Category Archives: focus & mindfulness

Do Nothing: an overlooked path to getting the right things done

A New Year (quarter, month, or day) presents a clean slate for you to create life-enhancing habits, initiate action on big goals, develop an important skill, start a long-desired hobby, or volunteer for a worthy cause. But sometimes you just need to take the pressure off.

Play in the sandbox. Drop some obligations you already have. Get off the committee. Cut the to-do list from 10 items to one. Focus on just 20% of the work that produces 80% of the results. Stop giving 110% in everything you do. Create more margin. Do less. Do nothing.

Yes, you read that right: Do nothing.

In our productivity-obsessed, always-on, action-biased culture — in which busyness is a status symbol and a measure of success — it is hard to be still. It can be scary to allow the mind to rest or roam in default mode.

Why would we not optimize, manage, or invest our time by doing something (anything), big or small? Doesn’t success come from upping our game, raising our ambitions, achieving our goals and improving every day? Why would any productive high-performer choose to do nothing when there is so much to do?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “do-nothing” as follows: noun – a shiftless or lazy person; adjective – marked by inactivity or failure to make positive progress.

Doing nothing encourages mind-wandering, in which your attention disengages from the immediate external environment or current external tasks and drifts to a more personal direction and internal trains of thought. Mind-wandering includes daydreaming, zoning out, and spacing out, which are often viewed as useless internal distractions and irresponsible loafing.

Some studies link this natural human experience to higher levels of unhappiness, depression and anxiety, which are fueled by worries about the future and ruminations about the past. This is why contemplative practices like meditation and mindfulness are prescribed to effectively reduce mind-wandering.

You do need the ability to initiate, direct and sustain your focus on external, goal-directed tasks and avoid attention lapses. A drifting mind has to come back to the present moment for you to make progress and finish the project.

But you also need the capacity to generate new ideas and fresh insights. While there is tremendous value in doing things, experimenting, and producing results, there is also a downside when the do-er part of you never shuts off.

There is a growing body of research to support doing nothing as a life-enriching and stress-relief practice. Neuroscientists and psychologists are finding that while mind-wandering carries disruptive consequences, it also offers unique benefits when it is done at the appropriate time and place. Under the right circumstances, a wandering mind helps to boost creativity, spark original thought, bust a bad mood, increase productivity and clarify goals.

In her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self , author Manoush Zomorodi makes a strong case for allowing your mind to wander and yourself to get bored. She points to studies indicating the executive attention network is not the only part of your brain that is responsible for productivity and creativity.

When you’re daydreaming, spacing out or zoning out (i.e. mind-wandering), you rely on another part of your brain called the default mode network (DMN). The areas that make up the DMN are the medial temporal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, which are inactive in cognitively demanding tasks. They are activated when you’re having a spontaneous thought, tapping into memories, imagining the future, evaluating others’ perspectives, engaging in self-reflection, and forming theories and hypotheses.

These cognitive processes are most prevalent when you are not engaged in activity (and feeling rested) or when you are involved in low-cognitive demand or mundane tasks (and feeling bored). Although it’s important to deactivate the DMN when you must redirect your attention and stay on task, you also need to activate it to maintain brain health and maximize creativity. Being productive involves the capacity to shift between different thinking modes as required by context.

When you get comfortable with doing nothing, you won’t give in to the urge to check social media every time you feel bored or to text a friend when you’re stopped at a redlight. Instead of filling your calendar with meetings, appointments, activities and events, you will savor the white space. You will be less prone to work addiction and more intentional with your downtime. You will be less reactive to negative feedback and more thoughtful in your responses.

When you do nothing, you allow yourself to reflect, ponder, daydream, rest and spark creative thought. You disengage from chronic busyness, which often causes high stress, fatigue, insomnia, and burnout, as well as harm to significant relationships.

Doing nothing is an overlooked path to getting the right things done. Although self-regulation and high focus are critical, you also benefit from divergent thinking and making new connections with an idle, wandering mind.

Of course, you wouldn’t get anything done if you did nothing and had your mind drift without any restraints. There is a time and place for everything. Focus is necessary if you’re a surgeon performing an operation, a lawyer presenting at trial, or a speaker giving a talk.

But instead of spinning your wheels, keeping yourself busy with busy work, and producing crap results due to long work hours, why not just do nothing?

What does it mean to do nothing? The Dutch term for it is: Niksen, which literally means to do nothing, idle, sit around, lounge about, or hang about, says Carolien Hamming, author of Niksen: The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. In her Special Note to the Reader, she writes:

“Niksen is a stress reducing and mindful practice from the Netherlands. Practical examples are staring out the window, sitting on the couch or lying in bed. Niksen helps us slow down and celebrate the moment of not achieving. Niksen is similar to mindfulness, yet you don’t need anything special to do nothing.”

You can people-watch and observe nature, with no distractions, e.g. no cell phone in hand, no book to read, no music in the background. There are no intentions, goals or purpose, other than to just be. Allow your mind to wander without coming back to the present moment (which is different from meditation or mindfulness).

Intentionally doing nothing is not just mindless relaxation. It is a complementary, sister practice to meditation or mindfulness. You are not accidentally drifting off, but setting a time to do nothing. This could be as short as a 5-minute pause between two goal-oriented tasks, or as long as one hour of quiet time.

To ease yourself into it, you may pair it with a task that requires little or no concentration, like walking around your neighborhood, doing the dishes, playing with your kids, or folding your laundry.

Doing nothing is often very uncomfortable, especially for high-achieving do-ers. But as a long-term, consistent practice, it will help you reduce overwhelm, avoid overwork, make deliberate choices, let go of unfinished business, and attend to what really matters.

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Hitting Pause or Stopping?

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to let go… of a creative endeavor, a personal goal, or a work project that requires effort and commitment. It’s not always clear when to quit it or when to stick with it. It’s not easy to choose between hitting pause (to get back to it later) and stopping (to perhaps never get back to it).

I have random questions come up when I’m at such a crossroad. How do I sort through what matters most? Does the dream of completing a particular project serve me or is it toxic to hold on to it? When is it more critical to rest and reflect, than to work harder and hustle more? 

In 2019, I took a long hiatus from blogging on personal productivity. This took a back seat to running my thriving law practice, writing commentaries on U.S. immigration topics, and coaching lawyers on legal ethics and wellness issues, as well as cultivating better sleep habits, connecting with friends, and spending quality time with my family (which now includes two very young kids, a 1st grader and a toddler). 

It was not until last month that I finally got around to publishing articles again on dyanwilliams.com. Besides this one, there are two more: Staying Solo Successfully and When to quit (or stick)

When I launched the blog in July 2012, I wrote and published a lot more regularly, sometimes up to four articles per month. Back then, I was not a parent, I did not have a solo law practice, and I had way fewer responsibilities. Those were the days when I practiced yoga for an hour and savored tea in the morning. Now I’m lucky if I get 15 minutes of yoga time before my kids wake up and a quick gulp of tea before we start the day as a family.  

Currently, I run three blogs. The Legal Immigrant is a lead generator that significantly establishes my authority, attracts ideal clients and ranks high on search engine results for U.S. immigration solutions. The Ethical Lawyer is convenient for housing articles that accompany presentations and talks I do on legal ethics and wellness issues for lawyers, which is a secondary practice.

The personal productivity blog is the one I hit pause on the longest because it’s more of a creative endeavor. And like most unnecessary creating projects, it often gets overlooked while I’m dealing with daily necessaries and things that pay and have target completion dates or strict deadlines.

Over the last couple years, I’ve thought about shutting down the blog. Or just forget about updating it with fresh content. But around this time of the year (fall season or the fourth quarter), I begin to really miss writing for the blog. Then I’ll put out a few articles and say to myself that I’ll be more consistent next year.

Unless I commit to a regular blogging schedule or somehow monetize the blog, there is unlikely to be weekly or even monthly publishing. I do, however, expect to keep posting articles here as long I have something helpful to say to subscribers and readers and I enjoy sharing my thoughts, ideas and observations through blog posts. Truth be told, I find this more fun and rewarding than binge watching Netflix shows.

In his first book, The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, Todd Henry discusses the value and importance of Unnecessary Creating. He writes:

“It’s tempting to resist this technique because we think it will add stress to our lives – yet another thing we have to cram into our schedule. But the experience of those who incorporate this practice is quite different. They find that it actually clarifies their thoughts, makes them more efficient, and reintroduces a level of passion for their on-demand creating. In addition, our Unnecessary Creating is often the best source of new insights for our on-demand creative work.”

As I write this article, I’m getting close to celebrating Thanksgiving Day and will soon begin planning for 2020 (the start of a new decade!). While there are work projects left undone and personal goals still unmet, I appreciate the deliberate choices I did make and the meaningful work I did complete. 

There are limits on your time, energy and attention. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense to prioritize the time-sensitive projects that pay the bills. But to truly flourish and thrive – after basic needs are met –  there has to be some unnecessary creating. Otherwise, you risk facing unbearable boredom or complete burnout.

You might not have a full hour every week to engage with your creative endeavor. But you can always carve out at least 15 minutes a day to get small doses or to make tiny progress. Or start with one minute and see where that leads. And don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make time for it right away.  You’ll eventually experience creative stagnation and will act on that not-going-away awesome idea, one way or the other.

When unnecessary creating draws you away from daily necessaries and serious projects, you put it in sleep mode rather than shut it down. You can hit pause for the time being instead of stop it altogether. Just get back to it, even if it’s only once or twice a year when you could really use a creative boost.

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Photo by: adonyig

Staying Solo Successfully

On October 20, I celebrated my fifth year as a solo lawyer at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. While purists might argue it’s not a real “law firm” — since it has no full-time staff and runs on a virtual office platform — I am staying solo successfully.

At this point, I still have no desire to hire my first employee, take out a business loan for growth and expansion, or rent an office space for clients and prospects to stop by and see me whenever they please.

I work with skilled, independent professionals who help me on a project basis without constant check-ins. I focus on a select group of clients instead of attend to the masses. I avoid lease payments for an office space by using technology to attract and communicate with clients who don’t need regular or any in-person meetings. I charge for my authority and expertise in (usually complex, low-supply, high-demand) niche areas instead of bill by the hour (which punishes higher productivity and rewards longer work hours).

Although there are things I could do in my business to improve it or to stretch further beyond my comfort zone, I am grateful for the clientele it reaches, the flexibility it allows, and the income it generates. At least in today’s economic climate, I get to choose the clients I want to work with and the matters I want to take on.

On most days, I am making progress on projects and completing tasks that are my top priorities. I spend fewer days putting out fires and getting overwhelmed with distractions and interruptions. I enjoy working mostly from my home office, and occasionally at the local library or in a favorite coffee shop. And I have generated a sustainable income that has eliminated the biggest fear I had when I started my solo practice, i.e. becoming unemployable.

The setup I have is a dream-come-true. It is ideal for someone, like me, who hates daily commutes to work, prefers deep thinking over group discussions, and is more interested in having a higher take-home pay (with fewer expenses) than in generating a higher gross revenue (with bigger expenses.)

There is no shame in keeping your business small. Before you start expanding by leasing your first office space or moving to a bigger one, hiring more employees, increasing your client caseload, etc., think about whether you really want all of that. While taking these steps could boost your revenue and make your business seem more “legitimate”, they come with a higher cost and possibly more stress. Building a bigger business won’t necessarily create more time for sipping mai tais on a tropical beach, going on a yoga retreat, or taking solo “think weeks” in a cabin in the woods (like Bill Gates).

Are you prepared to hire and fire people? Do you have the skillset or desire to mentor, lead, train and manage a staff? Do you want to pour more attention on building your ideal team versus serving your ideal client? Are you inclined to take on a wider variety of matters rather than niche down on your top areas of interest? Have you factored in how you will maintain cash flow with additional costs?

If you’re a solopreneur who thinks scaling up or achieving success requires rapid and unchecked growth, read Paul Jarvis’ Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business.  A company of one can involve teamwork, delegation and collaboration, have systems and procedures, and generate a high net income. You don’t have to grow your business to one that hires a full-time staff, has multiple physical locations, or can be sold in the end.

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While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to or striving to build a bigger business, it’s not right for everyone or right in any season or stage of your life.

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Photo by: jdesroc