The Importance of Doing Nothing

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Buried deep within the twentieth chapter of the First Book of the Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures is the story about a man in the midst of a battle who had a prisoner entrusted to his charge, and was commanded to guard him with his life. For a while, the man did just that; he stood sentinel over the prisoner. He did that and nothing else. But as the tide of battle moved in his direction, he thought that he could do more by lending a hand with his sword. So he leaped into the fray, and came back only to find that the prisoner in his charge had escaped. When the man’s superior officer demanded an explanation, all the man could do was to stammer out the words: “And as your servant was busy here and there, he was gone.”

In the battle of life, it is often like that, is it not? Try to do two things at once and one of them will suffer. Every business executive can tell about people who fall down on the job because they do not concentrate on it; they have too many irons in the fire. People lose opportunities, not because opportunities never come their way, but because when opportunities do come, they are not on hand to make the most of them. They are otherwise engaged.

The words: “And as your servant was busy here and there” accurately describe the character, and convey the tempo and atmosphere of modern living, do they not? For millions of people today, life means to always be on the move, to always be operating on a tight schedule, to always be keeping an anxious eye on the clock, and to always be engaged in an unending battle with time. Perhaps you are one of them. “I’m late. I’m late for a very important date,” says the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, but those words could well be the motto for countless numbers of people. The pace is quicker, the pressure is harder, and the demands are greater than any of those things ought to be.

When we talk about work, I know that there are plenty of people who would never be accused of doing too much work. If work were a sin, they would never be guilty of committing such a sin or of even being tempted by such a sin. Such people share the motto of Jerome K. Jerome, who said: “I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” And there was the woman who told the man when he asked for work: “But I couldn’t possibly give you enough work to keep you occupied.” “Madame,” he replied, “you’d be surprised what little work it takes to keep me occupied.” Work has been spoken of as a punishment and a curse, yet it is far from being either. I remember seeing a sign on the wall of my college dorm which reversed a familiar axiom often attributed to W. C. Fields, but is actually a quote by Oscar Wilde: “Work is the curse of the drinking class.”

But I am not thinking of such people. I am thinking of those people who say that they do not have a lazy bone in their bodies; who derive great pleasure and satisfaction from their work, but who are giving far too much time and strength and nervous energy to it. I am thinking of those who are guilty of overwork. Yes, overwork! Work itself is not a bad thing. In fact, Dr. Thomas Szasz, American academic, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst writes: “The greatest analgesic, soporific, stimulant, tranquilizer, narcotic, and to some extent even antibiotic – in short, the closest thing to a genuine panacea – known to medical science is work.”

David Grayson says it so well: “Happiness is nearly always the result of hard work” and Baltimore sage and poet Ogden Nash put it this way: “If you don’t want to work you have to work to earn enough money so that you won’t have to work.”

Work is one of our unchanging needs. People tell themselves that when they retire, they will be done with work, but unless they work at something, they will go downhill incredibly fast. Tennessee Williams once said: “I am only alive when I am working.”

No, there is nothing wrong with work, but there is definitely something wrong with overwork. Seen in this light, the work suffers. This lesson is one that management itself seems slow to learn. There are executives who are not turning in a first-class piece of work simply because they are “busy here and there,” or as we say in a current expression: they have “too much on their plate.” When a person overworks, the work itself suffers. That is one of the things that is wrong with overwork! Multitasking is a managerial buzz-concept these days, a post-layoff corporate assumption that the few can be made to do the work of the many.

But newly released results of scientific studies in multitasking indicate that carrying on several duties at once may, in fact, reduce productivity, not increase it. “And in certain cases of multitasking,” Joshua Rubinstein writes, “you could be risking employers a dangerous outcome.” Driving while talking on a cell phone, maybe making business calls while trying to get to our next meeting, is being seen by researchers as an example of a potentially disastrous multitasking scenario.

Many people think, ‘Well, cell phoning while driving is really no big deal and I can get away with it.’ But even if we have a cell phone that is not held by hand and can be dialed by voice, we still have a really big conflict because when we are driving we need to be looking at various different places, we need to be reading signs, we need to be talking to ourselves about those in order to – through your mental speech – make decisions about where to go with our car. And there is no way to do that while on the cell phone because we have to use our “inner ears” and “inner speech” and even our “inner eyes” to imagine what the person on the phone is talking about.

If you saw the movie Top Gun, you will remember all you saw Tom Cruise’s character doing in the cockpit. He had to pick and choose when he did what, multitasking very carefully. The chance that he would conclude a flight in a fighter jet successfully depended not only on his equipment, but also on his capabilities and limitations. But as Clint Eastwood says at the end of one of those Dirty Harry movies, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Yes, the work suffers and what is more, the worker suffers. Think of what happens to a person’s body. Let an individual go on from week to week and month to month with every day planned and every hour filled, and what happens? Nature rebels. Again, the result of overwork!

Further, consider what happens to the mind. The overworked person as often as not is irritable and nervous. One’s face tells eloquently what is happening inside. Some people become so occupied and so preoccupied with their business that they practically sacrifice everything else to do it. They may scarcely know their own children. They may give themselves no time to trim the lamp of friendship or to cultivate the life of their soul. Once more, the result of overwork!

And so, I plead for three things.

First, I plead for leisure.

We owe it to ourselves, to our inner and deeper selves, as well as to our relatives and associates, to slow down, to moderate the pressure, to take time out, and to “smell the roses.” There should be rhythms in life, as there are rhythms in nature; first there is stress of toil, and then happy release from it; first there is diligent service, and then rewarding rest. It is pathetic when people always have their eyes on the clock. And so I make this plea: Make leisure. Insist on having it. And I say this even to those who are retired. I am one of those who are retired. If I let it happen, I can be far busier in retirement that I ever was before retirement! Leisure and rest are two of the best medicines for both the body and the soul. That is first.

Second, I plead for a sense of perspective in the ordering of business and in the management of time.

One should try to see things as they are and to keep them in their true proportions. Work is important, but so are home and friendship and worship. Are we so pushed and driven that things like good books, inspiring music, and the great out-of-doors go uncultivated? There are things that we can do to the body that are bad. And there are things that we can do to our dispositions, our mental outlook, that are even worse. But this being so “busy here and there,” being so occupied and preoccupied by this, that, and the other thing, that the things that matter most are crowded out – that is even graver than all the rest. And so, I make this second plea: Have a sense of perspective. That is second.

And finally, I plead for us to heed the warning signs that we are overworked.

Warning sign 1: Are we as nice as we want to be? Before our energy levels nosedive and our brain starts a meltdown, we may find that we lose our ability to play nice with others. If we find ourselves berating waiters, flight attendants, or reservations agents, we need to make a habit of taking an extra minute during every interaction to thank them – and to be specific, if possible. In trying to cheer up those who are doing tough jobs, we just might also boost our own spirits.

Warning sign 2: Are our minds always racing? Having plenty of ideas is great, but living on a mental hamster wheel? Not so great. We think that the root of our stress is that we spend all of our time in a state of intense focus. But really, most people under stress are just re-plowing the same field over and over. They confuse this obsessing with focus, but it is really the opposite. If, on closer examination, we realize that our mind is chasing its own tail, than we need to make some space to reset, to consider our priorities and give to our brain a chance to approach problems from a fresh perspective.

Warning sign 3: Are we living in the moment? If we reminisce, telling stories of past glories. Or we await the future, unable to really start living until a certain goal is behind us. Both of these are signals that we are living outside the present, a habit that only leads to more stress. Being present in the moment, enjoying the conversation, the meeting, the people and the challenges as they come up will reduce stress.

Warning sign 4: Are we constantly late? OK, some of us have a natural tendency to lose track of time no matter how relaxed (or stressed) we are, but if we find that we are running late more often than is usual for us, that is probably a warning sign that we are working too hard. That is the time that we need to fight back. One way is to make a commitment that we will be five minutes early to every meeting and every event, and then tell others about it as a way forcing us to curtail the activities that are making us late. And so, I make this third and final plea: Heed the warning signs of being overworked.

If we are “busy here and there,” if our days and our nights are full, if we are so absorbed in the world of sense that we are not intimately aware of the world of the spirit, then it may be that the word we need to hear is this: distinguish between what is primary and what is secondary, distinguish between what is urgent and what can wait, and distinguish between what is of great value and what is of little consequence. Put first things first. And – above all – for your own sakes, do not be guilty of overwork!

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