The Art of Non-Doing

The Art of Non-Doing

Let me ask you… Do you feel guilty when you aren’t actively productive? Do you scroll on your phone while watching TV? Do you feel like no matter what you’re doing, you’re thinking about what else you should be doing?

If any of that is hitting a chord with you, I strongly encourage you to explore non-doing.

What is non-doing? For starters, it doesn’t mean doing nothing. Instead, it means doing what’s necessary in the circumstances; no more, no less. For many of us, it’s the “no more” part that we struggle with, but the “no less” part can bring its own set of challenges.

We are in a time where constant doing is what’s most validated. The always-on-call employee, the overworked parent, the exhausted student, the 24/7 leader… we know these aren’t healthy lifestyles, but we still hold them up as paragons of productivity and worthiness. The more productive someone is, the more worthy they are, and that’s just a terrible way to experience the world.

Non-doing is an antidote to the “always on” culture that we’ve enabled. It’s how you can start to reclaim your time, your energy, your relationships, and your joy.

In this article, we’ll explore:  

What is Non-Doing?

“Non-doing” is most commonly associated with the Taoist practice of wuwei, which can be translated as “in-extertion” or “effortless action.” 

In Taoism there’s an understanding of “tao” as the natural order of the Universe. This natural order creates a natural, organic flow of life. Wuwei is the practice of going with this flow rather than fighting against it.

Taoism is a Chinese belief system that goes back thousands of years, so it evolved during a time and place that would have looked very different from today’s western world.

Back then, people didn’t have smartphones in their pockets, spreadsheets to sift through, or overflowing inboxes. But they did have plenty of things that would have created urgency. Things like droughts, wars, famines and epidemics. They would have been very familiar with the feeling of needing to be constantly doing in an effort to survive. In that sense, we may have more in common than first thought.

With wuwei, the core idea is that when no action is needed, doing anything is over-doing, which can cause more harm than good. This article uses the example of caring for a plant. When the plant has adequate water, nutrients and light, there is no more to be done. Doing more would be over-doing, and could be harmful. For example, if you give a plant more water than it needs, the roots rot and it dies. Too much sun, and its leaves burn and fall off.

An example in our daily life would be excess worry. Worry – even anxiety – serves a necessary purpose. It helps us avoid danger, prepare for upcoming events, and so on. When worry goes into overdrive is when it causes us harm. We can become paralyzed by it, or exhaust ourselves.

Other examples could be over-working, overly tweaking our diets, micromanaging the people we lead, saying yes to things when we’re already overbooked, having a “rescuer” mindset, and a really sneaky one… guilt! When we feel guilty about not doing more, more, more, that’s over-doing sneaking into our lives.

On the flip side, there’s under-doing. I mentioned above how over-worrying can lead to a sort of paralysis. In that state, we often end up not doing things that really do need to be done. We can also let important things slip through the cracks when we’re over-doing in other areas. When we get inundated with all the little urgencies and distractions of daily life, the truly important stuff gets lost. That’s where over-doing can lead to under-doing, and where non-doing can help you combat both extremes.

What Are the Benefits of Non-Doing?

It’s so important to repeat that non-doing is not “not doing”. It’s doing what’s necessary in the circumstances; no more, no less, which means your primary focus is tuned into genuine needs and priorities.

The benefits of this approach are far-reaching, and can include:

  • Greater awareness of what truly matters to you
  • More confident decision making
  • Enhanced ability to achieve goals
  • Stronger ability to focus
  • Greater sense of ease in working through challenges
  • Decreased sense of urgency in non-urgent situations
  • Less stress
  • Increased productivity
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Greater engagement at work and in daily life
  • Stronger relationships

Non-doing is about filtering out the mind clutter, the to-do clutter, the unnecessary distractions, and all the things that take you away from what’s really important to you. That includes everything from your relationships at home to your goals at work. It means all those things in the back of your mind that you’ve mentally tagged “someday” start getting space to move into “today” and the richness that that brings to your experience of life is priceless.

How Can Non-Doing Boost Creativity and Productivity?

How can doing less end up creating more? 

In terms of creativity, it comes down to not being overwhelmed. The mind needs space to roam and explore in order to see possibilities and create solutions. When we’re overwhelmed, our minds get stuck in a sort of survival-mode. So much of our energy goes into putting one foot in front of the other that we have very little left to tap into our creative side. 

What’s important to remember is that we’re not just talking about art or design. What takes a huge amount of creativity are activities like problem-solving, future-planning and strategic thinking. If we think of the human brain in terms of levels, it’s our “higher brains” that deal in creativity, and our “lower brains” that take over when we’re overwhelmed. Non-doing empowers you to tap into those higher brain skills. 

With productivity, we all know the experience of constant busy-ness, without getting anything of substance done. Substance meaning it’s moving you closer to your goals, or addressing a very real need. I call this “hamster wheel-mode” because like a hamster in a wheel, we’re running ourselves ragged without actually getting anywhere.

Non-doing steers you away from that empty busyness and toward the actions and decisions that actually produce something for you. That can be productive choices at work, as well as choices in your personal life that produce meaning and fulfillment.

Practical Tips for Incorporating Non-Doing into Your Life

It may seem counterintuitive to have to do things in order to do less. But let’s remember what non-doing really is. It’s doing what’s necessary. Establishing balance in your life is necessary! Doing the work to learn about and incorporate non-doing is an act of non-doing.

Our natural state of being should be to feel at ease in our world. Not for life to be easy, but to feel confident about our ability to overcome obstacles, to have support when we need it, to feel that we’re investing our energy in the right things for us, and to not become burnt out by the challenges of life.

Doing things to incorporate non-doing is a natural and necessary form of doing, which will help protect you from the pull to overdo.

Here are 5 steps to incorporate non-doing into your life:

Step 1 – Get clear on your core values and life purpose

Your values and purpose serve as your personal guiding light. They will point you in the direction that’s right for you, realign you when needed, and guide you away from the things that don’t serve you (i.e. all the over-doing). If the idea of a life purpose doesn’t quite resonate with you, consider the concept of Ikigai. It’s about digging into what matters to you and what matters about it, so that you can consistently make choices that align with it. That’s where we create meaning in our lives.

Step 2 – Cultivate mindfulness habits that teach you to observe without judgment.

You cannot control what’s happening around you, and will always be exposed to messages and energies of do, do, do.

Mindfulness practices are about awareness of the moment, without the need to do anything immediately, including judging what’s coming up.

Meditation is probably the most well-known mindfulness practice. Contrary to common belief, meditation is not about clearing your mind, but about calming your mind. In meditation, thoughts of your to-do list will still come in, but the practice is to try simply noticing those thoughts, acknowledging their existence, but not assigning them any urgency. This allows you to more clearly see how (or if) all of these things align with your values and purpose.

Step 3 – Establish a big picture vision of the life you want.

When we’re caught in a habit of over-doing, it really is hard to see the forest for the trees. Working to clarify what you really want for yourself will help you better identify what over-doing and under-doing look like for you.

Personally, I like to create a vision board once I’ve gotten clear on my big picture. I use them because they give you a visual reference point to evoke the energy of your ideal future. That’s a huge advantage when it comes to setting priorities.

If vision boards aren’t your thing, I encourage you to still go through the process of building a clear vision for yourself (click the vision board link above for how to do this) and write it all out. You can use full paragraphs, point form, word clouds – whatever makes sense for you, but strive for detail and to really dig into the energy of your big picture.

Take time, each day, to tune into your big picture vision. Doing this, even for just a few seconds, can leave an imprint – like a mental footprint – to keep you focused on what truly matters.

Step 4 – Explore your guilt.

Guilt is a massive driver of over-doing, and even under-doing if your guilt is contributing to a sense of paralysis or powerlessness, or drawing you away from what’s truly meaningful to you. To me, guilt is one of our strongest Saboteurs. It’s like a gremlin in our minds, constantly telling us we aren’t enough. It’s also a big ol’ liar. 

Explore your guilt. Look at it from all sides and get really familiar with it, so that you can easily recognize when it’s cropping up, then shut it down.

Step 5 – Practice unconditional responsibility.

Unconditional responsibility may sound like the opposite of non-doing, but it’s actually a powerful tool in helping you clearly see what is truly necessary for you and what would be considered too much (or too little).

Practicing unconditional responsibility means recognizing that you are only responsible for your intentions, your choices and your responses. You are not responsible for how anyone else reacts or for things that come up around you. Even as a parent, you are 100% responsible for how you choose to parent, but you aren’t responsible for things like your children’s moods and – this may sound crazy – how they behave. With unconditional responsibility, you’re responsible for how you respond to how your children behave. The same is true in leadership positions. You aren’t responsible for how other people behave or the choices they make. What you’re responsible for is what you do in response. 

Unconditional responsibility is about training your focus onto things that you have genuine control over so that you can direct your energy to where you can have the greatest impact, rather than dumping energy into thoughts, feelings and beliefs that keep you stuck.

Overcoming Obstacles to Non-Doing

Non-doing can be one of the most difficult habits to adopt because the world around us is designed for over-doing, and it all comes down to the idea of scarcity. 

A scarcity mindset believes that there just isn’t enough of anything to go around. Enough money, jobs, housing, time, resources, and so on. In a scarcity-focused world, we have to do, do, do in order to have safety and security. If we don’t – if we stop to rest – we’ll miss out, not be good enough, or even lose something really important to us.

The scarcity and over-doing messages around us create a heightened sense of urgency and guilt, and that’s what you need to work through.

Here are 3 tools to help you overcome these obstacles:

Tool #1 – Visual reminders

In the steps above, we explored core values and life purpose as your guiding lights. They will keep you focused on doing only what truly needs to be done and empower you to recognize over-doing tasks. But, that’s easier said than done. Visual reminders are a powerful tool for embedding new habits because they keep your new habit top of mind.

As I mentioned, I use visions boards because they help me to really assume the energy of what I’m trying to create. If that doesn’t work for you, even something as simple as a post-it note in your workspace, a picture, or a meaningful knick-knack can help hone your focus.

Tool #2 – The Eisenhower matrix

The Eisenhower matrix is a task management tool for prioritization. Start by writing out your to-do list, or even just all the “shoulds” on your mind – things like, “my house should always be tidy”, “I should be staying later at work”, “I should be working out more”, and so on.

Once you have your list, get a second piece of paper and sketch out the matrix, or print one out (the link above has a printable PDF). You can even keep a stack of printouts on hand to really make this a habit.

Put each item on your list into one of the squares, using your values, purpose and visual reminder to guide your decisions.

This will help you stay focused on what genuinely matters to you. If something is urgent and important, it gets done first. If it’s important, but not urgent, it gets done next. If it’s urgent, but not important, you can delegate or even let it drop. If it’s neither urgent nor important… bye-bye!

Tool #3 – “What about this matters to me?”

As a tool, I love this question. Whenever I feel strongly that something matters to me, or I notice it’s taking up a lot of real estate in my mind, I ask myself, “What about this matters to me?” It helps me really dig into where my feelings are coming from and what outcome I’m expecting.

Sometimes this question helps me affirm my values, purpose and vision. I get clarity on how the issue fits into my personal big picture, and then I can prioritize it using the matrix.

Other times, I dig in and find that the feelings are influenced by something outside myself. For me, it’s often around making someone else happy, or worrying what someone will think. That clarity makes it easier (not always easy, but easier) to work on letting it go and avoiding falling into an over-doing cycle.

Embrace a Good-Enough Life

Non-doing is really about embracing a good-enough life. So many of us keep striving for better and better. That’s great for things you’re passionate about, but it becomes a form of suffering when we strive for perfection in all areas. We get overwhelmed, we burn out, we beat ourselves up, and worst of all, we don’t stop to just enjoy the good-enough, and celebrate ourselves for creating it.

What areas of your life, right now, are good enough? What do you criticize yourself for? How would it feel to say to yourself, “You know what? This is good enough. I’m going to feel proud of myself for it, and move on.”

You deserve to enjoy your life. Commit to breaking the cycle of over-doing.

If you would like guidance, for yourself or your organization, on ending the over-doing habit and focusing on what truly matters, I invite you to connect with me.