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Want to be productive? Spend time not doing.

The wisdom of non-doing.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

In my early career as a young psychologist, I felt stimulated and loved working in an academic research setting. Looking back, perhaps I valued being productive to the exclusion of other dimensions of myself. Outside of work, my relationships, play, and a spiritual practice were of central importance. Yet I and others around me would have benefitted if I had risked better integrating all aspects of myself into my work life. I say “risk” because in competitive environments, productivity is reinforced often at the expense of individuals’ uniqueness.

What I did not know then, because I was too busy striving, was the importance of wise effort. Wise effort requires understanding when action is needed, as well as when it is better not to act. And, importantly, wise effort includes creating time for non-doing.

Non-doing is an engaged restraint from action or effort. It is non-striving, a form of stillness and quiet. Non-doing is not inaction, nor is it disengagement, zoning out, becoming distracted, or wasting time. Because non-doing is foreign to many of us, it can feel inactive. But it is anything but that. Cultivating non-doing is an important skill that creates internal spaciousness. The actions that arise from this place are infused with greater ease and clarity.

There is a concept in Taoism called wu wei which describes a paradox of “action without action” or “effortless doing.” It is a cultivated yet natural state of non-striving. In this state, you let go and stop trying to achieve. It’s not that you don’t set goals or take purposeful action, but you first take yourself out of the central role of your life in order to more fully understand the nature of things around you. You understand how to best act not by rushing to make sense out of things or by placing your stamp on them, but by simply taking them in.

So what does non-doing look like? How can you begin to create an intentional practice in non-doing?

A non-doing practice begins by incorporating a pause or an activity that brings stillness and quiet into your day. The activity itself is not so important, though some activities promote non-striving more than others. Identify those which quiet you down rather than ramp you up, where you are engaged but relaxed. What is important is the spirit of the undertaking. Can you set aside time, including during your work day, where you have nowhere to be and nothing that you have to do? Brief breaks of non-doing, only a few minutes long, throughout your day can be transformative over time.

I personally like to take walks without thoughts of where they will take me. Daily walks, in the spirit of wu wei, even for 15 minutes, bring clarity and focus. While in a state of non-doing, I discover things. The same street, even if I have walked down it dozens of times, reveals something new.

Whatever the non-doing activity, I approach it with the intention to engage in what I’m doing without a goal. The point of the practice is to quiet down my mind and cultivate non-striving. These practices encourage me to bring more deliberateness to my actions when I am moving at a faster pace or acting in a goal-oriented way.

                                                                      …

What would I tell my younger self who was striving? I would tell her to keep up the good work. Then, I would invite her to allow herself to pause more often. I would tell her that she is enough right now and should know that she will accomplish things without always having to try so hard. I would invite her to give herself permission to relax a little bit more. And I would encourage her to discover ways to bring the quieter, contemplative aspects of herself to the workplace.

Allowing yourself time to pause, to be still, especially in places that require sustained focus and effort, helps you to be a more intentional and effective actor. Discover ways to infuse your work hours with moments of wu wei. Share these experiences with colleagues. For example, meditate together for ten minutes or have conversations about how to each bring your uniqueness and core values to the workplace. Moments of non-doing generate creativity and enable you to bring your best self to all you do, including at work.

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