May 6

Do Nothing: Why This Anti-Productivity Advice from 3000 Years Ago Is Still Relevant Today

If someone told us to do nothing, most of us would jump for joy. We'd assume it as carte blanche to doomscroll on our devices or mindlessly binge-watch TV shows (even bad ones.) But, doing nothing and focusing on just one thing are two sides of the same coin. It is an art form we can (and need to) learn.

The school of cynicism

Diogenes, a Greek philosopher from the 4th century BC, is widely regarded as one of the founders of the philosophical movement of cynicism, a precursor to Stoicism. While the modern interpretation of the word cynic is of someone who believes human beings are essentially selfish and their actions are motivated by self-interest, the Ancient Cynic's version was more nuanced.

Diogenes believed that humans are innately good creatures who become self-centered and ignorant because they feel the need to conform to (what he generally considered) misplaced social norms. This, he assumed, caused perfectly well-meaning people to chase after meaningless pursuits such as wealth and titles.

Simple living, high thinking

Unlike other philosophers of his time who expressed their ideas through academic and abstract terms (Pythagoras, Socrates, and Aristotle, to name a few), Diogenes liked to influence people through his actions by living a life of simplicity and honesty. His frugality can make a minimalist today look like Louis XIV—the ostentatious French king known for his life of extravagance (and, of course, the palace of Versailles.)

Possessions, in Diogenes' opinion, deterred one from finding one's purpose in life. So, he shunned all belongings and lived in a pithos (a wine storage tub/jar) in the marketplace in Athens, surviving on alms from strangers. Legend is that he gave up his only belonging, a wooden bowl, when he saw a peasant boy drinking water using the hollow of his hands, remarking,

Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!

Diogenes' contempt wasn't limited to personal possessions alone. He didn't think very highly of productivity either.

Busy doing what?

Apparently, busyness was a highly-valued attribute even in the 4th century BC. When the city of Corinth heard the news that they were soon to be attacked by the Macedonians, the patriotic citizens started to battle-prep in earnest. The town was abuzz with activity, everyone doing their best to contribute to fortifying their city in whatever way they could.

Seeing the flurry of activity all around, Diogenes decided he didn't want to be left out. He rolled his pithos (the tub he lived in) up and down the hall, exerting a lot of energy in the process. When a passerby asked Diogenes why he was indulging in this seemingly pointless exercise, Diogenes replied,

Just to make myself look busy as the rest of you.

(Too bad they didn't make Gifs back then!)

Diogenes' ascetic lifestyle was in tune with his philosophy on life—that arbitrarily designed social concepts—wealth, property, titles, etc., made humans seek short-term pleasures that detract them from true happiness and fulfillment in life. Famously, he is said to have walked around town shining a lamp on the faces of people (in broad daylight), saying,

I'm looking for an (honest) man.

And not finding any.

Delayed recognition

If you go around shining a light in someone's face today or, for that matter, attempt any of the antics Diogenes indulged in during his time, there's zero chance of having a school of philosophy named after you. Instead, there's a high likelihood that you'd be spending time being monitored—either in jail or, if you're lucky, in a mental hospital.

Even in his time, Diogenes didn't make much sense to most people. In fact, Plato is supposed to have said of Diogenes that he was "a Socrates, gone mad." But, the lens of history has been kinder to him.

Almost four centuries after Diogenes, another famous Stoic philosopher Epictetus, examined the role possessions play in our happiness. Referring to Diogenes, Epictetus asked:

And how is it possible that a man who has nothing, who is naked, houseless, without a hearth, squalid, without a slave, without a city, can pass a life that flows easily?

And, to this day, wise women and men keep coming back to the essence of this question: If happiness is what we're so busy chasing after, what should we do that will make us truly happy and content, not just in the short-term but forever?

Diogenes had a radical solution to help find the answer to this question. He suggested we do nothing. But with a twist.

What "do nothing" really means

Have you ever lost your way driving in a new city and then turned on the GPS to get back to your intended route? Before the GPS can re-route you, it first needs to know your current coordinates, which, in turn, requires you to stay still. Instead, if you keep moving and changing your location every second, you'll (literally) just drive yourself and your GPS crazy.

The advice to "do nothing" is similar to the analogy above. It is an ask to take a step back from the all-consuming busyness of our lives to pay attention to what we're doing. Like the GPS, to know where to go, you first need to know where you are.

Diogenes' advice to "do nothing" was a way of asking his compatriots to pause and reflect.

The cynic in you and me

Okay, let's be honest here. I can see your thought bubble. Clearly.

You've paused. And reflected. Of course, you could be better off, but life isn't too bad as it is. I almost hear you say, "Can we move on now?"

And by the way, I know what you're thinking. It's technically impossible to do "nothing." Even if you're sitting and staring blankly ahead of you, you are doing somethingsitting and staring!

I get the cynicism.

Thankfully, wiser souls over the years have expounded on the concept of what "do nothing" means, and it is almost diametrically opposite to the push for productivity so rampant in our current culture.

The trouble with productivity

The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it's the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder - Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

It's not a stretch to say that many of us are in a state of existential overwhelm.

Overflowing to-do lists, unending pings on our phones, demanding employers, and eternal FOMO can leave us feeling not just frazzled but totally inept.

Therefore, in our frenzied and busy lives, we aim to make every second count. But we are in such a rush to get to the next item on our checklist that we simply stop paying attention to the current one.

We see but don't notice. We hear but don't listen.

Society has somehow equated an uber-productive life to a well-lived life.

In short, we rush through life like it's the board game Candy Land, intending to get to the end in a hurry. But, unlike Candy Land, disappointingly, there never will be a King Kandy waiting for us at the end.

Do nothing—an antidote to productivity

The "do nothing" philosophy is just a way to dial the momentum of life down to the point where we can actually start to live and appreciate every moment. Fully. Because, after all, life is just a series of moments.

The avant-garde American music composer John Cage was a huge proponent of the "do nothing" philosophy. He composed the popular piece 4'33", often referred to as the silent composition. (The audience does not hear deliberate music for the duration of the composition. Instead, they only hear the organic sounds of the environment they are in.)

Cage is also one of my favorite philosophers for his pithy observances on life. Here's his quote about
Henry Thoreau. It perfectly sums up the "do nothing" philosophy.

Thoreau got up each morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves. John Cage.

Admittedly, doing nothing is hard work. Especially in a world riddled with entertaining digital distractions. But surprisingly, we are capable of deliberate focus.

Paying attention

Standing in line at a crowded luggage carousel after a recent trip, I noticed something I hadn't before. There were hundreds of bags of all shapes and sizes spinning on the carousel in front of me. I hardly glanced at them because they weren't mine. Yet, when I spotted my suitcase tumbling down, I zoned in, became alert, and jostled for space to pick up my bag before it spun away again on the carousel.

We are inundated with millions of bits of stimuli every second of the day. How does our brain know what to pay attention to and what to ignore? In a 2019 study, neuroscientists came up with some explanations for how the brain tunes out distractions. They concluded that the brain filters out the extraneous information, allowing us to focus on what's important (as opposed to leaving everything on the table and highlighting just the relevant stimuli.)

Which is all to say, we have some very complex wiring within us that can help us get to where we want to go if we're willing to put in the effort. In other words, evolution has given us the toolset to filter out the noise and focus on the signal.

The question is, how do we bring ourselves to do it?

Mindfulness Meditation

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually, one discovers that it is not boring at all. John Cage

This is where practices such as mindfulness meditation can help us get started. Meditating in a quiet, calming space can prepare us to focus in a noisy world.

When we can find a way to concentrate on our breath, for instance, for ten continuous minutes without feeling the need to scream or run out of the room, then we may be ready to stand mindfully in riskier environments such as the grocery store instead of whipping our phone out the second we get in line.


We long to do nothing on our vacation days. In addition to relaxation, we (and more so our bosses) view this as the time for rejuvenation—to repair the burnout our minds and bodies endure from overworking all year so we can return to work at full capacity again.

When Diogenes and other wise people advised us to do nothing, it wasn't simply to recharge our batteries so we could remain industrious. Instead, it was to help us notice and listen, instead of just seeing and hearing what life offers.

There is just so much beauty and wonder all around us. We just need to slow ourselves down to appreciate it.

The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason. John Cage.



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