You’re Quite Something If You Can Do Nothing

Have you ever been to a kid’s sporting event? Whether soccer, hockey, or even individual sports, a common theme seems to be coaches and parents exhorting young athletes. Shouts from the sidelines offer instruction, tactics, and general encouragement. Do the kids hear these messages? Are they paying attention? Even if the messages are heard, do they help or distract? I have some friends that grew up playing hockey together. They continue to recall a parent of a teammate that was the most vocal. A well intended dad would spend more energy shouting at his son, Sodie, to “skate, Sodie, skate” than the kid would skating. My friends today, more than three decades later, continue to use the phrase to make fun of each other when trying to encourage an outcome over which they have no control. For example, when golfing and a putt seems to be too softly struck, they will yell at their ball, “skate, Sodie, skate.” The kids knew the words were worthless. Deep down parents and coaches know it doesn’t serve and make a difference, yet we’re compelled to do something. We can’t help ourselves in our enthusiasm to “help.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just well-intended parents and coaches eagerly contributing assistance. Some of us are imbued with impatience. Our problem isn’t inaction. We have a bias for action and are wired for jumping in. We’re driven to move. The last thing we want to do is stand around with our hands stuffed in our pockets. In spite of our past lobbying in favor of a bias for action, there may be downsides to doing. Acting without thinking can lead to sinking. We can mistakenly dial 911 when we should be dialing 411. Most of the time, we aren’t facing hair on fire, flee for the exits, end of the world emergencies. Instead, we’re facing circumstances which we need to manage. Our ability to navigate our days may be improved where we hold back our eagerness to react and reach for clarity by seeking information and context.

As parents we can jump in “helping” our kids figure out what to do. Too often we just do things for them instead of taking the longer immediate route of teaching. We do the same as managers. We see our role as having the answers and providing solutions as opposed to pushing our charges to be more independent. Unfortunately, we even have this bias with respect to ourselves. We abandon a perfectly good course of action in favor of change because things may not be progressing fast enough. In all of these cases, we’re robbing someone of the ability to learn, improve, and grow their independence. We’re trading short term struggle for longer term pain. Interventions may make things quicker and easier now but lead to longer term limitations. Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson write in You Can Change Other People, “One of the downsides of giving advice or solving someone else’s problem is that they lose out on the future benefits of their current struggle.”

“Humans suffer from what behavioral scientists call the commission bias, or the tendency to err on the side of action over inaction. If we don’t see results, we get impatient and feel a strong urge to do something—anything—to expedite our progress,” writes Brad Stulberg in The Practice of Groundedness. Our default to do something is also referred to as the Intervention Bias. Josh Kaufman in the Personal MBA describes our desire to act writing, “Intervention Bias makes us likely to introduce changes that aren’t necessary in order to feel in control of a situation.” We see a situation as a problem and react. Our reaction is reflected as an intervention of some kind. Consider many policies in your business. Were some of them created as the result of a problem encountered? Kaufman notes, “When something bad happens, it’s tempting to ‘fix’ the situation by installing additional layers of limitations, reporting, and auditing. The result isn’t an improvement in throughput or efficiency: it’s an increase in communication overhead, waste, and unproductive bureaucracy.” We’re acting because inaction in the face of a problem looks like ignoring the issue. It seems to reflect apathy or, gasp, incompetence.

The Precautionary principle is an idea that’s intended to incent action. Arising in the 70s in the context of environmental issues like sea pollution, the principle appears to be an argument in favor of aggressive action. It suggests even though we may not know with 100% the cause and extent of our current challenge, we have a problem and action is imperative. It urges do something instead of doing nothing. It is based on the assumption that the current situation is a problem that will only worsen with inaction. Decision makers are encouraged to assume the worst of where they are. We have a problem, we must act. The precautionary principle suggests that as bad as things may be, doing nothing is making things worse. Therefore, do something.

Unfortunately, where is it again that a road paved with good intentions leads? Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, reminds us, “No matter how bad a situation is, you can always make it worse.” Whatever problem we’re facing now, even if assuming the worst, doesn’t warrant a wild acceptance of something new. If we’re assuming the worst about where we are and the best about what we’re about to do, we can create much bigger issues. All steps to help should be done cautiously with the full recognition that we’re charting unknown waters and could make things worse. Hadfield offers, “Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them. When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy.”

Doing nothing can be incredibly difficult as it’s so counter to our culture and instincts. Renown caterer, Rochelle Myer, gives us the quote, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Late in 2020, a German ad encouraged viewers to stay home in a humorous way. You don’t need to speak German to appreciate the humor in the video. An older gentleman looking back on 2020 reflects, “The fate of this country lay in our hands. So, we mustered all our courage and did what was expected of us, the only right thing. We did nothing…. Our couch was the frontline and our patience was our weapon.” The commercial is funny because we don’t typically pair bravery with inaction. Medals aren’t given out for sitting on the sidelines. We’ve been peppered with slogans like fortune favors the bold or he who hesitates is lost. Consider, he who hesitates isn’t necessarily lost, they give themselves a chance to look at the map and figure out their next steps. Hesitating allows a better assessment of where we are, what the current context is, and then next steps can be developed.

As beginners in a paragliding class we were taught to work to overcome our instinct to intervene. The parachute, known as a pilot’s wing, is designed by people smarter than us in order to fly. Our primary job as its pilot is to stay out of its way and let it do what it is supposed to do. If an issue is encountered, the first step that’s taught is to do nothing. Observe. To avoid overreacting, work on not reacting. If unsure of what specifically to do, do nothing. The wing will sort itself out. Problems are made catastrophic by pilot action doing the wrong things at the wrong times. We can do more by doing nothing. In The Practice of Groundedness, Brad Stulberg, offers, “often the best thing we can do is nothing—staying the course, tweaking as we go, and letting things unfold in their own time.”

There’s a joke about the general ineffectiveness of cold medicines that offers something like my doctor told me I could take two tablets of this miracle cold medicine daily and my cold symptoms would go away in a week. Or, I could do nothing and the symptoms would subside in seven days. Doing nothing can be the same as doing something. Whether a physio therapist, a general practitioner, or a chiropractor, the most commonly prescribed medicine is rest. The go-to, default prescription that many health care practitioners have is “go home, rest, and call me if it gets worse after a week or two.” Scott Carney writes in The Wedge, “Illness tends to go away over time whether there’s a medical intervention or not.” Doing nothing, is, in fact, quite something.

If your gut says go, try to train your brain to say no, let’s slow. Sure, this is easier said than done. As artist and author Jenny Odell puts it, “Nothing is harder to do than nothing.” It takes tremendous self-restraint to not pull the trigger in trying circumstances. It’s the ultimate in self-control. Doing nothing, in this sense, can be seen as an activity involving great strength. Ironically, it reflects the highest form of doing. We discuss the power of pausing in an earlier article. Being ok with doing nothing implies a form of acceptance. Specifically, it reflects humility. Doing nothing means I may not have the answers right now. The paragons of peak performance are able to overwrite this urge to act. This message of pausing prior to doing is taught to pilots of all kinds. US Military Pilots are taught and practice the OODA acronym. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Acting is the last thing that is done. Three specific steps are pursued prior to acting.

Even in less stressful circumstances, our desire to help can hurt. Sometimes the best way to help is to stay out of the way. I fail you when I make things easy for you. We should offer support before service. Communicate your confidence in other’s ability to make decisions for themselves. Encourage their independence. Acknowledge the challenge of choices but communicate this is one of life’s great privileges. Don’t lift the weight for others and expect them to become stronger. Don’t carry people across the finish line. Pause before you seek applause. Our desire to help may be more about validating ourselves than it is enabling and empowering others. Serve by standing down. Michael Bungay Stanier writes in The Advice Trap, “I want you to be lazy about jumping in and solving other people’s problems for them. Just stop it.”

We can begin by learning to appreciate the benefits of doing nothing coupled with the risks of action. From general awareness, we can, during our pausing, consider what might happen if we did nothing. We don’t want to assume that doing nothing results in a worst case. In The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman writes, “The best way to correct for Intervention Bias is to examine what scientists call a “null hypothesis”: examining what would happen if you did nothing or assumed the situation was an accident or error.” From considering what may result if no action is pursued, we can then give more rigorous thought to evaluating the downsides of any intervention.

In medical ethics the idea of equipoise can be considered as a counterweight to the precautionary principle. Clinical equipoise suggests we be cautious about interventions as we may not be able to forecast their impact. Doing nothing is needed in order to reflect on the consequences of action. It’s also needed to encourage small interventions. Nibble away at tackling an issue instead of forging fully forward. Julie Ponesse in My Choice writes, “the idea that there is genuine uncertainty within the expert medical community over whether a treatment will be beneficial, and this uncertainty allows for a kind of humility needed to be “on the lookout” for emergent harms from the treatment in question.” Equipoise follows from a posture of humility. Humility comes from acknowledging that no matter how smart and talented we may think we are, we live in a world where the universe of what we don’t understand far exceeds the little sphere of knowledge that we have. There’s a lot more we don’t know than do. Therefore, be careful. Acting with hubris or the best of intentions or a sense of urgency can be dangerous. Yes, we want to help. Perhaps, we want to make a difference, an impact even. Yet, sometimes, an impact leaves a mess. This implies that the first step is defining what help means. Any intervention should be measured against its ability to generate a desired outcome. If benefits of an action can’t objectively be determined in advance, then inaction is a more than reasonable option.

In Paid to Think, David Goldsmith writes, “We’ve become quick to reward people for doing rather than thinking, mistaking busyness for progress and assuming that inactivity equals regression. As a person who is paid to think, however, your best contribution to your organization is most often not physical busyness but rather the activity that takes place in your mind beforehand. To avoid impeding yourself and your organization, you must not leap to action before truly understanding a situation or knowing your best options prior to making decisions.” Goldsmith goes further noting, “Obviously, time is money and what got you to where you are is your ability to act and achieve results. However, there’s an excellent chance that you’ve rushed to action on numerous occasions without having made (or even entertained) the best decision you could have. Even a seemingly benign press of a “send” key can set off a domino effect of costly missteps, forcing you to unnecessarily overspend resources without achieving your intended outcomes. In other words, there are costs of not thinking and there are rewards for great decision making.” Goldsmith sums up the importance of avoiding action writing, “the better able a leader is to think through an idea before committing to action, the greater the chances an organization has to achieve higher returns, all while mitigating risk and reducing expense.”

If we are warming up to the idea that we should pause before pursuit, what should we be doing in our pause? Before rushing to act, consider evaluating your proposed action against the following acronym: PEN where PEN represents Proportional, Effective, and Necessary. Ask of your intervention three questions: Is it Proportional? Will it be Effective? Is it Necessary?

Proportional is assessing the magnitude of the issue at hand and ensuring the response is in line with the problem. This is the “don’t make the cure worse than the disease” decision. How big is the problem we’re facing? Are we sure? Are we able to clearly define the scope of our circumstances? Are we creating a large scale reaction to a modest issue? Alternately, are we responding in a way that won’t make much of a difference? Are we pouring a bucket of water on a forest fire? We need to seek a balance between problem and our response. What’s the cost of the problem against the cost of the solution? If clarity over the scope of the problem and the reach of the solution is limited, our posture should be to pause and resist jumping in.

We then must forecast the probability of the effectiveness of any proposed intervention. Evaluating effectiveness answers the question “Does it help?” How do you know (or how will you know?) What prediction are you making? How will you define success?

If we can’t objectively define what success looks like, we have to broach the third area of considering whether our proposed intervention is necessary. Is there a possibility that we’re making things worse? Are there other issues unrelated to the original problem that we may be creating by implementing our solution? What other things may be derailed, broken, impacted as a result? Are there steps we can take to moderate our effort to manage a situation in order to limit unintended consequences?

How confident are you in your answers to each of these questions? How objective is your position? Based on your review are you committed to the change initiative? Can you insert check-in points against which you can review progress (or lack thereof) against the plan? Are you willing and able to define specific go-no go checkpoints along the way to sustain progress, change approach, or revert back? All of these kinds of questions should be considered prior to acting. We can lean on Elvis and acknowledge that, “Only fools rush in.” Acting is addictive. It’s enticing to do. Doing nothing can feel like the hardest thing. Let’s work to be cautious in our commitment and use the PEN framework to rigorously consider the impact of any change effort prior to acting.