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Why Doing Nothing Is Often Better Than Doing Something

A little while ago I decided to try an experiment. I was suffering from too much information. I never seemed to have enough time and I was finding it hard to separate the important from the irrelevant.

So here’s what I did. I didn’t look at a newspaper for 3 weeks and my television viewing and Internet use was close to zero over the same period. As a result my data deluge problem evaporated and my thinking about various issues shifted.

I suddenly had more time. I became less distracted, more relaxed and more reflective. I also became more alert to people within my immediate vicinity and I seemed to become a magnet for serendipitous encounters with information and ideas. In short, interesting things found me without me deliberately searching for them.

If you speak to management consultants they will use words like granularity to illustrate the importance of detail. This might be a good idea if your ambition is to fine tune a well oiled machine operating in a stable environment. But there is a danger of getting lost in the detail and my recent experience would seem to suggest that what we might need is much more of the opposite, especially if your aim is serious innovation.

What I think we need to do is focus more of the big picture, those tectonic plates that lie beneath our feet, but which have become largely invisible due to our fixation with daily minutiae. For example, in my view the media has become too obsessed with immediacy and so-called news over careful analysis. There is literally no time to think, or to create the conditions in which people will be forced to think deeply, when we are plugged into live news feeds, status updates, friendship requests and Google alerts 24/7.

One of my serendipitous conversations last week was with someone in Sydney who observed that holidays were once places where employees switched off and relaxed. This in turn enabled people to return to work refreshed. Home served much the same purpose. However, what seems to have occurred recently is that people are being forced to use their holidays to catch-up with work and to do the kind of deep thinking that is increasingly impossible at work. As a result people have next to no down time. They are tired all the time because they never switch off or disconnect from work and this is impacting not only the quality of thinking and decision-making but also relationships. It is also making people ill.

So what’s the solution? In my case a mixture of control, alt and delete. I am going to get rid of various alerts, subscriptions and favourites and focus on a few select sources, most of which will be on paper in order to slow things down a little. I am also going to continue with my policy of being unavailable at certain times and of frequenting certain places where mobile communication is either not allowed or is blocked. Some people will call me a Luddite for doing this, but at least they won’t be able to call me up to tell me in person.

As for organizations, I think that they will eventually see the dangers inherent in too much busyness, especially Too Much Information and Too Much Connectivity. They will slowly see the importance of sometimes doing absolutely nothing and it will dawn on them that policies will need to be developed to either limit the amount of work that employees are allowed to take home or mandate a certain amount of vacation time. Looking out of more windows might help too.

About the author

Richard is co-founder of Essential (essential-design.com), a Boston-based design and innovation firm that specializes in products and services.



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