Know When to Act

We are naturally always doing something. We are preparing for a test, doing some household chores, catching up on reading for a big presentation tomorrow. Humans want to always be doing something, because if we are doing something then it shows that we are valuable. One thing that we have lost in amongst all of the hustle and bustle of modern society, however, is to evaluate what actions are really necessary, and what actions we try to justify that do not actually add any value to our lives. Meetings, for example, can both be very productive, and a way in which you can avoid your work. Many people do not take a step back to evaluate whether or not a meeting is necessary — if there is an invitation, they will go anyway as it will make them feel busy. I find though than an important skill people should have is to know when to act, and to know when to do nothing.

Pascal once remarked “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room”. There are a few different points to take away from this quote. The first, and perhaps the most important, is that people often lose sight over what is important because we fail to take a step back and reflect. We are always trying to do something — anything — and so we always say that we don’t have the time to take that step back. Many people condemn sitting in silence as a disguise for being unproductive — you are doing nothing. But I find that sitting in a room doing nothing is actually a lost art. Indeed, many of society’s greatest inventions came from people who did not sit quietly in a room — the Declaration of Independence, for example. Either way though, most successful people have taken at least some time to sit quietly and do nothing. They know that doing something isn’t always the right choice.

Reflect on Your Options

The truth is that action is easy. Everyone knows that they can act — it is an option that is always available. But action in itself does not matter: it is taking the right action that truly matters. In order to understand what the right action is, then we must first take a step back to evaluate our options. We need time to reflect on what action will be in our best interests; what action will help us advance our happiness and the happiness of others; what action will result in the best possible outcome. Everyone can act, but those who get ahead know that action isn’t always the right choice in every situation. How we act defines who we are. The decisions that we make in this moment are a vote for the person who we want to be. And so every small action matters. Most of our best actions come from taking a step back to evaluate what is the best route to walk down and indeed whether or not we need to act at all.

How we act is based on how we interpret a particular situation — how we see outside events. The problem with defaulting to doing something in every situation is that oftentimes our first perception is incorrect. And it is for this reason that taking time to evaluate your choices is a great idea — most other people do not take this approach, so it becomes a competitive advantage. The truth is that most of our first perceptions are inaccurate or based on human instincts. The rational and thinking mind needs a few seconds to process what has happened before we have a full idea of the options available to us. Our initial mind can misidentify circumstances, develop incorrect assumptions because they advance our personal agenda, and more. Before we act, we must first learn how to best perceive the world and understand the impact of every decision on the rest of our lives. It can be difficult to do this because we naturally want to act, but taking a step back allows us to maximize our potential for impact in the future. Acting is easy; taking a step back to reflect on what you should do is hard.

Movement Serves Our Ego

The reason that we always push to act is that movement makes our ego feel great. When we say that we have done something — or are doing something — then we can seek validation from other people. Even if we say “today I started to write an essay” in passing, other people will validate what we are doing which will make us feel better. But telling other people that we are doing nothing sounds bad. If I were to say that this morning I sat down and thought about a few decisions, most people would label that as my being lazy and unproductive. That is because for most people, sitting down is not productive. And so we tell other people that we have done something rather than spent time thinking and have done nothing. If we let our ego become too empowered by action, however, we eventually enter into some bad routines. We will start to take actions because we can, without considering the long-term ramifications of those actions. If we get rewarded for doing something well, we will want to use that same strategy again so we can receive more outside validation. This means that we become detached from what matters: outcomes and our internal perceptions.

Many of us phrase our options as “we can do something, or we can do do nothing”. This makes it sound like there are only two things we can do. I would argue though that there is a third option available to us: gather more information. Taking a step back to evaluate our decisions is often the best idea as it gives us more time to consider potential courses of action in more depth, and gather more information before we commit to a final decision. Spending time on research will help us not only make a more informed decision, but also feel more confident in the final decision that we make. The more evidence we have to support the benefits of a particular decision, the more likely we are to feel confident in committing to that decision. I think that in our lives there are many decisions we would have likely not made if we had spent more time researching potential options and thinking about what to do.

You Don't Always Need to Act

Knowing when to do nothing is a great skill. As Charlie Munger famously remarked, “Life, in part, is like a poker game, wherein you have to learn to quit sometimes when holding a much-loved hand—you must learn to handle mistakes and new facts that change the odds.” There are sometimes situations where our acting is not a good idea — we have nothing valuable to add. Yet we often let our ego overcome us and so we choose to act over doing nothing. Fighting a battle takes up a lot of our time, and so we should ensure that we are fighting the right battles and are not wasting time on fighting battles that do not matter. As a contrarian, I find that I am able to be my best self if I only non-conform in certain situations. If I were an absolutist non-conformist, I would be fighting dozens of battles and I wouldn’t be able to keep up; I would never have time to take a step back to reflect on those battles. In sum, doing nothing is a skill — in many cases, doing nothing is the best course of action.

We will always encounter obstacles in our life — that is a natural part of the human experience. But in most cases, we do not need to act immediately. Therefore, when we face an obstacle we should take a step back and reflect on the options available to us. We should sit in silence for a few moments and evaluate which course of action would lead to the best outcome for everyone. Indeed, in many cases our inaction would render a better result than our action, and so perhaps in the end we say that we will do nothing. There is a great opportunity cost associated with every argument we encounter, so we should always be focusing on the ones that matter most to us, and the ones where we can add value for other parties.

Doing nothing is okay — take some time to reflect on a decision. Know when to act. Know when not to act.

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