Mum’s Advice – When in Doubt, Do Nothing

Mum's advice: sit before taking the stairs

Mum’s Advice

Have you ever felt wracked with indecision? Wondering … what to do. What should I do? I don’t know what to do.

During a particular tricky point in my life when I didn’t know what to do, my mother offered me this advice.

“If you don’t know what to do, the best thing is to do nothing at all,” she said.

And so I didn’t. I stopped pondering, worrying, wondering and fretting, and I let inertia take over.

As a person of action, I sometimes think this is the worst advice my mother ever gave me. It took away doubt and replaced it with … what? Stagnation? There was no growth. The world ground to a halt. And worse, it carried on in the most dismal of conditions, as I went through the motions on all the usual things but with no decision made on the most burning of questions—what should I do?

In another way, it was super helpful. It allowed me to put the issue out of my mind and attend to the basics—sleep, eat, shower, dress, work, eat, clean, sleep. To continue functioning.

Doing nothing becomes an easy-to-follow routine. Life goes on.

Routine Or Rut?

The structure of a routine is great … until it isn’t. When a routine becomes a rut, it’s time for change.

If I notice myself running in a rut, it’s usually because I feel ready to scramble my way out. I don’t like how it feels down there and I want to get out. I often only take action when I’m certain about what I want to do. There’s not a lot of spontaneity in my decision, but once I’ve made up my mind, then look out—I’m not going back in that rut! My mum’s advice to do nothing often leads to my greatest certainty in a decision.

Book Recommendation

Your Mother Was Right, book by Sandra McDowell
Sandra McDowell will speak at #TIConv2017

Doing absolutely nothing might be the best advice of all for a busy life inside a busy world. Sandra McDowell’s book, Your Mother Was Right: 15 Unexpected Lessons About Leadership and the Brain, demonstrates the link between neuroscience and common sense advice passed down by mothers through the generations. It’s a wonderful book for increasing one’s leadership capacity.

Among many other fascinating things, I learned (in Part V of the book) that the conditions for insight depend on a resting brain. And I certainly do feel better when I take some time in the day to do absolutely nothing. Hey, maybe that’s what my mum meant. Is this an unexpected lesson for me? Maybe my mother was right.





  1. My old guru used to say: “Don’t just do something — sit there!” Another teacher of mine suggests that all our “doing” amounts to an attempt to sustain the illusion that we are a separate self with free will. I think that “doing nothing” gives us a chance to check out these assertions. The Zen monks have been checking it out for centuries. ~ PJ


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