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Why doing nothing may sometimes be the best action of all

Why doing nothing may sometimes be the best action of all

Fresh research suggests our bias for action is emotional, not rational.

    An article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times “Business Day” section on March 1st, reporting on a study made by economist Ofer H. Azar at Ben-Gurion University of Negev in Israel, adds another dimension to the topic of the last article I wrote for Lifehack.org.

    In what I wrote then, I wondered whether our culture’s emphasis on getting things done — preferring action over time for thought or waiting to allow events to unfold further — was anything more than fashion. Now, it seems, there’s evidence that this tendency to want to do something is neither as practical, nor as rational, as you may think.

    How people make high-stakes decisions

    Mr. Azar is interested in a topic much in vogue with contemporary economists: how investors make high-stakes decisions. In classical economics, people are assumed to make rational, independent choices based on self-interest. It’s an assumption that makes for neatness, but it appears to be wide of the mark.

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    Rather than construct some artificial experiment, Azar decided to study professional soccer goalkeepers and how they deal with the toughest, highest-stakes decision they are forced to make on a regular basis: how to act to stop a penalty kick at goal.

    Faced with a player sending the ball towards them at 80 m.p.h. or more, the goalkeeper has only a fraction of a second to decide how to block the shot. It’s a fearful challenge: 4 out of 5 penalty kicks score a goal.

    By analyzing data on more than 300 kicks, the researchers calculated the action most likely to prevent a goal being scored. Surprisingly, it is standing in the center of the goal and doing nothing until the trajectory of the ball can be seen. This resulted in a 1 in 3 success rate — far higher than the average.

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    Yet goalkeepers almost never act in this way. They typically try to guess the ball’s direction before the player’s foot has actually made contact with it, diving left or right to try to be in the right spot when the ball arrives. Neither is a good option. Diving left resulted in success 14% of the time; diving right only 12.6%.

    Why then is it so common to act in a way that is even less successful than the average?

    Fearing censure more than failure

    The researchers suggest that the answer lies in the goalkeepers’ emotions and the response they meet from others after failing. By taking action — even if it’s neither rational nor likely to be successful — they can at least be seen to have done something.

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    If they stand and wait until the ball is kicked and then fail to stop it, they feel worse because of their inaction; and others are far more likely to criticize them for not appearing even to try. It’s better to try a poor action than try a better — but seemingly passive — response if both fail; even though the “inactive” response is more rational and based on a better likelihood of success.

    Others value action, even when it’s wrong

    In today’s business world, action is preferred over the alternatives and is more likely to result in forgiveness when a mistake is made. You can always say that you tried. The person who does nothing is doubly damned: once for the mistake and again for not “doing something.”

    This urge to action — to get things done — is more emotional than rational. “Wait and see” risks your credibility and reputation, even where it can be shown to be the optimal course.

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    “Wait and see” may serve you better than anything you can do right away

    Few, if any, business or career decisions must be made as instantly as a goalkeeper reacting to a penalty kick; all are more complex and dependent on the way external events turn out. Yet managers still face this constant urge to act, even when waiting to see what else may happen can be shown to improve the chances of success.

    It’s interesting that Warren Buffett, probably the world’s most famous and most successful investor, is famous for his inaction. He has even been known to apologize to shareholders in his company, telling them that profits would have been higher if he had spent his time in total idleness, instead of acting to invest their money. Looking to the long term, he ignores short-term ups and downs and simply waits to see what will happen.

    If you think about it, doing nothing is often the right thing to do. Jumping into any action before all the facts are in, or failing to allow events to unfold before fixing on a way to interpret them, is both foolish and irrational. That’s why slowing down can be so powerful in helping you to reach success; you’re less likely to make avoidable errors.

    Organizational and career implications

    Given our strong cultural bias towards action — almost any action — it’s not surprising organizations are filled with people who would far rather do anything than wait on events — even though this would increase the chances that whatever action they choose in the end — even if it remains to do nothing — will be a success. Few decisions in the world of work are made rationally or objectively, especially when emotions from triumph and elation to shame and humiliation are tied up in the outcome.

    Still, the next time you feel that you really ought to get something done, it might be sensible to wonder what is urging you forward. Is it really the rational need to produce an outcome, based on a clear grasp of what is needed; or is it that nagging voice that tells you waiting any longer will leave you open to the charge that you didn’t even try?

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    Last Updated on March 21, 2019

    11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

    11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

    Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

    You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

    But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

    To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

    It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

    “What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

    The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

    In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

    Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

    1. Start Small

    The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

    Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

    Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

    Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

    Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

    Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

    It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

    Do less today to do more in a year.

    2. Stay Small

    There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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    But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

    If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

    When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

    I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

    Why?

    Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

    The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

    Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

    3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

    No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

    There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

    What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

    Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

    This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

    This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

    4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

    When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

    There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

    Peter Drucker said,

    “What you track is what you do.”

    So track it to do it — it really helps.

    But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

    5. Measure Once, Do Twice

    Peter Drucker also said,

    “What you measure is what you improve.”

    So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

    For reading, it’s 20 pages.
    For writing, it’s 500 words.
    For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
    For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

    Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

    6. All Days Make a Difference

    Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

    Will two? They won’t.

    Will three? They won’t.

    Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

    What happened? Which one made you fit?

    The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

    No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

    7. They Are Never Fully Automated

    Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

    But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

    What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

    It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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    The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

    It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

    It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

    8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

    Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

    Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

    When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

    The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

    Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

    9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

    The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

    Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

    You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

    But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

    So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

    If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

    This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

    The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

    Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

    10. Punish Yourself

    Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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    I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

    It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

    You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

    No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

    The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

    But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

    11. Reward Yourself

    When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

    Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

    The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

    After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

    If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

    Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

    If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

    In the End, It Matters

    What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

    When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

    And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

    “Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

    Keep going.

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    More Resources to Help You Build Habits

    Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
    [2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
    [3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
    [4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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