Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There! by Urs Koenig, PhD, MBA of Redpoint Coaching

by Urs Koenig, PhD,  MBA , Redpoint Coaching

One of the default responses many of my clients, colleagues, friends and indeed family members give when asked how they are doing is “Very busy!” “Super busy”, “Totally slammed”.  More often than not I suspect it is a boast packaged as a complaint. And I often catch myself giving the implied congratulations response: “Well, better than the opposite.”

I love what Tim Kreider, NYT blogger, has to say about our addiction to busyness:

“Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

When I read the above it reminded me of what I sometimes tell my clients: Everyone is busy but not everyone achieves results. It sounds counterintuitive but just ‘sitting there’ is often a necessary prerequisite to achieving great results. There is a reason why we need to have off-site retreats to think strategically: we need to get away from the busyness to think about the important questions.

Again Tim Kreider: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body (…)The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections it is (…), paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

It is, in my mind, no coincidence that many of the greatest thinkers like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, C.G. Jung and the Dalai Lama spent ( in the case of the Dalai Lama are still spending) many hours alone in quiet meditation…just sitting there.

I am someone who used to keep himself notoriously busy and overcommitted (and no, I am not cured but I am making good progress J!). I have on countless occasions experienced the adrenaline rush of being constantly busy and in demand. It is addictive, no doubt!

What is helping me to combat the addictive need to be busy but rather to focus on what is really important? Here are four things

1. Awareness about what unfulfilled need I fulfill with my busyness.

I have to admit that at times my busyness helps me to not face what I should be facing. It’s often easier to plow rather mindlessly through the to do list rather than stepping back and asking the big, hard questions.

Busyness also provides comfort. The emptiness we face when we ‘just sit there’ can be a scary place. It’s just me facing me and….nothing…pretty scary uh?

Building awareness around what need you are fulfilling by being constantly busy will help you take steps to let go.

2.Regular (2-5x/week) meditation practice

Over the course of the last three years I have started to mediate regularly. There are dozens of studies demonstrating the physical, emotional and mental benefits of a regular meditative practice. And I can attest from my own experience: it is one of the purest ways of ‘just sitting there’.

3. Monthly retreat with self (pen and a note book only)

I take regular time by myself over a coffee or yes, a drink, in a comfortable place, armed only with an old fashioned pen and note book but by design without any wireless connections that would distract me from asking the big question: Am I spending my time and energy with the people and projects that are most important to me?  If no, what changes will I make?

4. Most of us keep To Do lists. However, instead of focusing on what “to do”, my “Stop Doing” List encourages me to think of activities I should not do anymore, things that I am doing out of habit, a (false) sense of obligation, and that are not really moving me to where I want to be.

Re-visit my stop doing list  for some pointers on how to accomplish this.

Leadership Insight: How to Have More Time and Energy for the Most Important Things in Your Life by Urs Koenig, PhD, MBA

Note: this article was inspired by a management blog posting by Frank Arnold in my favorite Swiss newspaper NZZ.





I love this time of year:

  • In the U.S., we just celebrated Thanksgiving, the best holiday ever: no presents, no cards just friends, family and plenty of good food
  • Our family spends the weekend split evenly between enjoying the first meter of snow in the Cascades and cultivating the age old Swiss tradition of baking Christmas cookies (or Guetzlis)
  • We have three solid months of skiing to look forward to; and
  • We are just about to head to my mother’s place in Davos in the Swiss Alps for the holidays

I also enjoy this time of year because, as it comes to a close, I find it a great time to reflect on what’s been working and what’s not been working this year.

Reflecting back on my 2011, I realize that I while I have done a lot of things well this year, I have continued to spread myself too thinly across too many activities and projects (both in my personal and my professional life). So instead of starting 2012 with a lot of “To Do” resolutions, I am committing myself to a rigorous “Stop Doing” resolution.

Let me explain:

All of our clients (myself included) love to start new and exciting projects. We enjoy thinking about, and yes, sometimes fantasizing about all the good that will come from our new projects. At the same time, most of us find it very difficult to make the hard decision to discontinue projects that do not either yield what they should or simply aren’t at the core of what we should be doing. In other words, not many of us are very good at cutting our losses.
As a result, we find ourselves and our organizations spread way too thinly across too many projects and activities. We lack focus and clarity.

My own experience in juggling competitive sports, career and family life has (at times painfully) taught me that I can really truly focus on only one thing at time. If, for example, I am making a major new business push, then I need to have athletics in no more than ‘maintenance mode’ and I know I might be asking for more support from my spouse on the family side. Similarly, when preparing for a big race, I cannot at the same time aggressively grow my business.

When it comes to deciding if we should ‘continue doing’ or ‘stop doing’ something, the great Peter Drucker hit the nail on the head when he challenges us to answer the two hard questions:

“If we were not in this already, would we now go into it?”
and if the answer is ‘no’, the next question should be:

“How do we get out and how fast?”

Two of the most effective ways to address our ‘spreading ourselves too thinly” challenge are ‘Stop Doing’ Lists and “Stop Doing” Meetings.

A “Stop Doing” List

Most of us keep To Do lists. However, instead of focusing on what “to do”, a “Stop Doing” List encourages you to think of activities you should not do anymore. One of the ways to actually implement a “stop doing things” list is to smartly exchange money for time. Even if this seems like a bit of a foreign concept to you, consider implementing it one a small scale. That’s right: Exchange time for money.

For example in the office: hiring a (virtual) assistant to take as many mindless, repetitive tasks off your plate as possible. At home: Pay someone to run errands for you: shopping, picking up the dry cleaning etc.

Over time, done right you will find that this concept will follow the compound interest rule: The more you can afford to buy time to focus on the things where you add most value (and hence make more money) the more you can afford to buy time to focus on the high value activities etc., etc.

Stop doing lists are not only valuable for individual leaders but also help departments and organizations focus on what they are truly great at.

Action Steps:
1. Put together a “Stop Doing List” for 2012 right now.
2. Come up with two small activities you will outsource in 2012 (Buy time)

A “Stop Doing” Meeting

Establish a regular meeting during which instead of talking about what to do, you only focus on what to stop doing will instill a new sense of discipline in your business. For example, some organizations monthly examine different areas of the business (e.g. products, services, distribution channels, markets, clients segments, processes etc.) inquiring of each area: What do we want to continue doing? What do we want to stop doing?

Again, Drucker’s questions, which former GE Chairman and CEO Jack Welch used to perfection to ensure that he was always at least number two or above in any industry, help focus the discussion:

If we weren’t in this business already, would we enter it today? And if no: How soon will we get out?

Action Steps
1. Start regular “Stop Doing” meetings in your organization
2. Communicate the action steps coming out of these meetings throughout the organization

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