If you’re a workaholic like me you wake up rearing to dig into your to-do list every day (this includes weekends). Secretly you know that you can’t possibly get it all done today, but no harm in trying, right? There is an old saying:
“Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.” – Lao Tzu
I know what you’re thinking: “I’m getting paid to get things done. You want to tell my boss I’m practicing not-doing? Plus, secretly you know I get a kick from making things happen so if I did nothing, I’d just crawl into a fetal position and die of depression.” I know exactly how you feel. I struggle with this too. But here is why “Not-Doing” has the power to change the way we work and live.
What Is Not-Doing?
When I first read this saying, my rational brain refused to process it. How can laziness lead to productivity? Besides, if I just hang out in my pajamas all day, who pays my bills?
Then I had an epiphany in my zumba class (most of my good epiphanies happen there). We were learning a move called the “shimmy”. It’s where you shake different parts of your body super fast. At first I tried to do this from my head, consciously willing the muscles to move fast. It took a lot of effort and I wasn’t really very good. It felt strained. Frustrated, I just took a deep breath, stopped trying, and let go. Then it happened. My body took over from the brain and just started following the rhythm. I was “shimmying” effortlessly, and it felt good. What happened was “Not-Doing” – effortless action and result.
Newton’s Law of Motion
For those who don’t spend their spare time learning how to shimmy, here’s Sir Isaac Newton’s way of looking at this from his first law of motion: “A body in motion stays in motion” unless acted upon by an external force. It’s the law of inertia.
What Lao Tzu discovered centuries prior to Sir Isaac Newton is that we are already “in motion” as part of the flow of the Universe, and that when we resist the flow, we take unnecessary action. Not-doing is taking away the “unnecessary action” that clutters up our minds, our to-do lists, our sanity, and our lives.
Apply this To My To-Do List
Enough of the philosophy and science. Here’s how this applies to my daily to-do list:
1) Take time to Pause and Tune In – When we are in constant action we have no time for rest, reflection, or connection with ourselves and others. Taking a pause gives us more time to pay attention to what’s happening, get present to scan the environment (ours, others), and decide what really needs to get done. Just yesterday, I woke up ready to check items off my to-do list. Instead I took a deep breath, did my 20-minute meditation, and realized that I could take off a few of my to-do’s off the list…not by running around doing them, but by concluding that they didn’t need to be done (okay, I confess I still gave myself a check-mark!).
2) Go with the flow – I take action toward my priorities but I’ve stopped forcing things or pretending I’m “overly in-charge”. If it feels like I am putting too much effort, I stop and go back to #1. The best way I’ve found to go with the flow is to see whatever shows up as “perfect” and look for the opportunity or learning in it rather than resist it.
3) See what results happen without you – I don’t try to “over-plan” the details of everything way out in advance. Sometimes our egos get so ahead of ourselves, we actually think if we weren’t around, the blade of grass outside would wither and die. I try to have faith in the natural order of things and have faith in others. Some of my best clients have come to me without much effort on my part. I breathe and my heart beats without much effort on my part. What do you get without much effort on your part?
4) Discern between “inspired doing” vs. “industrious doing” – Each of us has experienced times of flow when we are learning or creating something that feels inspired. We are in motion, having impact, but without much effort on our part. This is a state of positive energy called flow. Then there are the times when we feel like we’re on the Stairmaster…sweating really hard and not getting anywhere. I am learning to discern between these two types of doing and move toward “inspired doing”.
5) Manage the resistance – When we find ourselves in “industrious doing” it’s time to let go and go to step #1. Notice if the resistance is internal (i.e. you’re sabotaging yourself) or external (something doesn’t want to happen). Find a wiser course of action. The water in a flowing river goes around the rocks. Give yourself permission to stop doing what’s not working.
This “Not-Doing” requires major conscious paradigm shifts in to-do lists and also to our life:
- Redefine productivity from getting the most done to having the greatest impact with the least effort
- Redefine “not-doing” from laziness to intelligent action
- Redefine “perspective-taking” time from “wasted” to highly productive time (it’s Covey’s “sharpening the saw”)
- Redefine the mark of a leader as someone who succeeds “by pushing hard” to someone who “wisely looks for flow”
- Redefine our belief that if it’s to happen we’re going to have to do it, to trusting that we are well taken care of
- Redefine our belief that life is meant to be a struggle to life is meant to be effortless. It is if we pursue inspired action.
- Redefine success in our to-do list and in life from acquiring (things, accomplishments, control, self-importance) to letting go (non-attachment to things, accomplishments, control, self-importance)
So take a look at your to-do list for today. Notice “inspired doing” vs. “industrious doing”. Notice what happens without effort and use it to have faith. Put some reflection time on your to-do list.
Then, send me a note and remind me to do the same! I need all the help I can get!
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This article first appeared in Smartblogs on Leadership.