08 Jul 2021 18:54 IST

Leaders need to do nothing more often

Doing nothing creates the deliberate space needed to think, reflect, create, digest, and harvest great ideas

I often quote to my team the old saying — “There’s no point covering a lot of ground, unless you cultivate something in it.” In business as with many other fields we are obsessed with ‘covering ground.’ Action, execution, productivity, efficiency, throughput — these are the buzzwords that are ingrained in us from our all-nighters at MBA school and then become an intrinsic part of our approach in the corporate race.

Leaders would smile benevolently at the employee who is there earliest and leaves latest, who responds to that Sunday email. But a new breed of secure and self-aware leaders have encouraged more balance. They nudge employees to take their time off. And many of them have led by example even showcasing — horror of horrors — the art of doing nothing! Why should we as leaders learn and practice this art in a field that prizes speed and constant activity?

Perks of wasting time

Psychologist Amos Tversky provides us a startling insight — “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” Could he actually be encouraging us to ‘waste hours’? Turns out that’s not such a bad idea even though the ace-performer-leader finds the very thought revolting. What they actually mean of course is that you’re not literally wasting time, but you are creating the deliberate space to think, to reflect, to create, to digest, to even blank out.

This space of so-called doing-nothing has a phenomenal accelerator effect on the quality of our work and lives. It is a pity that we are conditioned to do so little of it. This is particularly true of the creative space — great musicians, painters, artists swear by the value of doing-nothing. Lest we think that isn’t relevant to us in the business world we’d be dead wrong — in fact the ‘permanent white-water’ world of business needs creativity more than ever before. And creativity needs space to form and grow.


Take investment as an example. Relentless activity is considered by the best investors as the enemy of great returns. Doing-nothing is the unglamorous but often sure shot way to get the best returns. Ben Carlson in his investment book, A Wealth of Common Sense refers to a Federal study that looked at mutual fund inflows and outflows over nearly 30 years (1984-2012). Most investors they found — in the quest for higher returns put money in when the markets made large gains and pulled money out after sustaining losses. They compared this highly active strategy with the do-nothing investor who pursued a buy and hold over seven-year periods. The ‘do-nothingers’ outperformed their return-chasing, hyper-active peers by up to 5 per cent per year. Across the period studied this created a 40 percent outperformance. Start-ups prone to a fresh pivot every Monday morning will testify to the drained energy and resources that a spray-gun approach creates.

The do-nothing can precede and succeed bouts of intense high-quality activity but without those pauses it could end up being just work for work’s sake rather than a meaningful addition to a goal or vision. Leaders need to call this time-out and harvest the quality that it brings.

The constant hustle

In his ground-breaking book Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, James Suzman points out some of his findings from living and working with the Ju/’hoansi ‘Bushmen’ of southern Africa’s Kalahari: “We now know that hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi did not live constantly on the edge of starvation. Rather, they were usually well-nourished; lived longer than people in most farming societies; rarely worked more than fifteen hours a week and spent the bulk of their time at rest and leisure. We also know that they could do this because they do not routinely store food, cared little for accumulating wealth or status, and worked almost exclusively to meet only their short-term material needs.”

Unlike the rest of humankind who seem to live to work, they worked to live. We seem self-condemned to a never-ending run on the ferret wheel — earning more money, status, promotions and yet working harder and longer and compromising on the very things we claim to be working for — family, leisure, learning, fitness, self-fulfilment. Work began as a quest to meet our needs but then it becomes an infinite abyss when we use it to meet our wants. Leaders must strive for that balance in themselves and for their teams. They will find it leads to happier people and better results.





For the Ezra Klein show that James Suzman was on, the introduction note was revealing: “Historically speaking, we live in an age of extraordinary abundance. We have long since passed the income thresholds when past economists believed our needs would be more than met and we’d be working 15-hour weeks, puzzling over how to spend our free time. And yet, few of us feel able to exult in leisure, and even many of today’s rich toil as if the truest reward for work is more work. Our culture of work would be profoundly puzzling to those who came before us.”

Wearing exhaustion as a badge of honour

Nothing-time could be growth time. I often find that after an intense workshop or after listening to an insightful talk — I block time off to sit and chew over what I’ve heard — doing literally nothing. I find that quiet, do-nothing time synthesises the learning, adds to it, makes connections from my past experiences, enables me to reflect, see truths and decide on action. Without the quiet ‘after the storm’ I find the learning only half-baked and transient. Leaders can no longer treat do-nothing time as a luxury. It is an imperative for them to do their roles well. They need to be continuously growing if they have to lead any organisation in today’s rapidly changing times.

It was a refreshing change when I recently interviewed a CEO for a book I’m working on. There was no fuss about having to squeeze time from a crazily packed calendar. “Anytime of your convenience works for me...” was a response I rarely get from a CEO. They’d generally go to great pains to highlight the back-to-back meetings, the conference calls with the US and then Australia the next morning and then the red-eye flight the next day. It almost seems like the scars of overwork are worn as badges of honour. This CEO — a rare breed who is both secure and comfortable in himself and deeply self-aware — also shared with me that he managed to read a 100 books a year. A voracious reader myself, I was amazed that he made time for learning and growth. It shows in the way he leads his team and the quiet resolve of his leadership.


Source: YouTube



We obsess so much working hard at making a living, that we forget to have a life. As leaders we need to step off the treadmill and pause. We need to ask the “Why” question not once but again and again. Working brings fulfilment but if that’s all we define life as, then we are indeed living poor lives. There is no one else we have to fight this battle with. As Walt Kelly would have Pogo say in his comic strip: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”