that matter, and take care of things that are really urgent. By the end of the week, I’ve done what I needed to do, and have decreased my stress by filtering out things that can really wait.
.-= Tosha´s last blog ..Virtual Assistant – Success in Rough Economic Times =-.
cynthia bailey says
This is a brilliant 180 on how I habitually operate in life. I go into hyper drive when I have a pressing task and I get everything done, both minutia and the big stuff. I go nuts in the process. Creating space and letting go as an action makes room for the really juicy epiphany/creative spark etc. I’ve experienced that, but my old habit so easily kicks in. Your post is a good reminder. Thank you.
Marshall Donnerbauer says
I wholeheartedly agree with this approach, but I also know what you mean about not using it as an excuse to let the laundry pile up.
In my quest to become efficient with my work, I’ve often completely cut out the mundane details in life (getting back to friends, answering emails on time, getting the mail, going to the bank, etc…)
It’s a balance, but I believe it’s better to focus on a few really important things than to just fill our days with a bunch of small things just to feel like we’re “getting things done today”.
.-= Marshall Donnerbauer´s last blog ..Canon 7D Testing – Hard Rock Cafe Bear =-.
Aaron Taylor - HelpCreatePlan says
The last 4 lines of this highly useful post goes someway to underscore the benefit of just standing back. Stand back, take a bigger view of the whole picture and see new avenues and possibilities.
a fine post.
Karl Staib - Work Happy Now says
I admit that there are times I get too close to a project. This blurred vision doesn’t allow the project’s full potential to come out. Most of the time I don’t consciously step back to get a better view, it just happens naturally. I’ll go for a walk or do a little cartoon. After I’m done relaxing my mind (i.e. procrastinating) I realize my mistake.
The subconscious mind is a very powerful computer if we give it time to do its job.
.-= Karl Staib – Work Happy Now´s last blog ..The 100-100 Divide =-.