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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 July 10, 2020

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

    More Tips to Conquer Time Wasters and Procrastination

     

    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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