Sep 11, 2020

A New Leadership Strategy: Stop Doing Things All The Time

Erica Ariel FoxDo you remember desktop Zen gardens?

Can you picture the small bamboo tray filled with white sand with its simple mix of natural rocks or smooth black stones, that miniature bonsai tree, that pint-size rake?

The practical among us wondered, “What do I do with it?” Yet they proliferated on executive desks like, well, bamboo.

The desktop Zen garden was a corporate gift catalogue attempt to give us something precious but wildly underestimated: a break from all that doing that we do. At the time, perhaps, we didn’t see the value or understand the crucial difference between doing nothing and non-doing.

2020 is unique in its challenges and trials, requiring us to embrace new approaches to our work and our lives.

With Labor Day behind us and back-to-back Zoom calls beckoning, it’s time to grasp hold of the potency of non-doing instead of letting it pass by with the fleeting pleasures of summer.

Non-doing isn’t about doing nothing. It’s about doing something without pushing. Engaging without exerting. Acting without striving. Working without forcing.

Non-Doing Connects You to Your Core of Well-Being

Human beings are productive creatures. Yet at our core, at our very essence, we are still. Over the grueling months of Covid19, many of us have felt isolated and alone while at the same time, finding moments and activities that brought us contentment and connection.

As we head back to work, the humanitarian, economic, political, and public health breakdowns that we hoped would at least turn a corner by fall haven’t gone away. Returning to our virtual jobs to face it all again can feel depressing. This is the time to re-connect to our core where we get energized and rested at the same time.

Paradoxically, the pandemic that stopped the world cold also brought the power of not-doing into many of our lives.

As the world locked its doors, time seemed to slow down. The usual frenzy of catching flights and jam-packed calendars gave way to an ease of staying home. Space opened up for home improvement projects. Social media feeds teemed with photos of people baking or picking up a long-forgotten guitar.

Drowning in uncertainty from the outside world, many discovered the stability and nourishment that non-doing provides. I teach this idea all the time.

I got a reminder this summer to put it into practice.

Finding bliss on the garden path

With business travel on hold and gaps in my usually unrelenting schedule, I found myself one morning plucking weeds from the spaces between stones in our garden. Next, I needed to sand over the gaps to keep the weeds from growing back. For several hours, I scooped damp sand from a plastic bag and carefully placed it between the lines.

At the end, I stood and admired my handiwork. I saw beauty in the clean lines and symmetry. I felt bliss at my core.

Not much later my husband came outside. An engineer by training, he looked at my three hours of work and lovingly laughed.

He pointed out that all I needed to do was dump the bag of sand over the entire stone path, smooth it over with a broom, and sweep up whatever hadn’t made it into the gaps — 20 minutes of work at most.

I couldn’t deny his reasoning. The next day I did another section of the garden the efficient way.

Erica Ariel FoxEither way the task was done, but the second time I lost what I’d gained the day before.

Efficiency is a highly-prized commodity in the business world. Likewise with productivity, hitting targets and delivering results. Getting more done in less time is a good thing.

But not if you do it all the time.

Yes, business leaders have mandates to meet. Producing the results that satisfy your teams, your board, your investors and the market are meaningful achievements in the realm of doing.

As you return to your home office, examine the default pursuit of efficient achievement of measurable results. The difficult times we live in aren’t getting much better any time soon. Protecting your health and maintaining your sanity means appreciating something intangible yet palpable.

Looking back on my short career as a gardener, I savor the memory of how I felt that first day when I used my hands to pack that sand between those hot stones. I felt peaceful. My mind quieted. My concentration was keen. The hours flew by unnoticed.

Not-doing brought me joy.

The secret behind non-doing is that however you do it, you connect to your core of well-being.

Sometime today, as you catch up on all of your email, send yourself an invite for an on-going weekly meeting. Protect that time – and use it to bake some bread.

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As published on Forbes.com September 8, 2020