Three Applications of Non-Action

Homer Simpson practicing non-action                                    


I started Taoism month with the intent of contrasting productivity culture with the Taoist principle of wu-wei, or non-action. However, I’m finding the concept has utility even beyond the world of work.

Emotional non-action

Last week I learned that I will not be attending grad school in the fall. It was disappointing, and my immediate instinct was to “do something” about it. I don’t know exactly what I could have done. There were some immediate things I needed to do, like update all the people that have helped me (recommenders, alumni, etc.), but otherwise nothing fruitful or that would change this particular outcome.

Because I was studying wu-wei, I decided the best course of action was to not react. This strategy worked out well.

Emotional wu-wei could be viewed as mindfulness. If you practice mindfulness, you become skilled in observing your mind and emotional state without judgment. You don’t do anything about it, you just are.

I suspect this is the most valuable type of wu-wei, and can be seen in multiple traditions (often in the guise of detachment). 

Non-action in decision-making

We probably encounter hundreds of little decisions we need to make every week. For example, this weekend I had to make a decision about which bar/restaurant to go to with a friend. As you fellow young urbanites know, this can leads to hours and hours of debate. Though it seems important, it doesn’t really matter.

So what I did I do this time? I just picked one of the two options presented to me without thinking about it. No need to analyze it to death.

This may seem like taking action, but really, I just removed all the tedious analysis of it.

In the end, we ended up going to both places on the list (the first place, a brewery, turned out not to have the rumored free samples).

Here’s another decision I had to make: which item off my to-do list to accomplish. I had to choose between writing a blog post and doing some research for an article I want to pitch. What did I decide? To do neither; I read a book instead.

I went with what felt natural.

I’m not sure what the difference is between purposefully not doing things on my list, and procrastination, but writing this blog post now, the following morning, seems far more effortless than trying to do it on a Sunday afternoon.


One of the things I’m terrible at doing is keeping in touch with friends. I have two college buddies that live across the country and I always think, “man I should really give them a call.” And then I do nothing. Or I call at a time when I know they probably won’t answer.

But here’s the thing, when I do get in touch with them, whether they’re in the area for a work trip or we do manage to get on the phone, it’s great! The conversation is not forced since we have a lot to catch up on, and the relationship is sustained for another few months.

I suspect these relationships would become weaker over time if I tried to force it.

Another example, my friend invited a group of his friends to hang out at one of the restaurants we went to. Actually, he was only friends with one of them, the rest were her friends. So, I’m already at three degrees of separation for the majority of this group.

I didn’t really click with any of them.

Social norms would say I should do my best to engage them and learn more about them and blah blah blah.

This time, I just stayed quiet and let them chat with each other. Trying to force a superficial friendship would have been futile. Sometimes, you just don’t click and you gotta go with the Tao on this one you know? (That would be an interesting way to break up with someone. “It’s not you, it’s the Tao.”)

Perhaps the best relationships are not forced, but rather, grow stronger if both parties are attuned to the natural course of the relationship.

Recap on productivity

If I’m being completely honest with myself, I don’t think I’m more productive than I was before I started Taoism month. I think I’ve maintained the same level of “doing things” as I was before.

The main benefit of Taoist wu-wei as a productivity technique is that you are more conscious of when you’re in that guilty, procrastination stage. You look like you’re working but you’re either browsing the interwebs, or you’re just staring are your word document or spreadsheet without making any progress.

When I’ve hit this stage, instead of continuing try to force work to happen, I just stop. I get a cup of coffee and read a book. I go chat with a friend. Sometimes I just sit and think.

The best part is when I do eventually return to work, I find it’s just a little bit easier to get things done. I don’t get more done, but it feels more natural.

So perhaps the Taoist non-action principle is not so much a prescription of when to do or not do things, but rather, a state of awareness about the circumstances you are in.

But who knows, perhaps I will become a productivity god in my last week of Taoist practice.

Better to stop short than fill to the brim.

Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.

Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.

Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.

Retire when the work is done.

This is the way of heaven.

Chapter 9, Tao Te Ching