In Defense of Shiftlessness

If you want to motivate yourself to keep doing something, rather than getting lazy and copping out, here’s an idea: Make “do nothing” one of the choices you present yourself with.

The reason, according to a study by University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Rom Y. Schrift and Georgia State University marketing professor Jeffrey R. Parker, is that adding in the do-nothing choice makes us more likely to persevere in what we set out to do.

For instance, if you plan to start working out and join Gym A or Gym B, add in the option of not joining any gym at all.

“Whether it is workplace management, the health care arena or parenting, a subtle addition of a seemingly innocuous option can actually make someone want to do something even more,” an article in Knowledge@Wharton explains.

Puzzling? “It sounds counterintuitive because we assume that the option of doing nothing reduces persistence,” Schrift tells Knowledge@Wharton. “However, if I choose something, I learn about my preferences. Just knowing that fact helps us persist longer when there’s adversity or hardship.”

Peter Drucker would surely have agreed that giving yourself the option of doing nothing can be clarifying. In particular, it can help you figure out what the decision is really about, a topic we’ve addressed before. Gym A or Gym B may really be a decision about how much to work out, for example.

Photo: Ian Britton

But Drucker would also likely add that sometimes the option to “do nothing” is a good one to consider because sometimes it’s best to, well, do nothing. As Drucker pointed out in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices: “There is one question the effective decision-maker asks: ‘Is a decision really necessary?’ One alternative is always the alternative of doing nothing.”

And sometimes, in fact, “there are those conditions with respect to which one can, without being unduly optimistic, expect that they will take care of themselves even if nothing is done.” That’s why Drucker advised, “If the answer to the question ‘What will happen if we do nothing?’ is ‘It will take care of itself,’ one does not interfere.”

It’s a rule too often ignored by decision makers (not to mention gym rats).

How do you deal with the pressure to make a decision when no decision is needed?