Don't Just Do Something; Stand There!

We are an impatient lot. Our minds buzz with endless high-frequency scanning of ourselves and our environment for what’s wrong.

There are so many problems to be fixed, and not just the technical, lawn mower won’t start kind, but the messy, human kind.

There’s anxiety, stress, being late, being early, anger, confusion, discomfort, loneliness, overstimulation, disconnection, disappointment, fear, overwhelm, lack of purpose, fatigue, sadness, stuck-ness, meaninglessness, burn out, aching, itching, nausea, heat, cold, hunger, thirst, sleepiness, lethargy, restlessness, and—ironically—boredom (how can we be bored with so many problems to solve?). Boredom is how we turn the lack of a problem into a problem.

This fixation on problems large and small is our nature. It is our culture, too. We should have a “bias for action,” right? We are always on, always connected, always on the move, always trying to somehow alter the status quo.

When our problem-detector gets triggered, action feels way better than inaction, and action item number one is often to launch an investigation. We ask “why?” Why do I feel anxious? Why did she say that? Why do I have a headache? Why is he always late?

The trouble is, the real answers to “why” are absurdly complex when it comes to human behavior, and often beyond our reach.

Let’s consider two such problems, one intra-, and one inter-personal:

Example 1:

You are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life: work, spouse, kids, pets, family, friends, house, yard, cars, finances, writing a weekly newsletter, and so on. You feel impossibly burdened. Every step feels like slogging through heavy, wet mud. This is not a pleasant feeling. Unpleasant feelings are a problem.

Example 2:

One of your direct reports gives an uncharacteristically harsh and sarcastic response to a seemingly innocuous question from a coworker in a meeting. It was inappropriate. This also is a problem. You’re the boss, which makes it your problem.

The Move to Action

Problem blips now blinking on your radar, you launch your mental investigation. Why am I feeling overwhelmed? Why the snarky, unprofessional response?

You might come up with many theories. All of them will be incomplete at best. The real answer is at once deeply unsatisfying and incredibly liberating, if we allow it to be.

Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky provides the deceptively simple answer:

The behavior occurred because of what came before it.

Told you it was unsatisfying.

For the liberating part, we need to go a little deeper and ask, how long before? Sapolsky frames the prior causes of behavior in ever-larger time scales, and that’s where things get interesting.

To illustrate this, we will alternate between our two examples: 1) your overwhelm, and 2) your direct report’s out-of-character harshness.

These problems were caused by what came before them, but, more precisely, they were caused by what came…

  1. One second before: Your direct report snapped at his coworker because neural circuits fired in specific patterns in his brain, ultimately firing the motor neurons that control the muscles used for speech. We begin with the literal physical, biochemical causes of muscle movements. 
  2. Seconds to minutes before: You feel overwhelmed because you looked at your packed calendar. You reviewed your task list. You saw last night’s dishes stacked in the dishwasher. Sensory stimuli are received and processed, and your brain and body respond with a feeling of overwhelm.
  3. Minutes to hours before: Your coworker had more coffee than usual this morning. The dopamine spike is now followed by a sharp dopamine dip, which can make people impatient. Short-term hormonal fluctuations alter mood and increase / decrease our brain’s sensitivity to various neurotransmitters, shaping how we respond to stimuli. Don’t be tempted to reply with “just drink less coffee!” The coffee was just one factor among hundreds, all of them interacting with each other.
  4. Days to months before: It is autumn, and the decreasing daylight hours have triggered numerous longer-term hormone shifts that make you feel less resilient. Everyone is subject to many biological and environmental factors that influence hormone levels over weeks and months, all of which affect how we experience and respond to life.
  5. Months to years before: Your direct report lost his spouse to cancer eight years ago and has been impacted by grief and the stress of single-parenting. Experiences over time modify brain structure and function, affecting behavior, for better and for worse.
  6. In childhood and adolescence: A million things, good and bad, happened to you throughout childhood. Many had a positive impact. Others made it harder for you to juggle competing priorities. Early developmental experiences and epigenetic changes set the foundation for later behavior.
  7. At conception and gestation: Your coworker’s behavior, like everyone else’s, is strongly influenced by his genes. Genetic predispositions and prenatal conditions strongly influence (but do not dictate) the potential for certain behaviors.
  8. Generations before: Your ancestors contributed their genes, of course, but they also created culture in response to their circumstances. That culture strongly influences how you interact with the world. America has a culture of rugged individualism. An inability to conquer all adversity and pull yourself up by your bootstraps is seen as a personal shortcoming. It is seen as a problem.
  9. Millenia before: Your direct report is a human, evolved, like all of us, over millions of years to respond to our environment in certain ways, including how we respond to perceived threats. Ancient circuits fire in response to modern triggers, sometimes appropriately and to our benefit, sometimes inappropriately in the form of snarky responses in business meetings.

Why might this explanation feel less than satisfying? Sapolsky's analysis, while accurate, seems to offer no immediately actionable information—not so helpful in fulfilling our burning desire to fix stuff (now).

How is it useful?

This framing of the myriad factors that influence behavior can be deeply liberating, while also making us far more effective, for at least two reasons:

First, it releases you from the compulsion to figure out why. Often, there is simply no attainable answer to that tantalizing question. After just a few decades of effort, I have finally learned that there is only one answer to why I sometimes feel depressed. Because of what came in the seconds, minutes, hours, decades, generations, and millenia before. End of story. Often a lengthy inquiry into the source just makes things worse. I’m better off taking a nap. Accepting that you have a “why” problem is the first step to recovery. :-)

Second, it demonstrates that there is often nothing to fix, and the best action is frequently no action. Notice that you cannot control any of these factors, at least not directly. Our searches are futile and our solutions off-target. We waste time and take wrong action, creating even more problems. Our effectiveness suffers needlessly.

Furthermore, up to the scale of months or even years, real causes change like the weather. If you can resist the problem of hunger for just twenty minutes, it often fixes itself. If you can tolerate your frustration with your boss for twelve hours, you might find it just evaporates. In reality, emotions have a short half-life. It is only our rumination that keeps them alive. “Sleep on it” is good advice for a reason.

But I can't just do nothing...

There are, of course, real problems that demand well-considered action. If your overwhelm persists, you might need to make some changes. If your direct report’s snarkiness becomes a pattern, you will have to address it.

And doing nothing is not really doing nothing; it’s an active sport. You first have to notice your urge to find a cause and fix it, then you have to actively resist the temptation to do so.

Inserting that pause is not easy, but the next time you encounter a problem—and it won’t be long—try a different approach: Don’t just do something; stand there!

If you do, many problems will simply go away, leaving you more time and more bandwidth to effectively solve the ones that don’t.

Wisdom, as the famous serenity prayer very wisely points out, is knowing the difference, and that’s where we can help. Schedule a free, 30-minute introductory executive coaching session to find out how.

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