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5 Ways to Do Nothing and Become More Productive

Counter-intuitively, sometimes doing nothing is your best recourse.


I got an email at 5 in the morning that made me angry. It pressed every button. It accused. It threatened. It cc-ed people. It attempted to make me feel guilt. It attempted to make me feel fear. I can go on.­

I started to type a response and then I stopped. I’m not so great that I can always stop. Sometimes I respond. Sometimes hellfire breaks loose from the carefully constructed dams.

But I’m trying to get better. We find our strength deep in the valley of our fears.

Sometimes the best thing to do is: nothing.

Many productivity books tell you what you can do MORE of in order to achieve goals, purpose, success money, etc. But MORE is hard to do. I’m already busy. Now you tell me I have to make a to-do list with six things that make me feel grateful on top of it? I can’t do it all. 

You need to eliminate first. You need to be a productivity minimalist in order to be a success. The key is to find the easy things you can chop off where you can at the very least do nothing instead of doing things that actually DAMAGE your productivity. 

Here’s a checklist I use for when to do nothing:

Do nothing when you’re angry.  Some people think anger can focus emotions, but it doesn’t. It’s like focusing on a kaleidoscope. You’ll walk straight off a cliff. Anger is a roadmap off that cliff. You have to wait until it settles down and you get perspective. Time is the morphine drip that soothes the anger. Then you can act. Anger is just an outer reflection of inner fear. The fear might be correct, but the anger blurs it.

Time is the morphine drip that soothes the anger.

Do nothing when you’re paranoid. I initially wrote “fear” here. But fear can focus. If you’re in the jungle and there’s a lion on your right and an apple tree on your left then you better run as fast as you can back where you came from. But often I’m not afraid, I’m paranoid. I imagine a chaotic future filled with misery and hate and homelessness and loneliness. My best bet is to sit down and picture a more realistic future, one based on the fact that almost 99 percent of what I’ve been paranoid about in the past never comes true.

Do nothing when you’re anxious.  Why did they call at 5 p.m. on a Friday night and say, “We HAVE to talk. Well, I guess you’re not there. Talk Monday?” Ugh! I hate that! Why 5 p.m.? What did they have to say? I should call her house line. I should write. I should drive up and visit (“Hey, just stopping by! So, uhh, what was up with that phone call?”). There is nothing that is ever so important it can’t wait. And if it was that important, then it’s a roadmap to you and not the situation. It’s an opportunity to say, “What about my life can be rearranged so that this one thing doesn’t throw me off so much? What things can I change?” And then have fun changing them.

Do nothing when you’re tired.  I was trying to figure out something on the computer the other day. It was both very technical and related to money. First it was 1 p.m. Then it was 6 p.m. Then, against all my rules for a “daily practice,” it was midnight. And I was no closer to figuring it out. I was tired. My eyes were blurry. I was taking ten-second naps on my computer. A week later I still haven’t figured out what I needed to figure out. But right then, because I had invested this time into my “learning” and I was tired, I wanted to keep going. My wife Claudia peeled me off the keyboard and marched me upstairs. Sleep hygiene is the best way to improve productivity in your life. Not beating your head against a computer.

There is nothing that is ever so important it can’t wait.

Do nothing when you want to be liked. How many times have I gone to a meeting? Taken a trip abroad? Made stupid investments? Written an article? Done did doing does? Just so someone would like me: a mother, a father, a friend, a reader, an investor, a customer, a stranger. Answer: a lot of times. Too many times. And it works. I put in the input (flattery, attention, false love) and get out the output (false love back). And continue to live the illusion in search of the dream, in avoidance of the nightmare, ignorant of the reality. Do I make any money this way? Do I feel a sense of accomplishment? In my 25 years of business: Never.

***

That’s my checklist. If I feel any of these conditions occurring — like a sniffle in the night that turns into a flu by morning — then I stop. What do I do when I stop? I do nothing. I read a book. I write. I watercolor. I take a walk. I sit and do absolutely nothing.

Think about when you’ve been happiest with your life (and if that’s not a reasonable goal then what is?). Is it during those moments when your thoughts have been frenetic and all over the place? Or has it been those moments when your thoughts have been calm – the depths of a peaceful ocean instead of a stormy surface. 

It’s when we are in touch with the magic of our silence that we find our inner creators and can change the universe. 

Comments (215)
  • http://josephratliff.com/ JosephRatliff

    Having done “something” in each of these 5 situations, I can fully attest that what you have written here is gold, James.

    Nicely done.

    • Christopher Healey

      Just shared this article with a friend of mine that has seen me do things in all of these situations. Wish i had read this article long ago, and at least once a week forward as a constant reminder.

  • clover

    This is fantastic, fantastic stuff. I need to read this every single day and learn it, live it, love it.

  • Giuliana Hazelwood

    This is actually some of the best advice I’ve ever read. Email makes it SO tempting to respond right.this.second. especially when you’re upset about something or feel like you NEED something from the email exchange. I find that Boomerang-ing or NudgeMailing messages helps me get things out of my head when I need a little bit of distance from something (instead of having the mail staring at me in my inbox, begging to be replied to).

  • Sarah Peterson

    Had to write this out on a sticky note and paste to my work computer. Excellent advice, thank you!!

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Sarah, that’s a good idea. I think I will do it also! Or maybe make a 5×5 grid.

      • Sarah Peterson

        A 5×5 is an excellent idea!

  • virgilstarkwell

    I guess everything that’s old is new again… I remember my father telling me about a sign he had in his office – a million years ago – that said ‘don’t just do something, stand there.’.

  • http://about.me/ryanjrhoades Ryan Rhoades

    Thanks, as always.

  • Barney Stacher

    Nicely written. Breathe deeply and smile, take a walk and listen to music, Reset and Recenter. Nothing is an emergency unless the health and welfare of your children/loved ones is at risk.

  • Tee Jay Sweet

    Wow! This really struck a chord with me and I am going to make a few sticky note reminders myself. It’s as if you picked my brain and found a simple solution. I am very much appreciative. 🙂

  • andrei chesler

    exceptionally well put. good advice!

  • EmoBein .

    ” In Politics, sometimes when you have no Power, the best thing to do is delay. ” – MAD MEN
    #Corollary

  • http://kimberlydhouston.com/ Kimberly

    Doing nothing is an art and a practice. I try to remind myself that the ego is really what pushes me to work when tired, angry, fearful, anxious, or when I want to be liked. Just the selfish ol’ insecure ego. Meanwhile, the soul says, there is nothing to do. And sometimes it says, “instead of working, why don’t you make a grilled cheese sandwich and read your favorite book?” I want to honor that calling more often. : )

    • http://www.socialdon.com/ Noel Gill

      You are so right. Have you seen the movie Eat Pray Love? When Elizabeth Gilbert goes on a trip in it to Italy and she says I feel so guilty about my vacation, the Italians tell her of the phrase, dolce far niente- The sweetness of doing nothing. Okay, even though this is not entirely in context with what you are talking, but I think we get far too competitive or proactive at times.

      • http://kimberlydhouston.com/ Kimberly

        Yes, I’ve seen the movie, and I’ve read the book at least 3 times so far. True! I forgot about the scene you mention about the Italian phrase “Dolce far niente” — love that! Thanks for the reminder, I think I’ll write that on a sticky note and put it on my computer. : )

      • http://www.socialdon.com/ Noel Gill

        That would be nice! Will help you sit out on the things that compel and drive you. I think it is okay to do nothing when angry. I have learnt this the hard way!

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Yes, it is definitely a practice. It’s an every day practice. I can see it when I cross the street in NYC during Christmas. Maybe a hundred people on one corner staring at a hundred people on another corner and they are all about to merge.

      Everyone’s eyes are glazed while they are thinking of the past and future. Nobody is thinking about the current moment and the beauty that can be found right there. This would be productive use of nothing as opposed to “time traveling”.

      What I try to do is look at the rooftops. Often in a city the rooftops is where the architect got to “play” for awhile. With gargoyles and flourishes and gardens and so on. Looking up at the sky often keeps me grounded in the moment.

      • http://kimberlydhouston.com/ Kimberly

        Aha — great point. I lived in Manhattan for a few years in the early 90’s and I was always just head down, go-go-go, get to the destination, seldom look up. But I did look up to notice rooftop gargoyles and flourishes occasionally, though not nearly often enough!

  • http://about.me/nead NeadReport

    You had me at, “I got an email at 5 in the morning that made me angry. It pressed every button. It accused. It threatened. It cc-ed people. It attempted to make me feel guilt. It attempted to make me feel fear…”

    • http://www.socialdon.com/ Noel Gill

      Yes, I love the starting of your post. It just got me to reading it until the very end. And then, “nothing is ever so important that it cannot wait”, did the same trick too.

      I am the kind of a person who obsesses a lot about work and I think this piece pretty much convinced me to do otherwise now. Let’s see how much practical I can get about it too now. Haha.

  • Sylvia Rytarowska

    Easier said than done :-). And I totally agree with what Kimberly said: it’s an art and a practice. This is exactly what I need right now, so I probably need to learn a new habit: to stop in the middle of an internal agitated babble and cool down. Perhaps, I’d have to notice myself being in that state and then act on it. I think it would also be useful to be able to trigger this behavior in some way, so it’s automatic. Like maybe pinching yourself or sth. like that. I like the idea of post-its or quotes, but they’re not always there to notice.

  • http://www.highperformancelifestyle.net/ Kosio Angelov

    Awesome article James! I would also like to add “do nothing when you are HUNGRY”. It might not seem like a big deal but when the blood sugar drops (especially for women) things are dramatically different when compared to when you are full of energy after a good meal (or snack).

    • Adrian

      Hell, just add “Don’t attempt communicate during PMS”

    • Sasha

      I agree with the hunger thing, though there’s zero scientific evidence to say that women’s blood sugar drops lower or faster than men when hungry. You might be thinking of how glucose levels after a 90 min workout will be lower for women?

      • http://www.highperformancelifestyle.net/ Kosio Angelov

        Sasha, I am not saying blood sugar drops at a different rate for men and women. I just think women tend to be affected by the drop more than men, simply based on personal experience of course, haven’t looked into the scientific side of things.

  • juanjo

    Awesome and true… but tell the boss 😉

  • Franz-Lorenz Wagner

    Thank You for that great hint, James!

  • Qutaiba Sabah Mahawili

    Very well said James, a great reminder and puts things into perspective.

  • TrueMiszou

    Wu wei. It’s the art of doing nothing, a taoist concept. Or the art of laziness as I like to call it. I first heard about it in Creative Mischief by Dave Trott. That book is amazing.

    Either way some of those examples were great. I’m very familiar with those emails.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I will read that book. I had never heard of it. Thank you. And you are right, it is the concept of Wu wei. I will add one thing which is that it is the art of taking action by doing nothing.

      • http://cameronleecrowhurst.com/ Cameron Lee Crowhurst

        It is such a great book. Yeah, action by inaction. It’s nice to have permission to do nothing sometimes.

  • AmandahBlackwell

    Great post James!

    I can relate to “Do nothing when you’re angry” and “Do nothing when you want to be liked.” The former can lead you down a rabbit hole filled with trouble. And the latter can leave you feeling empty and hollow. Sometimes, you may slide back into an old pattern (I have), but hopefully you recognize the pattern and get out.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      That’s a good way to put it. A rabbit hole. You see it often on the Internet in message groups, discussion boards, etc. It might start off positive but then a negative comment gets a provoked response and suddenly the entire community goes down that rabbit hole and ruins what couldve been a valuable thread. It’s a very hard discipline to not let that happen.

  • Matt Heady

    James you are everywhere! When are we gonna play some ping pong?

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Today! But I have no ping pong table and don’t know where you are.

      • Adrian

        Table Tennis ppl. Don’t disrespect the game! 🙂

      • Matt Heady

        FL so a 1,500 mi pre-game warm up from NY

  • Adrian

    Absolutely love it.

    Here’s the bad news. You had me up to the very last section. Doing ‘absolutely nothing’ is not walking, writing, painting, reading a book or I could add, ‘Hitting the punching bag in the basement’.
    What you mean to say is do nothing to DIRECTLY COMMUNICATE. Directly is important because painting something may turn out good enough to portray later on to others which would indirectly communicate how you felt at the time you painted the piece. Note that you said to write, after you said not to write an email.

    Why this frivolous retort? I am a musician. Until you explained what you meant by ‘nothing’, I was in doubt about whether I could go write a song in the studio. After all, thats where my anger, paranoia, fear always goes. I thought I just had to sit still.

    So my fundamental point here is that, though I love your post, and the deathly accurate list it draws, the cure is misleading.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      You and I are the same. Often I write a post when something inside of me is bothering me. Art comes out of those things you pull from deep inside. THe things that can’t get out otherwise. Our normal emotional “digestive” system can handle a lot. But sometimes we need art to digest the hard things.

      That said: don’t use art as a weapon that you aim at whoever you are angry or paranoid about. Art should be used to really digest. To make something that was unhealthy inside of you, healthy. So I am not saying “do nothing” but sometimes you just can’t digest something that is still being processed.

      • Adrian

        You COULD be right – my hesitation is due to the immenseness that is Eminem.

      • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

        I get it. And Eminem is a huge influence. But I still think he channeled his anger rather than aimed it (at Kim, for instance). His revenge fantasy (as an example) was more how we all have these fantasies rather than a call-to-action for himself against his ex. That’s how we all related and bought his album, propelling him to superstar status.

      • Adrian

        When ever his an artistic representation of emotions – action?

      • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

        The action is the art itself.

      • lafemmeartiste

        Please restate this, as I don’t want to guess, and need a bit of clarity. Can you help me understand, Adrian?

      • Adrian

        How classy 🙂 I admire that.
        Sure! James said:
        “don’t use art as a weapon that you aim at whoever you are angry or paranoid about”

        and drew a line between
        * an artist channeling his anger through song (aimed at many) • and aiming it at the trigger of his anger calling it a call-to-action (aimed at one)

        My point is simple. It is always aimed at one in the creative process. It is the distribution of that creation which makes it public. I drew Eminem as a reference, apparently one of his fav artists. He excused Eminem with this ‘line’ – which I don’t agree with.

  • thathang3

    Well it seems there aren’t much situations left where I can actually do something.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Haha. All the better. More time to enjoy a nice walk.

  • Sinan

    Good advices

  • http://soundcloud.com/eren-gazioglu Eren Gazioglu

    That post sums up my thoughts and rules on productivity and study. Thank you for re-teaching me the concept james! Pretty much appreciated.

  • rollermt

    Sometimes I can catch myself getting ready to write “that” email. I say to myself, “Wait five minutes, do something else, come back to it.” It’s a good way to force myself to “do nothing” in the short term, which can become long term. The conflict gets resolved on its own, or I cool down and think of a good way to address it. It’s a little like creativity: taking a break can often help you come up with a good solution, and sometimes doing nothing is that solution.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Good strategy. Often, when it is hard to say “No” the next best thing is to say “Delay myself”. Whether its 24 hours or even five minutes, the results are always better than doing “NOW!” instead of “NO!”

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