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Positive Change Starts With Doing Nothing. No, Seriously.

  Steve Longan     Jul 15, 2014

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When was the last time you just sat and thought for a few minutes?  How was that?  If it's not something you've done in a while, I'd invite you to take 10 minutes to go and do that as soon as you're done reading this article.


But I can already tell you how it's going to go.  Lousy.  Most-likely, it's going to feel very unpleasant unless you have some practice at this.

 

And you're not alone in that.  Most of us feel awful when the main option presented to us is "do nothing and just think." A recent series of studies published in the journal Science found as much. Participants were put into a featureless room and instructed to "entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 6 - 15 minutes." Additionally, some of the participants were given a little button that they could push to give themselves a painful electric shock.  They were told that the main goal of the exercise was to engage in their own thinking, but that they could give themselves a shock if they wanted.

 

What do you think happened with our test subjects?

 

Most of the people in the study reported that being left to their own thoughts was "difficult," "uncomfortable" and "very unpleasant." But, just how unpleasant is "very unpleasant?"  Well, apparently being left to themselves to think was so unpleasant that nearly half of the study participants who were given the option of shocking themselves took it! (and some people multiple times!)

 

But why is stopping and doing nothing but thinking so difficult and what does it have to do with authentic positive change? Let's answer these questions one-at-a-time.

 

1. "Why is stopping and thinking so difficult?" Two words: Lizard Brain (If you've been reading our articles for long, you probably saw this coming a mile away!). But seriously, our minds tend to equate action (any action) with control.  And we associate control with survival. Therefore, action feels like it is always good at some basic level.  And stopping? Well, stopping feels like a sort of death.  Or, think of it this way: Naturally, our days are filled with various actions. But stopping and doing nothing creates a vacuum where there would normally be action in our work.  And if there's one thing we know about nature, it's that it abhors vacuums.

 

2. "What does this have to do with positive change?"  Everything.  Stopping and doing nothing but thinking for a brief time is absolutely essential to positive change. This is how we break negative/unproductive cycles in our work and make the initial step towards growth. Stopping and thinking interrupts our habits and allows us to hold what is familiar up to the light and see if it's really serving us well.  Remember I said that stopping and doing nothing creates a vacuum?  Well, we can think of that vacuum as a precious free space in our lives between cause and effect and cause. And the thinking part of "stopping and thinking" allows us to be intentional about what actions leading to positive change we fill that vacuum with.

 

And here's even better news: stopping and doing nothing but thinking doesn't always have to be for long periods of time such as the study I cited above. It can be for a few seconds; a minute.  Some negative cycles and growth steps will take longer, but anyone can start something really great with a few moments.

 

So, if you're looking for positive growth or to stop a negative cycle: remember, change starts with stopping and doing nothing but thinking.

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Steve Longan

Written by Steve Longan

Steve Longan is Rewire's Director of Research & Program Development. He's passionate about leveraging psychology and communication to develop growing, healthy workplaces. He's at "peak zen" (his words) when he's in his music studio.

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