When was the last time you did nothing as a leader? When have you stopped and sat in silence? Ever given yourself time out of your schedule to focus on nothing? The chances are you haven’t at all, or very rarely. Why is that? How come you don’t place value on taking time out to do nothing?

I find it interesting that we often encourage and reward ‘busyness’ but doing nothing is seen as a weakness or of little value. Yet this simple act can at times be one of the most powerful things we allow ourselves to undertake. Examine your work. When have your light bulb moments happened in the past? When you have been crunching numbers, or writing a report, or even in a meeting? Probably not. More often they have appeared when you least expected them, when you were doing nothing, or something completely different. You had an ‘aha’ moment. A moment of clarity.

What happens when you do nothing

We increasingly live and work in worlds where information and data dominate. Where we never allow ourselves to fully switch off. At this time of virtual working and Zoom meetings increasingly there is reduced opportunity for our minds to be ‘off duty’. Even our sleep is often peppered with thoughts of work and the team.

Wasn’t it Einstein’s moment of daydreaming that led to his theory on gravity? Bob Weinberg ‘discovered cancer genes’ when walking to work one snowy morning. Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ tune came to him when he woke up one morning. Great things happen when we allow our minds the opportunity to relax.

Christianity often references the wisdom of the ‘desert fathers’. Hermits living in the Scetes desert of Egypt who were noted for their inspiration and guidance. Their chosen paths of isolation and silence brought particular enlightenment. Sarah Maitland (2008) in ‘A Book of Silence’ noted the insight, acute awareness and power her periods of silence brought her. Indeed suggesting silence is part of our human make-up. By deliberately immersing herself in silence she became deeply conscious of life and detail around herself, her environment and the wider world. A former director of mine was renowned in the team for sharing the moments of lucidity on issues he gained whilst having his morning shower!

Many of you may have noticed when you are working, sometimes there is value in ‘slowing down to speed up’. Sometimes we need to stop, to be able to catch up with ourselves and bring perspective, or our own ‘enlightenment’.

Whilst you might not need or want to become a leadership hermit, existing in organisational silence. It does highlight the value gained in allowing your mind to be relaxed, and for you to be more present, mindful and aware. Removing ourselves from noise, distraction and mobiles often allows us to exist in a better state of ‘being’.

How doing nothing works

When our brains are more relaxed, or in a ‘period of incubation’ they start to work differently. By continually pushing, trying to find ways forward, our brain gets stuck in certain patterns of thinking. We keep recycling the same routes or potential solutions. A relaxed brain is less fixated on a narrow range of ways forward or options. Moments of clarity come to us when we step away. Scientists have studied these ‘insight moments,’ their origins in the brain and what happens just before insights occur. Similarly, how these insights are different to how analysing works in the brain. The power in doing nothing is not a myth. It is recognised that other parts of your brain to ‘come online’ (Default Mode Network) when you do nothing.

Letting go

We can be so conditioned into ‘doing’. We feel the constant need to be in control all the time. Sometimes we may even fear letting go of things and stopping. Organisations will not tell you to stop doing these ‘things’ as they feel it’s in their interest for you to do them. By letting go and creating new habits it opens up new opportunities and change.

If we recognise the value that stepping away and creating time and space to listen to ourselves brings, it then brings another perspective. What could be the value in encouraging and enabling our team members to do the same? If giving our minds space to relax engenders creativity and problem solving, then isn’t this a valid approach for our employees?

As mental health increasingly forms part of our organisational language, what better way of promoting this? As leaders we are also role models, setting examples of good, healthy, productive practice.

How to do nothing

As unique individuals we each have our own ways of allowing ourselves to do nothing. What works for one may not for another. For some they may have to find what resonates for them. Here are some simple and accessible approaches. None of them are rocket science, but we have to find something we are comfortable with.

  • Take a (proper) break – this simple act can make a huge difference.
  • Go for a walk, run or cycle ride. In do any activity that allows your brain to go off duty from work.
  • Listen to a favourite piece of music.
  • Have a nap!
  • At lunchtime get out, do something different. Don’t sit at your desk.
  • Go sit in the park.
  • Allocate specific time during your week to not doing ‘stuff’. Primetime – a meeting with yourself that is as important as any other meeting in the business, to reflect, process and think.
  • Go with your thoughts and at times allow yourself to daydream.
  • Sit in a meeting room just by yourself – and stare! At the end of a meeting remain in the room, creating space before resuming work.
  • When working from home, having a morning coffee outside before the day starts. Or finish the day in this way too! Take time to decompress.
  • During breaks at home, walk around the garden, or around the block.

Leadership and doing nothing

Team leaders and senior leaders have a huge amount to contend with, and it can feel a lonely job at times. Balancing people leadership with delivery. Considering the micro and macro pictures. Achieving performance whatever the internal or external factors. It can be tempting to get in amongst the weeds to ensure everything works smoothly and performs. Ironically, leaders need to spend more not less time with their own thoughts and reflection. Momentarily getting of the treadmill. It is in this nothingness that direction, growth and perspective emerge. The place ideas are born and consolidated.

Apart from formal development leaders often have little external input or support. So creating a place and space to pause and process is a value-adding to their leadership activity. A sign of strength, not weakness.

Coaching and doing nothing

Whilst it is up to the individual leader to ‘be in their nothingness’, coaching can help in several ways. It enables new perspectives on what is important. Allowing clients to see the value in undertaking a course of action. Bringing confidence in themselves to undertake the journey. Through coaching, clients can discover personal approaches and techniques to practice being with themselves and their thoughts. Accountability to themselves for action on this is also developed. Finally exploring what time in their own thoughts revealed to them, what did they learn from the experience. Coaching helps to makes sense of, bring order and clarity to these thoughts. Then examine how these thoughts might be used.

Doing nothing is not an escape from reality or work. It is a step into inner knowledge and insight, which if not attended to may lead to missed opportunities, ideas and progress.

Nick Howell is a coach, coach supervisor and coach trainer. Wanting to influence and change leadership and management landscape one coaching conversation at a time. Using his skills to develop leaders and managers to enable them to transform employee behaviours and performance in their organisations. Contact Nick to find out more about coaching opportunities. Or click here, to become a skilled workplace coach.