On a bias for inaction

Exploring the power of doing less

On a bias for inaction
Photo by Ahmad Odeh / Unsplash

Recently I’ve been studying how to invest for retirement, and I’ve been struck by how different the principles of long-term investing are from the “best practices” of entrepreneurship. 

In investing, inaction is better than action. The goal is to set it and forget it, tending to your asset allocation the way you tend to the batteries in your smoke alarms—maybe twice per year. In entrepreneurship, we’re told the best entrepreneurs have a daily bias for action, an unrelenting pace that starts early in the morning, a hunger to step in and solve problem after problem. 

In investing, the best investors advocate for a general distrust in oneself: you can’t beat the market because no one can. Don’t meddle because you’ll probably mess things up. Create automated systems that leave no room for impetuousness and ego. In entrepreneurship, we’re told that the genesis of all success is a belief in yourself and a willingness to do whatever it takes. We design our organizations to leave plenty of room for brute force and human heroics. 

For the hard-driving entrepreneur, choosing inaction seems like an abdication of responsibility. For the long-term investor, it is a sign of maturity. For the entrepreneur, action is the understandable response to time being short. For the investor, inaction is the understandable response to time being long.

I’ve noticed in myself as an entrepreneur how my bias for action has often been a form of what Brene Brown calls “over-functioning”: an overactive response to make myself busy during times of stress. I’ve seen this in other entrepreneurs, too: their bias for action is not necessarily a proportional response to what their business actually needs as much as it is a form of productive paranoia, a reflexive need to do something when facing the pressure to do everything.

Of course, entrepreneurship is a vastly different game than investing for retirement. But I think that for many entrepreneurs like me, we convince ourselves that our hyperactive productivity is necessary when it is, in fact, a stress response, or worse, some way for us to tell ourselves a story of our own importance. What becomes possible when we challenge ourselves to advance our organizations and make progress, but only through doing less?