In Taoism, there's a concept known as Wu Wei - The art of 'non-doing' or 'actionless action'. It might sound like some New Age buzzword, but the idea has been around for thousands of years, and variations are found within several wisdom traditions.
Our modern minds might be more familiar with the phrase, "being in the zone". It describes the mindset of being focused and at peace while navigating a challenging task or performance. We see it in athletes just before their 100m sprint, or in surgeons during a complex procedure. In our everyday lives, many of us experience this state when we're driving, or putting together a presentation deck. Pianists who "get lost" in the music know the feeling of Wu Wei: There's no thinking, no conscious effort - the ideal performance just flows after all the inessentials fall away.
Today, millions of people feel stressed at work and in their personal lives. There seem to be so many demands and so little time to meet them. We're told that we should be constantly learning, continuously growing, striving, and grinding. On top of that, we work hard at our relationships and friendships, and even our hobbies and interests become measurements for improvement. Oh...and we need to keep in mind the importance of self-care - we should be top performers at that, too.
But...it turns out that a little bit of neglect here and there is good for us. The word neglect has some negative connotations: fail to look after; fail to care for; fail to prepare, and so on. But it can also simply mean, to leave alone.
We can see the benefits of occasional neglect almost everywhere. To maximise our fitness, instructors will tell us to have "rest days" because if we over-train, our muscles become fatigued and prone to injury. When we rest, it gives them time to repair and grow...we get more results. Parents who occasionally "leave alone" their children to solve problems on their own (rather than constantly intervening) see them build resilience, develop independence, and improve their academic performance. On the other hand, intensive parenting can lead to a whole range of issues as the child grows up. Generally, doing less leads to healthier, more productive outcomes.
Some might be asking, "But how does doing less in everyday life lead to doing more?" We sometimes hear that being busy isn't the same as getting things done. A person can have 50 things on their plate at the office, and yet it's the person who's focused on five things who makes the most progress. From employees' well-being and job satisfaction to the organisation's progress and growth, it makes sense.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the 1990s, the company he founded was failing. Part of the problem was that the company was trying to do too much, including producing different versions of the same product. The incredible turnaround for the ailing tech giant was initiated when Jobs streamlined the products. After his top managers struggled to answer his simple question, "Which ones do I tell my friends to buy?", Jobs cut the number of Apple products by 70 per cent.
The notion of "do more, achieve more" is a troublesome attitude that, like many pithy lines, lacks substance. Someone working 40 hours a week can achieve more than someone working 80 busy hours if they're making wiser use of their time.
Listen to Podcast: Raise Your Game: Being Busy Is Not A Sign Of Productivity
Source: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
The trouble comes when we're inclined to do more without stopping to ask "Why?" New Year's Resolutions are a prime example: a time when people can reel off lists of goals and objectives for the year, which often don't last beyond February. Instead of resolving "to read 5 books every month", the motivation might last if the resolution is changed from a numbers-based goal to a values-based goal that becomes the intention to "learn something every month that helps me become more confident."
In his excellent book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown provides a three-step process for doing less and achieving more:
- Explore what activities feel essential vs. non-essential.
- Eliminate activities that are non-essential.
- Make space and create sustainable habits around activities you deem to be essential.
This can translate into making small changes or significant improvements. For example, over a typical workday, how often do we check emails or reply to non-urgent messages straight away? This might feel like productive work; however, it takes away from what we really need to spend time on, and we feel this whenever there's a sense of being tired and yet we barely got through the important stuff we had planned.
Whatever you're doing - at work or elsewhere - ask yourself, "Am I doing the most important, meaningful thing right now? If not, what's holding me back? What am I spending time on that can wait - or be discarded altogether?" When we "do" with conscientiousness (doing something deliberately and thoroughly), we enter into that state of flow, of being in the zone. We become absorbed in the "doing" and give all our energy to it, which means we finish what we're doing sooner, and to a higher quality.
Recently, a friend told me that she was struggling to read more books, even though she has downloaded so many books to her phone and it was something she enjoyed. After 10 or so pages, it became a struggle to keep the momentum going. It turned out that reading time was also checking email time and scrolling through social media time and watching videos time. It's no wonder that reading more had become a struggle - there was so much attention being given to inessential things that could wait. Once the realisation was made and the multi-tasking stopped, the reading became much more enjoyable and she gained lots of useful insights thanks to her increased focus.
Trying to meet the challenges of seemingly endless demands with our finite resources can often lead to us try so hard to fit everything in that we end up getting a lot of nothing much done. Stripping away some, if not all, of what matters least to us helps free up our time and energy to focus more on what's important by doing less - and feeling better as a result.
Reposted with permission.
This article is also available in Chinese.
Enjoyed the article? Check out the video below on "Unwavering Focus" by Dandapani on TEDxReno!