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How to Do Nothing At Work

Photo: Kevin Olson

Many rough internal struggles are bound up tightly in the nature of work.

But I believe one is fairly central:

We want to rest, and we want to create.

The closest thing to satisfying both of these desires that most people experience is alternating between them— creating from 9-5, and resting in the evenings.

Some people go a step further and incorporate deliberate periods of rest into their work schedule to facilitate “flow state,” such that rest and creation support each other more directly.

But while I am an ardent supporter of spending time physically resting every day (as well as deliberately harnessing flow state), relying on this kind of model to satisfy the creative impulse and the resting impulse is a flawed approach.

The approach consists of alternating satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The desire to rest will often be active during work hours, and the desire to create may very well nag at us during times of rest.

To the extent that satisfaction is an element of human happiness, our capacity for happiness rests on our ability to satisfy both of these apparently competing desires simultaneously.

This article maps out three approaches for doing so, with a specific focus on the profoundly, lazily restful accomplishment of work.

Try out these approaches. Test them. See which work for you, or develop your own versions. The alternative is to live—as so many of us do—with a quiet undercurrent of resentment at having to do anything at all plaguing every working moment.

i. Witnessing

“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

-Tao Te Ching

There is something to be done, but you don’t want to do it. A part of you knows you’d be happier in a certain way if you did do it, but another (big) part of you would much rather do absolutely nothing.

So, do absolutely nothing. Refuse to perform any action whatsoever. Don’t let yourself expend an ounce of energy towards any task, no matter how trivial.

And instead, simply watch the action happen.

A sense of doing, and particularly a sense of effortful doing, is inextricably bound up with one's sense of agency. It doesn’t feel like you’re doing something when you watch your roommate take out the trash, or watch a maple tree’s leaves dance in the breeze.

So if you are not the one performing an action, and that action is instead simply happening—if you allow yourself to witness your own body moving in the same way that you would witness the leaves of a maple, then the desire to rest is in no way violated by the action.

This is not a sophistical retwisting; this is a very real experience available to the human mind, and the Tao Te Ching is not the only text to describe it.

II. Unification

“We are all stardust."

-Carl Sagan

We generally perceive a distinction between the movement of the world and the movement of the self.

This distinction gives birth to the spiritual-sounding distinction between “surrender” and “self-will” (or “going-with-the-flow” and “decisive action”).

A certain kind of deep relief is inherent in surrender. Letting go, releasing effort, relinquishing personal plans and egoic striving—there is a soul-nourishing rest that accompanies this kind of practice.

But then again, a subtly collapsed form of this disposition could very easily slip into inaction or avoidance.

So if we wish to experience both the nourishing rest of deep surrender as well as the creative power of decisive action, we must simply learn to experience decisive action as an act of deep surrender.

Thankfully, this perception is a true one.

The force moving through us that we call the “will” is the exact same force that moves the rest of the world. It doesn’t take a Sufi mystic or an astrophysicist to notice that you are a part of the world around you, and that the same underlying forces govern you just as much as they govern the movement of the stars.

True surrender isn’t a choice—it’s a recognition of what’s already true. Recognizing that your forceful, energetic volition is simply a flavor of emotion running through you like a stream running through a river doesn’t rob you of your sense of free will; it simply makes that free will an ultimately effortless form of effort.

III. Presence

“Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface

In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled…”

-Sonnet VI, Shakespeare

The desire to rest that takes the form of resistance to action comes directly from one, and only one thing: the prediction that a near-future experience will be less pleasant than the present one.

This means that the existence of the resistance is dependent on a prediction—a projection into the near-future.

This means that without any attention projected into the near-future, resistance is impossible.

So: the simplest way to annihilate resistance to action is to remove all attention from the future and retract it completely into the present moment.

You can’t experience resistance to an action without an impulse towards that action first arising; otherwise, there would be no reason for the resistance.

This means that when you retract your awareness into the present moment—particularly if you can do it fast enough, when the resistance first strikes—the resistance melts, but the original impulse to do the thing is still there.

You then effortlessly surf that original impulse and wash the dishes, by holding your attention retracted back into each present-moment step of the process.

Final Notes

These three modes of awareness are not substitutes for the simple beauty and power of the “just do it” attitude, because nothing is a substitute for that.

But neither are they merely lazy tricks.

Each method has the potential not only to deepen the harmony of one’s spirit and expand the experience of true peace throughout the day, but also to genuinely increase productivity and effectiveness. An army at war with itself is easily conquered, and every human being is an army.

Whether you are driven more by ambition or laziness, selfish hedonism or selfless spiritual practice, these methods are your allies; they are mediators between the mundane and the spiritual, and between the nobler and baser parts of the soul. They do not take sides, and so their use is unlimited.

The more we can learn to retract our awareness into the present, to taste our will for what it is, and to watch our actions without performing them, the more capable we become to achieve whatever end we might wish.

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