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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)
  • Rafi

    I read “nothing ” accept the head lines. and i understood. awesome article

  • Grant Barber

    You know….you’re right.

  • Weezey

    On the subject of “sleep hygiene” I would add that no phones or email devices should be in the room at 5am if you’re resting unless it’s an iPod to soothe you to sleep – in which case the email should be in “do not disturb” mode at that time, no?

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I agree with this. All phone, ipads, anything to check email etc should ideally be a full floor away from you.

  • Cyriel Kortleven

    Very nice. I didn’t want to answer and do nothing but … yeah.

  • http://zoowerkz.blogspot.com/ roy armstrong

    yess

  • Bradley Barks

    right on, James – great reminder; it’s all about the balance of yin and yang, baby! (positive, negative, doing, non-doing, etc)

  • Singh

    tachenda

  • Romain

    WELL WRITTEN , and that sentence is awesome :

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

  • julieconnelly@me.com

    I totally loved this and couldn’t agree more. I had a similar problem to the 5pm friday evenng call. All the calls I take are monitored and we had to do a 1-1 on a friday evening. Instead of praising the fact that I had taken 500 calls they emphasised the dozen I missed> I was so annoyed and it went through my head all during the w/end. I have since told them how annoying this was. I take this advice myself. leave it leave it leave it…

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      It’s hard. I hate it. I remember bringing home a report card to my dad. All As and one B+. He looked at it and turned to me, “Why did you get this B+”.

      Ultimately, we find our gratification inside of ourselves. It will never be given by others. To hope for that is a path to unhappiness. If not in one situation then in the next. But if you always know that inside of your heart is the perfection you desired, the nobody else’s knives can scratch you.

  • Aamir Shahzad

    I love this article… well written 🙂

  • Samah El Hakim

    “Time is the morphine drip that soothes the anger.”…
    Glad I’m already doing nothing too in lots of these situations!
    Brilliant article, thanks! 🙂

  • http://brian-hermelijn.deviantart.com/ Brian Hermelijn

    This was such a good read. Thank you for sharing your insight, James! 😀

  • ultravioletiris

    This could be the best self help article EVER WRITTEN!

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Best comment to any of my articles ever written. Thank you.

  • Mary-Ann

    doing nothing in these frenetic times is a form of meditation…it suspends the bind of constant activity

  • http://www.virtualidstudios.com David

    Doing something to be liked and doing something to invest in a relationship are different and I feel like that should have been mentioned as some might not discern the difference. I like how Rand Fishkin talks about manufacturing serendipity – being nice to people around you and eventually the favor gets returned (ex. karma), sometimes big time. Like the “4 million dollar phone call.” (google it)

  • Sonny Melendrez

    Brilliant, thoughtful and insightful. I almost didn’t comment.

    • timmmahhhh

      I usually don’t either but I agree the article was so well done it was worth our two cents!

  • Terry Padilla

    Oh so true.

  • Paulo Renato

    Doing nothing because there’s nothing to do, all it’s done. We just have to go with the flow of life. Being present in the now to embrace whatever comes, and it will be ok for us.
    http://paulorenatoconsultor.blogspot.pt

  • Melanie Kissell

    Way to say it, James! I leaned in on every word … but I didn’t lean into my computer and fall asleep. Your message deserves to travel across the interwebz. 🙂

  • Rodrigo Emanuel

    Well, I kinda disagree on “Do nothing when you’re angry”. Sometimes, you have to open the valve and let the anger go. Building anger up will eventually make you loose your mind.

    I have some punch bags at home so, when I start to feel angry as !&#*%&, I throw some punches at it, get tired, relax and then go back to what I was doing. It helps a lot! 😀

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      It’s tricky. Anger compels us to action. But realize that anger is not a real emotion. It is a form of fear. Understanding the form of that fear and understanding why we are afraid moves the responsibility for solving our problems back to us.

      Doing this analysis is best done in silence. It is inside of yourself that you open the valve and begin the true understanding of what is there.

      • Rodrigo Emanuel

        Well, I was analysing my coment and I realized that it has more to do about “releasing endorphines” (after you punch the !@#%!¨& out of that punch bag :D). That helps you to relax and focus.

        Nice point of view though. 😀

      • avedail

        Seems that so many of our emotions are rooted in either fear or love.

  • http://j-ouellette.com/ Llyane @ FrenchOnSkype

    very clever, thank you, James!
    ~ Llyane

  • http://www.treavioli.com/ Treavor Wagoner

    I almost thought that if I followed this list I would be a bump on a log, but then I realized “doing nothing” is actually doing something, whether you’re getting your mind right or focusing your energy on something more positive like painting or going for a walk, etc. Good article.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      That’s great to know you are not alone. None of us are. We each wake up ready to do battle with the discomforts and uncertainties of the day ahead. How we respond to those uncertainties is what will later define us. But the uncertainties are always there.

  • kitten

    I thought I was the only one working with anger and paranoia on a daily basis. Thank you for helping me to see that I am not alone, and not to let these things trigger responses that just don’t work.

  • Guest

    Well James I

  • http://about.me/ajarn Ajarn Donald

    Well James I not going to do just nothing! This is a great read and job well done.

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