The art and science of doing nothing

MY DUTIFUL wife, whenever she’s in the mood, would ask me: “What do you like for lunch or dinner?” That’s as if we’ve so many choices. But even when we’re down to only two choices like – fried bangus (milkfish) or coal-roasted tilapia, eggplant, okra and tomatoes, my answer would simply be: “Thanks! I’m OK, I’ll prefer raisin bread and green tea for now.”

At times, when she’s not in the mood of cooking, I’ll be surprised with delivered Chinese fast food on the dining table. The trouble is that in this time of the pandemic, we have to sanitize the box and packaging of the food that was brought in, except you can’t achieve that level of sophistication overnight when you’re starving.

The bottom line is that I’m a picky eater. I prefer Japanese food instead, which is easy to prepare when we talk of ochazuke — rice in a hot green tea topped with salmon, shredded dried seaweed and pickled vegetables — all sourced from a Japanese grocer.

Reflecting on this, a question comes to mind: “What’s making it difficult for me to tell my wife to learn Japanese cooking?” Maybe, it’s too late for her to learn that assuming she’s interested to spend for those expensive ingredients. But no. That’s not the issue. The truth of the matter is — my mind is focused on doing so many things that include researching, reading, analyzing and writing — all things that are imperative to solve difficult management problems posed by my clients.

Many times, eating or taking a break is the least of my concern. I know it’s bad. But that’s how it goes when I’m stuck with volumes of things to do and the timelines that go with it. So, asking me what kind of food I want to eat is simply the least of my concern.

Decision fatigue

Am I suffering from decision fatigue? I’m not sure. But some signs are there. I’m prone to making an irrational decision to skip meals at the right time of the day, take a bath around 12 midnight, sleep from two up to ten in the morning, and do brisk walking at night, instead of early morning for the sunshine. The positive side is that I’m not in a stressful mood contrary to the symptoms of people suffering from decision fatigue.

Maybe drinking three liters of water mildly flavored with apple cider vinegar, eating cereals in low-fat milk, and lots of fruits and vegetables in my daily diet are helping me a lot. Just the same, I silently abhor making decisions whenever my wife asks me about my next meal.

Incidentally, experts like Christopher Anderson equates decision fatigue with “decision avoidance.” In his 2003 research titled “The Psychology of Doing Nothing,” Anderson claims that “decision avoidance” happens when we “avoid decisions by postponing them, failing to act, or accepting the status quo.”

To avoid being confronted with making every day decisions for routine things, extremely busy people like Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and the late Steve Jobs wear the same type of clothes every day. This means owning several dozens of the same style, same brand, same color and same quality that must be ready any time before starting a brand new working day.

Retailers take advantage of the psychology of decision fatigue or decision avoidance. Due to prolonged waiting in lines, by the time customers reach the cashier’s counter, they’ve no will power to resist the temptation of buying Fisherman’s Friend lozenges, Juicy Fruit chewing gums, Mentos mint candies, and M&M chocolate bars that are strategically located near the cash registers. They’re inexpensive and pose no risks of shoplifting because they’re near the cashiers.

Sure, there are exceptions about these products for impulse buying. I’ve seen nail cutters, penlight batteries and toothbrushes. Why on Earth would this qualify as a product for the impulse buyer? I wonder. It’s like putting packets of condom and birth control pills in a customer’s counter for senior citizens.


In the workplace, the solution for management executives who are victims of decision fatigue is to decentralize their decision-making authority to their middle managers, line executives and team leaders. Empowering people up to a certain extent has many advantages for any organization, big or small, regardless of the nature of its business. It’s for work efficiency, business continuity, waste elimination and succession planning, among other things.

The trouble is that many command-and-control top executives hate to delegate even routine things to their supervisors and managers for so many reasons. We can summarize the reasons into one word — autocracy. That’s how Liz Ryan says “command-and-control management is for dinosaurs” in her 2016 article in Forbes. “Autocratic managers believe that nobody they could ever hire will be as smart as they are. They hurt their organizations, its customers and their shareholders.”

Remember if you’re saddled and over-stressed in making too many decisions, because you don’t want to decentralize, then of course, it’s up to you. Therefore, give up some decision-making tasks to your people, subject to certain limitations. Create a formal level of authority to your managers that they could follow in the absence of top management. Do nothing when people ask you to approve the application for a one-day sick leave or a petty cash disbursement request sent in by every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Rather, focus your attention to more important things.

You’ll feel refreshed, relieved and relaxed by doing nothing.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or via

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