Bias for (in)action

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “bias for action” before. You’ll find it on culture walls at many companies and it’s an ideal “trait” for new hires. Having a bias for action means you’re not afraid to make decisions and take action, even when (especially when) you face uncertainty. In a professional setting, this is a strong quality to have and has served many well. It sets the doers apart from the ones who are constantly judging and seeking answers to everything under the sun. Operating in uncertainty is a powerful skill and comes with the acceptance that you will be wrong some times and the humility to accept that. So all in all, a great attribute to have. However, over the past few months, I’ve noticed a few shortcomings in always having a bias for action and having a need to do doing something.

Doing without really thinking

As I was thinking about my next steps and what it is I was going to do next, a number of opportunities presented themselves to me. Initially I was grateful to have multiple options to choose from but as time passed, I was getting fidgety and wanted to just start doing something so that I feel I’m being productive. My “bias for action” self wanted to dive in and get started, and in my mind, I had already picked the one which I was leaning towards and was thinking about everything that would happen once I had in fact made the choice. Luckily, a few days passed by and I started questioning if that was really the best choice. If I had dived into any of the options, I would surely have regretted it and I’m glad I held off making a decision. We’ve all heard the phrase “Let me sleep over it” many times and there’s a lot of value in letting things settle and not jump into new things. This is particularly true for bigger decisions in your personal life. Based on the time horizon and the nature of the decisions, taking a week or even month to decide can be impulsive. In today’s world where things are moving at the speed of light, we over index on doing things, boasting of being biased for action, and don’t spend much time thinking. We get lost in the busyness and make the mistake of conflating it with making progress. I’ve suffered from this even at my work and have written about it here

We’re paid to intervene

In the book Antifragile, Taleb talks about how the world today incentivises intervention and action. He uses the example of doctors and how most them will perform an operation or prescribe medicine, when doing nothing and letting things be, is equally viable an option. Think about the time you got caught a cold. You could visit the doc and he might have given you some meds or you could just let it be and in a week you’d be back to normal. The problem is that no one gets paid for not doing anything, which has translated into this constant need to intervene, to do something and this is embedded deep into how we operate. As you might have figured already, intervention is not always the best strategy and can lead to sub-optimal results. Another factor for this is that we attribute outcomes purely to our decisions, and by doing that, overemphase how much of a difference our decisions make. While our decisions do play a role, the reality is that a lot of it pure luck and chance. Unfortunately accepting that your decisions don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things isn’t that easy. But look back and ask yourself if you had planned to be where you are now — I’m pretty sure the answer will be something like “I have no clue how I got here!”

Doing nothing

So what should one do when faced with a big question? Well, based on what I’ve learnt so far, it’s simple — do nothing. I’m sure you’re already rolling your eyes but here are 2 nuggets to think about

  1. Your brain is constantly processing information. When there’s a big decision to be made, you’ll have a nagging feeling from time to time. That’s usually a sign that your brain is trying to make sense of all the information in your head. It’s like when the fans on your laptop start and make that humming sound. By getting busy and doing things, you are diverting processing power to the activity at hand and thus reducing the bandwidth available to you brain to process the information related to the big decision. So getting busy with random things to calm your anxiety is not very helpful and will only give momentary satisfaction
  2. The realm of question is as vast as the realm of answers. When faced with a question, we quickly take a plunge into the realm of answers, trying to find the right one. But we rarely stop to question the question itself. By taking a pause and doing nothing, you start wondering why you’re even attempting to answer the question in the first place, and that can lead to some very interesting outcomes. The truth is that we are addicted to answers despite knowing that there are so many things we will never find answers to.

Doing nothing is way harder than it seems. Try sitting in one place for 30 mins with your eyes shut. It’s far from child’s play. Here is where I’ve found mediation to help a lot. I don’t know if it’s a direct correlation, but after listening to Naval Ravikant on a Tim Ferris’s podcast, I practiced sitting still for 60 mins everyday. After doing this for a while, I found that I could now spend periods of time doing nothing without having the urge to pick up my phone or be “productive”. In all honesty, I slip back into being prone to distractions very often and it’s still a work in progress

You can read more about the value of doing nothing in “The power of doing nothing at all” and “Why Doing Nothing is Actually One of the Best Things You Can Do”

Be open

You can find answers to your questions from the most unexpected places. I’m sure you’ve experienced this many times in your life. By being open, you’re letting these answers come to you, rather than chasing them. Now I don’t mean sit on you ass all day and wait for an epiphany. But as you try and find your answers in the obvious places, also put yourself into not-so-obvious places and as long as you’re open, you might actually be surprised as the results. Taking a walk in a park has solved many of life’s most complex questions.

To conclude, over the last few months, I’ve learnt the power and importance of taking a pause and doing nothing. Actions are like the tip of an ice berg. Just because it seems insignificant to the eye, it does not mean there isn’t a lot happening under the surface. When we’re doing nothing, we’re giving our minds space to do what it’s best at - think. In the moment this seems very awkward and is accompanied by emotions of guilt. Given that the world doesn’t pay you to do nothing, it’s of no surprise we are never taught the value of this and thus the negative emotions.

So if you’ve been feeling stuck at a big decision, try and do absolutely nothing about it, think about the question, be open and you might just find yourself inching towards to answer which you never expected.

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Reuben Noronha

Reuben Noronha

I write about my experiences and ideas about the future. Startups, Crypto and Living Better are themes I write the most about.