The Courage to do Nothing

If you‘re like me, you want to clear your desk every night before you head home. You want to make sure that anything that might impair you that evening at home is off the to-do list and out of your mind. Then you’ll be able to relax without having unresolved work issues hanging over your head.

Always Refreshing!

Now this is a very good strategy to rid you of repetitive paperwork/accounting/office management. But it can be the death knell for creative work. Forcing yourself into making a decision about a particular project just to get it off your desk will bite you in the ass later on. I can’t tell you how often I’m haunted by the consequences of my hurry up and move on decisions. If you see me walking down the street cringing, you’ll know I just remembered one.

And don’t forget business decisions are creative work too.

Whether or not you should make that call and press for better terms with that vendor may seem like a run of the mill decision, but it’s not. You need to creatively think about what it is that decision will do for you. You may win a marginal short term victory, but your vendor may hate you for being such a penny pincher that she does the least amount possible to keep you happy. Your inventory is mishandled so your customers return more goods and are dissatisfied etc.

Making the call and pressing for a reduced fee may be the right choice. But until you sit with the problem for a little while and map out the pros and cons of a decision, you’re running on “first draft-itis.” And no one should see your first draft of anything.

Why do we do this?

We do it to avoid confrontation. It deflates our anxiety, gives us “thank God I got that over with” relief.

It’s important to remember though that life is conflict. It just is. These are why stories, things built on the bedrock of conflict, are so important to us.

That doesn’t mean that it is all about screaming or passive aggressively getting your way. It means that in any human interaction, there is a clash of one kind or another. We communicate in order to figure out where we differ (where should we go to eat?) and then we confront the controversy and make it go away (how about a Mexican restaurant?). If you both love Mexican food, problem solved. If one of you wants Sushi, then there’s stress.

The courage to do nothing is all about remembering that you don’t know everything. You are capable of changing your ideas about things. You can hold two opposing thoughts in your head without jumping off a cliff. Really you can. You can hate taxes and also believe that the government should raise them to help people incapable of taking care of themselves.

When I went away to college, I’d never eaten Japanese food, Chinese food, Indian food, and on and on. I was a Mook who’d only eaten meat, potatoes and canned green beans. Food was fuel where I grew up, not entertainment.

Was I an idiot because I’d never tasted Baked Alaska? Of course not.

But if I’d refused to have the courage back then to do nothing when new friends who’d traveled outside of their area code before insisted we get some Pad Thai, I’d never have eaten anything more exotic than a cheeseburger.

It’s the same thing with your novel or your screenplay or your plumbing supply business. You are going to confront major and minor problems creating these works of art (and if you don’t think running a plumbing supply business requires art, you’ve never tried to manage more than one thing at a time). The perfect answers will not come to you off the top of your head.

Take a minute, an hour, an evening, to let your ideas stew.

It’s a lot harder to do nothing than you may think…

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  1. Basilis on May 17, 2013 at 4:50 am

    A lot of wise things mentioned here and right on time!
    A well calculated decisions needs it’s time
    (and I’m glad I’m into this state of situation right now).

  2. harlan gleeson on May 17, 2013 at 9:50 am

    nicely said shawn. when the focus here is to “go for it” it is worth mentioning how to “go for it”.

  3. Katherine Owen - Novelist on May 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you. I needed this today. I’m fussing over a WIP and it’s been going on for a long while, however, your post reminds me that good things take time to write and be good enough. As you say, it’s all a part of the process.

  4. Robin - Writer in Progress on May 17, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Because of course, when we are “doing nothing” we really aren’t doing nothing. Those little people who work inside my head are worrying away at whatever it is as I take a bike ride or watch a movie or kiss my wife. And they mostly produce the nugget, hand it to the muse and she lets me use it later when I sit down to do “something” again.

  5. Karen on May 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    The masculine energy of “Git ‘er done!!” is so valuable, AND only serves us when informed by the female sense of timing which itself is tied to waiting until one KNOWS inside onseself –until then, wait. I, too, like to keep a clean desk, but sometimes “clean” is about allowing there to be neat piles collected around the margins of the worksurface; adding to and sorting those piles until the time has come to pull them into the center of the desk and take a big action.

    For me, then, this post is about knowing where the pendulum is in any situation(ideally hovering over the sweet spot, which spot may be just a point in some situations -i.e., needing to wait until complete stillness; while for other situations it’s appropriate to take action while the pendulum is still swinging; in those situations there’s a wider area, less precision is necessary…).

  6. Janis on May 20, 2013 at 9:51 am

    “You can hold two opposing thoughts in your head without jumping off a cliff. Really you can.”

    I’m still coming to grips with the awareness that I don’t have to reach a conclusion about everything.

  7. HarleyJules on May 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Doing nothing to some might seem laissez-faire but in fact it’s hard to do in leadership positions at times. I can’t be the one coming up with the ideas all the time…even if I spend that time doing the ‘nothing’ to have a creative spark eventually. I have to sometimes do nothing in order to let those around me take the lead. This breeds future leaders as they are taking our place when we leave anyway…do our final ‘nothing’ of retirement!

  8. Ivana Sendecka on May 22, 2013 at 4:58 am

    Being in the phase of ‘brewing’ new ideas and next steps, I can only agree that it is pretty intimidating ‘to do nothing’ visible. (especially for external observers, friends, etc.). However, internally it is obvious to me that it is the only way to move forward and time spent on reflection is more valuable investment, than running around and ‘be busy’.
    Thanks, Steve!

  9. Ivana Sendecka on May 22, 2013 at 5:02 am

    I beg your pardon! -> Thanks Shawn.

  10. MAN on May 22, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    I agree life is full is conflict, you just need to thing about who you are dealing with and the stakes of the situation. It dies take courage to step back and decide to do nothing when confronted with a person or decision. It takes courage to decide to avoid the decision for a little bit to acquire more information, but I’m sure in the end it is worth the wait.

  11. GB on May 27, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    Leaders have to be decision makers, but they also have to do it the right way. In some situations, they need to be able to make a decisive decision on the spot and be confident with it or take the time to think things through to make the best decision for the situation. If they keep their people involved and are open to feedback, their people will respect them to the end.

  12. TRoss on May 30, 2013 at 7:29 am

    In any situation the “do nothing” approach can be looked at in different ways. I have had to learn through many arguments with my husband that sometimes if I had done nothing the outcome would have been the same with less drama. For example, I like to say I told you so frequently because of his “I didn’t know that would happen” reaction and upon saying I told you so it escalates the conflict. After all is said and done, he will say that he felt bad about whatever he did or did not do and that he should have just listened to me thus forcing me to see that sometimes I don’t even need to do that to get the end result of him seeing that sometimes I am right. But this is not the only situtaion we need to think about the do nothing aspect. When ever we do anything we should stop to think of why we are doing it. If the outcome is so we can be made to look good, or even just to have a good story to tell about the “what” we did, maybe do nothing is the appropriate response.

  13. TRoss on May 30, 2013 at 8:19 am

    On another note of do nothing, I find myself trying to do a little bit at each aspect of my life so that I can say I put something into it. In reality I should do nothing for certain areas while I stay focused on just one aspect so that it can have my complete attention so as to maximize the potential of a good outcome or product.

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