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Big Ideas

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. 

More Posts by James Altucher

Comments (215)
  • biswashree

    What would you like to achieve if you could be more productive?

    • Java Developer

      I would rather be happy than productive. 🙂

  • Mindy Lee

    James, it really makes me jealous to see you good at so many things. Your writing is like mental magic for my body. I feel good things from your writing even when it relates to a bad outcome. You provide clarity, truth, and most of all, HOPE! You are the bomb diggity!

  • Richard Savill

    A really good book on this subject is ‘Less’ By Marc Lesser. It’s about achieving more by doing less.

  • Marilaura Muriedas

    This article was really nice!

  • Luke Rojas

    Just Great.

  • Anthony

    I’m blown away. Your points truly just got better and better as you continued writing. Great work.

  • Nadiia Nadiia

    I absolutely agree with author of the article because the topic is so interest and important especially at present.
    I think that the first four ways are correct and my own life experience confirms this.
    You should do noting when you’re angry, when you’re paranoid, when you’re anxious and when you’re tired. The results of your work will be not satisfactory. More over you spend more time then usually. And at last you will rework everything.
    But I don`t agree with the last way “do nothing when you want to be liked”. Everyone forms his first opinion basing on appearance and own liking. That’s why you will not be productive because nothing will change without your actions.

  • Gerold Blazek

    I like the list but I’ll add : When depressed, do something. Action will often get you out of the blues.

  • Xgenei

    Ha ha! I get it! Let me just add comment number 192 and feel a sense of self-loathing and dread. No – okay, okay, I do have something to contribute – and I’ll copy it and add it to my own hay field…, right? Hey – at least I won’t wind up with my head asleep on the keyboard (no one to wake me up!) on this one.
    I have – well, you said it, healthy fear. And at the same time I do plenty of nothing of what any sensible human being says that I should be doing. But by doing the underground and the infrastructure like a madman (trying to universalize the tale here) – I find that I am finally ready to follow best practices (get a job, make contact(s), run crowd funded projects, publish a book, and whatever lily pad I have to be on along the way….)
    So … that’s not really doing nothing – but damn if it doesn’t feel like it….
    It’s starting to feel … good.

  • Curious&Perturbed

    What do you do when you feel all 5 things all the time?

    • vardarac


  • Glutnix

    I would agree: put everything you want to do aside when you’re feeling those ways. But I believe it’s better to choose to do SOMETHING, and to something positive towards RESOLVING your anger, paranoia, anxiety, tiredness and/or loneliness.

  • Texas Nexus by way of Austin

    Works for me …

  • Jim

    If you live in a city, just get on a bicycle and ride around aimlessly. It’ll fix everything. If you live in the countryside, just move to a city.

    • BobButtons

      haha “just move” good one

  • Zaidi

    thank you for this important subject, which bears a direct relationship with the emotions, mind and feelings in our life, there is really much dictated, to a point, not to say almost nothing and silence. with this stress, anxiety, preoccupation., important is to master the time to serve as a guide to a better temperament.

  • lynn silva

    This article is in direct correlation with some research I’m doing on Graham Wallas and the 4 Stages of Productivity. The second stage is called the ‘Incubation Effect.’ In short, you put your conscious mind to sleep (it makes me wonder if that’s where the term ‘sleep on it’ comes from) and awaken your subconscious. The mind is designed to work things out in the subconscious. The more we use our subconscious, the more stable, successful, productive etc we become. There are times in life where we need to ‘sleep on it’ and await clarity. Whether it’s a big project at work, a school project, a personal disagreement, a writing piece or a fear…if we allow it to ‘incubate’ as Wallas proposes, it always brings clarity and solution. It also, in a way, still allows us to be productive even when we’re sleeping. ; ) As far as the aforementioned circumstances go, I truly believe that doing ‘nothing’ in our conscious mind, and really making an effort to tune into our subconscious mind is an amazingly productive way to live.

  • Lot

    Great article, thanks!

  • Erin

    Fantastic article.

  • Kroben

    Fantastic article! I love it! Unfortunately doing nothing when being in a particular state of mind might be a luxury for most of us… Personally what I do to become more productive in order to manage some time for myself is using the best tools for each work. For meeting notes and organization I use Beesy, for time management 30/30, for notes Evernote, etc. Like this I managed to take out 1h of rest per hour and I do nothing at all during this hour. I just sit at my office and think, sometimes even sleep. It is the best moment of the day and I’ve never been so productive!

  • Mike Lammers

    Interesting because from a psychological perspective it’s the choice we have between becoming reactive or not. And what do we (try to) teach our children? Becoming engulfed within and as our minds is like allowing ourselves a trip on drugs when we have to drive safely down the mountain. Doing nothing is also an action and within that I allow myself to observe myself as my mind going haywire. A route less taken. Who wants to see him or herself as these automated patterns we copied from people around us as children? Doing nothing in absolute awareness requires a lot of self discipline. And that’s why these are very interesting point to ponder on.

  • Jeff O

    There is a guy that I did work directly for who is always frantically in crisis mode. His desk and office are covered in work (always) and it will never be clear. He runs around from one thing to another in a state of frenzy, hypo and completely unaware of what’s going on around him. If you see him in the morning and simply greet him with a hello, his response is, too busy, cant talk now. Well guess what, I didn’t want to have a conversation with you. I was simply being polite. So I stopped greeting him in the morning. Did he notice? Not one little bit.
    Is he productive? Absolutely not. He misses flights all the time because he went to the wrong airport, to busy to check his e-ticket I guess. He needs 2 assistants to work for him ( both very organised and competent ) because he couldn’t organise a raffle where only one ticket was sold if he tried. He is always late for, or completely misses meetings that he called. He is a clutterbug.
    The worst trait he has, is that he gets angry and aggressive because he thinks that others that don’t have their desks full of clutter,don’t want to work 16 hours a day or run around like a chicken minus the head, do not operate like him, are lazy and are not doing anything productive.
    He will scream at you for something that he see’s as wrong, but has nothing to do with you or your area of responsibility or authority, but you are the only person he standing with at the time. Tell you to fix it and when you do in a calm manner, screams again and tells you to keep your nose out of areas that aren’t directly related to you.
    He cannot just do nothing, he is not capable of turning off for even 5 minutes, he is a micro manager, he is border line psychotic, he is a clutter bug.
    Some people are just not wired to be able to turn off.

  • Olusola

    Doing nothing is a wisdom to those who can understand it. It is not a general thought, it is a personal understanding from right interpretation! It will make more evil of lazy people & more productive of the wise. A man of purpose must understand! Shalom. Nigeria in action

  • Soraya Darwish

    I agree with the do nothing approach. However the only issue is, what do you do when you have a deadline? I literally have full days where I’m feeling anxious for instance and end up feeling tired all day. There was a time where I couldn’t deliver the next day because of that, and it was hard to explain to my business partners.
    I guess sometimes we should just lie and say we’re not feeling well, period. No need to include details.

  • jamie

    Awesome article. I’m up in bed paranoid that something terrible is happening to be because I’m so happy. For example… being bipolar or that I’m dead stuck in some warp of time lol. Anyways, I think I have reached a stage of inner awareness. I been researching for years on how to over come addicition and how to get in touch with my self God. I think I have finally achieved but i am so paranoid that my brain has a tumor that’s causing me to be set on happy mode 24 seven. I am laughing at myself in my thoughts as I type. OK any advice. – Jamie

  • ATucker

    Why didn’t I think of these?????? Excellent article & so true!

  • Damion Smith

    Awesome read and great weay to start Monday!!! Thanks, sir!

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