Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing

For many of us, the hardest thing to do is nothing.

We are hardwired to fill every waking moment with some activity, no matter how trivial. We flip on the radio or TV while getting ready in the morning. We listen to podcasts while driving. We check Twitter or Facebook while on the toilet.

When I sat down to write this little blog post, I flipped through the channels to see if any good soccer games were playing on TV. And then I scrolled online, looked at some friends’ running blogs, and watched a video about some random 5k race in Cork, Ireland.

This is what I did while getting ready to write a blog post about the importance of eliminating the trivial from my life. So I suppose I should begin this with the caveat that I am at least a partial hypocrite about what I’m saying here.

The results of a 5k race in Ireland or a soccer game in Spain will not make my life better or worse. Most Facebook updates are quintessentially trivial. And every second I spend with my attention occupied by crap like that, I’m not doing something that truly matters to me. I’m not doing something great.

It’s the third beer on a Thursday; the seventh season of the TV show we only kind of like; the middle-of-the-season football game where we don’t even care about the outcome; the book we’re reading that’s just okay; it’s the fourth time of the day you check Facebook; the meeting you go to because you don’t have anything better to do.

This is where greatness goes to die.

We’re so anxious when we have nothing to do, that we scurry to find something to occupy our time and attention. And by filling our time with the trivial or the mediocre, we never do what really matters.

Gardening and the Inherent Subjectivity of What Constitutes a Great Thing

On a long enough time horizon, the importance of everything we do is ultimately the same.

But even if nothing we do matters on a cosmic time horizon, every decision we make most certainly has consequences for our own lives. If we live in the city or the country. If we marry our high school sweetheart or someone we meet on Tinder or if we never get married at all. The job we work. What we eat and drink. How we spend every minute of our free time.

Decisions matter.

My grandfather loved to garden. He built a greenhouse out of spare parts from my uncle’s farm in his late 80s. He was walking out to that greenhouse when, at age 90, he had a heart attack and died.

Gardening gave him joy. He would have been proud to know that he died working on something he built with his own hands, something he loved.

I don’t like gardening at all. I pay someone to mow my lawn.

I like writing blog posts like this. This is my garden.

I don’t think my blog matters more or less than my grandfather’s greenhouse. But I know writing matters more to me than gardening.

I know myself well enough to know the things that make me happy and the things that give me joy. And it’s those things — the things that give me joy — where I know should spend my time.

Make a List

Too many people try to find one thing that gives them joy. Some people are like that – they have one thing they enjoy doing at the exclusion of all others. Some people have found their Rushmore.

But for most people, it’s not just one thing: It’s a series of things.

I think it’s helpful to make a list of what you consider to be great things. And to only do those things.

Walking through the Grand Canyon at dawn. Playing with your daughter. Taking pictures of mountain lakes. Kayaking. Lying in the grass with the sun beating down on your face. Yoga. Recording an album. Swing dancing. Fly fishing. Going for a walk in the park. Spending time with your best friends. Volunteering for your favorite charity. Whatever you love. It can be a mountain or a garden or a sandwich. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. Greatness is often very simple.

Figure out the things that give you joy. Make a list. Write it down. Keep it close.

And then, in your spare time, do only those things. Or do nothing.

(And if your “great things” list intersects with what you do professionally, well then you, my friend, have won the jackpot.)

It’s your list. If watching Dexter truly gives you joy, then put it on the list. But if what you’re doing isn’t on your list of great things, then why are you doing it? 

Washing Dishes

Some mundane tasks are derivative of great things that we may take for granted. If you’re washing dishes, it’s because you just had food to eat – that you’re probably not hungry. To me, that’s a great thing. If you’re changing diapers, it’s because you have a child. You’re helping a human being grow to maturity. That’s a great thing. Some great things have side effects that may be unpleasant or boring. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less reflective of the fact that you’re living a great life.

The Importance of Doing Nothing

The real challenge with this way of living is nurturing the ability the ability to avoid doing mediocre things by doing nothing. It’s the act of doing nothing that forces us to think, “ok, so what do I really want to do now?” And then going back to the list of great things and focusing our attention there.

When we let our attention drift or get carried away by Twitter or mediocre TV, our preciously lives slowly get eaten away by activities, which, according to our own standards and opinions, don’t matter to us.

Far be it for me to decide what matters to you. But we should all decide what matters to us. And if that’s not how we spend our time, then the results will be easy to predict.

Do great things, or do nothing. That’s it. That’s the secret to a great life.

All you have to do is remember what those great things are. And that part is actually really easy.

The hard part – the real trick – is the doing nothing part. The hard part is saying no to the constant stream of mediocre things screaming for our attention.

But if you can manage the doing nothing part, the great things part will take care of itself. If you have the courage to do nothing instead of doing what isn’t great, you will do great things.

If you cut out what isn’t worthy your time – the only stuff left to do – is the stuff that really matters.