Leadership 101: How Doing Nothing Makes You A Better Leader

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.

Here’s the truth: No one ever reached unimaginable heights or made millions by hitting “reply” all day. It’s easy to do—and we all do it. Email is nothing more than our effort to get others to help us with our own to-do lists. And that’s fine—but if it consumes the lion’s share of your waking hours, there’s a problem.

Busyness, manifest perhaps most tangibly in our bulging inboxes, is a fact of business life, and a constant wear on your time and energy. But keeping all the day-to-day balls in the air is not your only job. You also have the responsibility and privilege of creative work, the work of envisioning what you could do, not just check the boxes of what you are doing. In fact, when you let busyness, and the stress that comes with it, consume you, you are maxing out your mental resources long before you’ve lived up to your potential as a leader. And at this point you also deprive your business of the true leadership it needs.

The problem, as an article in the Harvard Business Review (“The Case for Slacking Off”) explains, is that “doing nothing” is socially unacceptable. “As an adult, have you ever found anybody at work telling you to do nothing — to just take your time and reflect?” writes Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, professor of leadership development and organizational change. “For most of us, doing nothing is associated with being irresponsible, with being on the wrong track, or even worse, with wasting our lives.”

Quite the opposite is true. It takes a kind of discipline and courage to step away from the constant clamor and give your mind time to reflect, recharge, and be decidedly un-busy.

And there’s fascinating research into the power of letting your mind wanderthat suggests that daydreaming can help “consolidate memories and synthesize disparate ideas and plans, yielding a greater sense of identity and personal meaning,” says Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. in his recent feature (“Days of Glory”) in Psychology Today.

Daydreaming helps us see ourselves more clearly, since much of our daydreaming is focused on our future selves. Kaufman cites the work of E. Paul Torrance in that story, whose groundbreaking 30-year study of creative achievement, explored a variety of indicators of future creative and scholastic promise. Kaufman says that Torrance “found that the best predictor of lifelong personal and publicly recognized creative achievement—even better than academic indicators such as school grades and IQ scores—was the extent to which children had a clear future-focused image of themselves.”

Bottom line: Daydreaming, musing, creative visioning…call what you want— by any name it is hardly a waste of time. In fact, it’s the source of your future genius and the promise of your future self. But you can’t do it checking email.

Stop Being Busy
Try to race to keep up with busy, and you lose. The only other option is to control the black hole of busyness  and keep it from swallowing your life. Here are a few ways to do it  and be a more effective leader in the not-doing:

Clear the decks.
Push everything you have on your desk to the side so that you’re faced with a clear surface and whatever note taking method you like to use (paper and pen, Evernote, etc). Now, without looking at your email (this is key), ask yourself, what would you most like to have done this week? Break ground on a new project, have that critical conversation with your team, put action steps around a pending deadline. What’s your highest priority (versus someone else’s)? Write down three to five things that you want to have done. Remember – less is more; too many and you’ll drown in busyness again.

Question your calendar.
What’s on there for today, tomorrow, and the next day—and how beholden are you to it?

Which of those meetings or obligations can be put off till next week or even next month? When everything’s a priority, nothing is, so it’s worth getting control of your time and recognizing what best serves you right now.

With email off, and a block of time (even just 45 minutes will do), and no one howling at your door, turn to a blank page and sit there. No typing, not toggling back and forth between browser windows, no dashing off a note to this person or that person. Sit and think, draw, visualize. Bring your full, open, creative mind to the table and let it breathe for a change. Don’t force a resolution or an idea. Let your brain do what it does best when put in a constrained yet unstructured space, and it may surprise you. As thoughts come to mind, jot them down.

Do nothing somewhere else.
Or better yet, leave the building altogether for a 20 minute walk without your phone. Let body and mind roam for a bit off the grid. Remember, try not to think or solve something, just roam.

Try not solving just reviewing.
This is the counter to the only touch it once, rapid fire approach to decision-making. But for significant issues, biggest dilemma or disappointment. Rather than try to fix it, get daydreamy about it for a few minutes:  think of yourself as walking around it, viewing it from all sides, vision how where it might lead you and your enterprise.

You will be surprised what happens when you can let yourself just be for a few periods each week. Because in fact you’re not “doing nothing”; quite the opposite. You’re letting busy go so you can do the bigger, non-linear work that supports the future of your business and your career.