All Articles Leadership Careers The Zen master's to-do list: Do nothing and accomplish everything

The Zen master’s to-do list: Do nothing and accomplish everything

6 min read


If you’re a workaholic like me, you wake up rearing to dig into your to-do list every day (this includes weekends). Secretly you know that you can’t possibly get it all done that day, but no harm in trying, right? Wrong. There is an old Zen saying:

“Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.” — Lao Tzu

I know what you’re thinking: “I’m getting paid to produce, get things done, make things happen. You want to tell my boss I’m practicing not-doing? Plus, secretly you know I get a kick from making things happen so if I did nothing, I’d just crawl into a fetal position and die of depression.” I know exactly how you feel. I struggle with this too. But here is why “not-doing” has the power to change the way we work and live.

What is not-doing?

When I first read this Zen saying, my rational brain refused to process it. How can laziness lead to productivity? Besides, if I just hang out in my pajamas all day, who pays my bills?

Then I had a Zen epiphany in my Zumba class.  We were learning a move called the “shimmy.” It’s where you shake different parts of your body super-fast. At first I tried to do this from my head, consciously willing the muscles to move fast.  It took a lot of focus and effort, and I wasn’t really very good. It felt strained. Frustrated, I just took a deep breath, stopped trying, and let go. Then it happened. My body took over from the brain and just started following the rhythm. I was “shimmying” effortlessly, and it felt good. What happened was “not-doing” — effortless action and result.

Newton’s law of motion

For those who don’t spend their spare time learning how to shimmy, here’s Isaac Newton’s way of looking at this from his first law of motion: A body in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an external force. It’s the law of inertia.

What Lao Tzu discovered centuries prior to Newton is that we are already “in motion” as part of the flow of the universe, and that when we resist the flow, we take unnecessary action. Not-doing is taking away the “unnecessary action” that clutters up our minds, our to-do lists, our sanity, and our lives.

Apply this to my to-do list for today

Enough of the philosophy and science. Here’s how this applies to my daily to-do list:

  1. Take time to pause and tune in. When we are in constant action, we have no time for rest or reflection. Taking a pause allows us to pay attention, to scan the environment (ours, others), and decide what really needs to get done.   Just yesterday, I woke up ready to dive into my long to-do list (I take great pleasure in putting a “done” check mark next to each to-do item).  Instead I took a deep breath, did my 20-minute meditation, and realized that I could take off a few of my to-do’s off the list … not by running around doing them, but by concluding that they didn’t matter.  (OK, I confess I still gave myself a check-mark!) Now, that’s what I call not-doing!
  2. Go with the flow. I decide what my priorities are in work and in life. I take action toward those priorities, but I’ve stopped forcing things or pretending I’m “overly in-charge.”  If it feels like I am putting too much effort or forcing things to happen, I stop and go back to No. 1.  The best way I’ve found to go with the flow is to see what shows up as “perfect” and look for the opportunity rather than resist it.
  3. See what results happen without you. I don’t try to over-plan the details of everything.  Sometimes our egos cause us to think that if we weren’t around, the blade of grass outside would wither and die.  Have faith in the natural order of things. Have faith in others. Have faith that it will get done.  Some of my best clients have come to me without much effort on my part.  I breathe and my heart beats without conscious effort. What do you get without much effort on your part?
  4. Discern between “inspired doing” vs. “industrious doing.” There are times when we are learning or creating something that feels inspired. We are in motion, having impact, but without much effort on our part. This is a state of positive energy called flow.  Then there are the times when we feel like we’re on the Stairmaster — sweating really hard and not getting anywhere. Learn to discern between these two types of doing and move toward “inspired doing.”
  5. Manage the resistance. When we find ourselves in “industrious doing,” it’s time to let go and go to step No. 1. Notice if the resistance is internal (i.e., you’re sabotaging yourself) or external (something doesn’t want to happen). Find a wiser course of action. The water in a flowing river goes around the rocks. Give yourself permission to stop doing what’s not working.

Paradigm Shifts

This “not-doing” requires conscious paradigm shifts in to-do lists and our life:

  • Redefine productivity from getting the most done to  having the greatest impact with the least effort.
  • Redefine “doing nothing” from laziness to intelligent action.
  • Redefine “perspective-taking” time from “wasted” to highly productive time (it’s Covey’s “sharpening the saw”).
  • Redefine the mark of a leader as someone who succeeds “by pushing hard” to someone who “wisely looks for flow.”
  • Redefine the belief that “if it’s to happen, we’re going to have to do it,” to trusting that we are well taken care of.
  • Redefine our belief that “life is meant to be a struggle” to “life is meant to be effortless.” It is if we pursue inspired action.
  • Redefine success in our to-do list and in life from acquiring (things, accomplishments, control, self-importance) to letting go (non-attachment to things, accomplishments, control, self-importance).

So take a look at your to-do list for today. Notice “inspired doing” vs. “industrious doing.” Add “not-doing” time each morning to your to-do list to reflect and let go. Take some Zumba classes!

Then, send me a note and remind me to do the same. I need all the help I can get.

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership, a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. As a former C-suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam on Twitter and at her blog.