My stepmother frequently urged those around her to “Do something!” This command was repeated by her until you began to act on her urging to accomplish whatever goal she set her mind to. She was far from unique in preferring immediate action as the solution to problems versus taking time to deliberate on the best course, which sometimes involved doing nothing. The difficulty is our whole society has an action bias: We would rather be seen doing something than nothing, even if the latter is the best strategy.
Thomas J. Watson, the longtime CEO of IBM in the early 1900’s, complained: “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. Knowledge is the result of thought, and thought is the keynote of success in this business or any business.”
One reason we have a bias toward doing something is that we are rewarded for the simple appearance of activity. Many view constant busyness as mark of status. Yet, this conventional wisdom about busyness is wrong. In a 2015 study in the Harvard Business Review, Erin Reid published a paper correlating performance of those putting in excessive hours versus those who didn’t, and could find no difference in the results of their output. Managers could also not tell the difference of the results of those who put in longer hours than those who only claimed to do so. If overwork brings no real benefits, why are we so reluctant to pause for thinking and learning?
For soccer fans, some of the most dramatic moments are the penalty kicks deciding the outcome of the entire match. The ball is placed centered on the goal, 11 meters away. The goalie must stay on or behind the goal line, but may move either left or right before the ball is actually kicked. Surprisingly, the goalie’s best strategy may be not to move at all. In 2007, there was a study of 300 penalty kicks in professional soccer matches, finding that goalies jump to the left 49.3% of the time, and to the right 44.3% of the time, staying on the center only 6.3% of the time. Kicks went left, right and center 32.2%, 28.7% 39.2% of the time, respectively. Goalies are more likely to stop the ball just by staying put. When goalies were questioned why they preferred to dive to one side or another instead of staying put, most goalies responded that they would regret a goal more if they stayed in the center instead of diving to try and stop it. In other words, they wanted to be seen doing something, even if that something was wrong.
It’s the same fear of regret of not doing something that drives many of our workday decisions. However, taking the time to think, reflect, and approach problems in a more rested state is likely to prove to be the better strategy.