How to embrace inaction and turn it into a form of action

Peter Blanken
Jan 30, 2018 · 4 min read
NOT what I’m talking about here, this is unconscious inaction!

Conscious inaction is also action

Warren Buffet gives credit for many of his decisions — and much of his success — to the long amounts of time he spends reading and thinking. His success speaks volumes to the benefits of inactivity. But perhaps we need to define inactivity and reframe it to better understand how to make it beneficial.

Our society is all about action orientation, Getting Things Done! Being go-getters!

I am all for that. In fact I am a compulsive action-oriented doer.

Defining strategy, making plans and executing tactics is how you get results. So that is what we strive to do all day.

I believe there is an important ingredient that precedes action and which is just as essential to getting the results you want. I call that conscious inaction. I’m not talking about procrastination. Nor do I have much patience for slouching out or mindless channel surfing.

What I call conscious inaction is the time you take for just sitting still and thinking. Observing, ruminating and mulling things over.

That is an essential activity, which I think too few people purposely engage in.

It’s the active and conscious part of inaction which can make it hard.

Just like meditating can be hard. With practice it becomes easier to disengage the brain and stop the monkey mind interfering.

Focusing the mind and being present in the moment is challenging.

Being an action-oriented person, I find it hard not to be doing stuff. When travelling, I will read, catch up on emails or do other useful work. I have a compulsion for getting things done.

However, for some time now, I have been setting aside moments for conscious inactivity. I will not engage with my phone, be it social media or other mindless activities, but will just sit still, be inactive, take a subject and ponder it. Think it through. Turn it around, look at it backwards and from the inside out.

I do not always find the answers or solutions in one sitting. However, invariably I manage to get closer to an outcome on subjects which have been in the back of my mind, occupying space and generally slowing me down.

Going through this process takes them one step further and often carries them just over the hill, allowing me to gain momentum towards closure.

In the busyness of life, we don’t take time to do this, although it is immensely important.
It can be a high-leverage activity leading to transformative results.

What to do now:

To develop conscious inactivity, either find a quiet space, or create it by using sound-blocking earphones for example. If they don’t block the ambient sounds enough, I will use a white noise app such as Windly, or some light music.

Decide on a time and duration. Make active/ conscious decisions about how much time you will spend.

Choose your subject and the outcome you are seeking — not too big and wide in order to limit the number of potential rabbit holes you can get lost in.

You can think things through linearly — one idea following from another or ideas branching out into multiple directions. However, stay focused.

When you find yourself off-track, recognize it and simply get back to the subject. Don’t beat yourself up.

Take notes if important ideas pop up, either to follow up on when you’re back on active duty (so to speak), or as threads to think about later. I will often draw my thinking out in mind maps, which visually helps with keeping me on topic.

One last point: in many cases, even if I feel I am not getting anywhere with my thinking, it turns out I have clarified the subject immensely. So one session may not have been conclusive by itself, however, it was a necessary stepping stone towards a final outcome.

That’s it, you can stop reading now, get back to work. Get stuff done, go be active!

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