The Nothing Alternative

by Site Author

It’s now normal to spend the whole work day in front of a computer. So there we sit and plug away at our e-mails and documents and code. The computer doesn’t just help us get work done, it also helps us procrastinate. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and instant messenger are all just a click away. They are a click away when the ideas are flowing, and when they are not. And when we are stuck, those sites are an incredible temptation.

All of this leads people to disable their own web browsers. I remember being in graduate school and learning that a top professor there had installed a temptation blocker on her computer. Now, this was a top academic researcher, at the very top of her field. And so, I remember thinking, if she needed that kind of help, then what hope do I have? And so off I went, installing all sorts of gizmos to keep me from the news.

Temptation blockers help, but they aren’t perfect. There’s always one newspaper or site that you didn’t block. And, of course, there’s always the water cooler, the phone, co-workers, and other old-fashioned forms of procrastination.

It takes willpower to avoid temptation. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney have written an excellent book about the topic. Towards the end of their book, they propose one intriguing approach. They call it “The Nothing Alternative.”

Raymond Chandler, who was bewildered by writers who could churn out prose every day. Chandler had his own system for turning out The Big Sleep and other classic detective stories. “Me, I wait for inspiration,” he said, but he did it methodically every morning. He believed that a professional writer needed to set aside at least four hours a day for his job: “He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.”

Baumeister and Tierney describe The Nothing Alternative as a “bright-line rule:” “If I can’t write, I will do nothing.” It is a surprisingly effective way to get things done. But it does mean that you might spend an awful lot of time just sitting there. You have to remind yourself that, sometimes, the job really is to stare out the window.