It might seem counterintuitive, but having the option of doing nothing increases your productivity. Here’s the reasoning.

Being productive when your to-do list is endless often means making difficult choices about what comes first, and “nothing” rarely gets a place on that priority list.

But though it might seem counterproductive, behavioral scientists believe that introducing the option of doing nothing into a set of choices helps you get more done. (Click here to tweet this thought.)

Alter your decision-making technique

Research conducted by Wharton and Georgia State University professors shows that we can induce desirable outcomes by simply altering our decision-making technique.

Behavioral scientist and lead researcher Rom Schrift explains that it can be useful to allow ourselves the luxury of a “do-nothing” alternative, because it teaches us something about our preferences and motivates us to see goals through to the end.

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

For instance, if you give yourself the option of going to the gym after work or jogging before work, you might choose the second option, but without knowing why. You’d probably do your best to stick with the new routine for a week or two, but give up once the novelty wears off.

But if you’d given yourself the option of not doing any exercise at all and still picked the morning jog, you’d be more likely to push through the adversity because you know you’d rather jog than not exercise at all.

By simply rephrasing the question, you learned something about your attitude and preferences.

What you think and do becomes your truth

These findings tie in with the self-perception theory, which says we draw conclusions about who we are from the behaviors we engage in.

If you ever returned a lost wallet, you probably told yourself you did it because you’re an honest person. But a more likely explanation for your good deed is that you felt subtle outside pressure to return the wallet — perhaps you wanted to impress those around you.

Because you fail to recognize this pressure, you draw the conclusion that you’re honest and kind, and as a result, you begin to modify future attitudes and actions to match this self-perception.

To test the theory, Schrift and his colleagues carried out three separate experiments to observe people in different conditions. One was a forced-choice condition, where participants had to pick between choices A or B. The other was a no-choice condition, where they could choose between A, B or nothing.

In each case, the researchers found that when they had the option of doing nothing, participants became more tenacious. But there was one catch: the no-choice option had to be presented alongside the A or B choices. If presented first, it didn’t help participants perform better.

Applying the no-choice learning mechanism in your everyday life

We can learn to bolster goal attainment by merely giving ourselves the option of doing nothing, and this is a learning mechanism that can be applied in many different scenarios.

Sticking to a diet, regularly visiting the gym and working through personal or professional challenges are all instances in which persisting is beneficial and important. By using the right incentive structures, one can drastically reduce or eliminate the tendency of opting out, while maintaining the positive impact that no-choice options have on persistence.” — Schrift

When it comes to helping other people accomplish what they set out to do, the researchers suggest adopting an approach of giving people a “do-nothing” option whenever possible.

This way, when the going gets tough, or someone is ready to give up, you can remind them that the path they chose was voluntary: They didn’t have to do it; they wanted to.

Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges, one of Australia’s leading online education providers. She writes about everything from lifehacks and career advice to learning tips and the latest research in education. You can connect with her on Google+ and Twitter, or view her latest articles here.


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  2. Barbara Mckinney

    Thanks for sharing this article Marianne. Now I know why doing less (nothing at all) can actually make you more productive. This article is not just applicable in the workplace, we could use these tips in dealing with our daily activities.

  3. Marianne Stenger

    Thanks Barbara, I’m so glad you found it helpful!

  4. Lorie Lewis

    Amazing article Marianne. I truly believe that doing ‘nothing’ in our conscious mind, and really making an effort to tune into our subconscious mind is an amazingly productive way to live. By selecting to choose a goal or task over doing nothing, you’re giving it value and you reinforce that it must be a good goal or task for you to take on — so you put in more work.

  5. Marianne Stenger

    Thanks Lori! So true, our subconscious mind and its impact on our behaviour is fascinating, and the better we understand it, the better we will be able to craft our thoughts and actions.

  6. jrandom421

    I want to watch someone explain to a supervisor that they’re being productive when they’re doing nothing, as security escorts them out the building.

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