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How one CEO increased his company's success through "the power of doing nothing at all"

Our culture treats busyness as a badge of honor. One CEO says he found success by doing less.
by Julie Compton /
Aytekin Tank, JotForm founder and CEO, says too many people waste time on busy work.
Aytekin Tank, JotForm founder and CEO, says too many people waste time on busy work.
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Once upon a time, there was an old alligator who slept in a river all day. A young crocodile would often swim by, showing off all the small fish he caught, while the elder ignored him. One day, as the old alligator floated lazily along, he suddenly snatched a wildebeest drinking near the river’s edge.

When the young alligator asked the elder how he did it, the elder responded: “I did nothing.”

It’s a story JotForm founder and CEO Aytekin Tank loves to tell.

“The idea here is that it’s not a good idea to be always busy,” Tank tells NBC News BETTER. “And it’s not a good idea to have all this busy work as opposed to maybe spending time thinking about problems you have and thinking about all the opportunities you might have.”

The entrepreneur, who grew the online form building business into a successful 100+ employee company, says people shouldn’t equate busyness with success. He lays out four reasons people waste time on busyness, and what they should do instead.

Busy people don’t want to deal with tough problems

People would rather get lost in the smaller problems, Tank explains, than have to deal with problems that overwhelm them. But ignoring big problems is a big mistake, he says.

“It’s so easy to put off those things by spending all your time in busy work,” he says.

When Tank was busy growing his company, he says he let his health go to the wayside. Once athletic, he injured his knee and stopped playing sports. He began to gain weight. Losing himself in busy work only contributed to his health woes, he recalls. He hired a personal trainer so he couldn’t make excuses any longer.

“So even though I was busy, I had to be there every morning,” Tank says. “So I kept doing it. I made a habit to go to gym every day, and today I am much more healthy compared to those times.”

Busy people suffer from a ‘busyness-is-a-badge-of-honor’ syndrome

Our modern-day culture treats busyness as a badge of honor, says Tank.

“People want to be seen as very busy at work because they want to prove to their boss that they are giving everything they have,” says Tank, “and at home you want to seem busy to make sure that your partner knows that you share your responsibilities.”

The problem with wearing busyness as a badge of honor, says Tank, is you often neglect “the big stuff.”

“And I think one of the other reasons is sometimes people feel like they don’t deserve what they have,” he says. “And that’s why they’re always in this rush to always prove themselves to others and to themselves, so they are in this constant activity to prove themselves.”

The solution, he says, is to focus on high priorities instead of small problems.

Busy people believe they are not making progress unless they are busy

People like to feel busy because they believe it means they are making progress, explains Tank.

Busy work doesn’t mean progress — it’s only progress if you are working on the high-priority stuff.

“But here’s the thing — busy work doesn’t mean progress,” he insists. “It’s only progress if you are working on the high-priority stuff — like really important stuff.”

Instead of obsessing over the small tasks you need to get done, ask yourself: What is the biggest problem I need to solve right now?

Maybe it’s an issue with your health, a problem at work or an issue with your family. Whatever the matter is, you need to put aside the small stuff and deal with it, says Tank.

“You need to give yourself time — space to pause and reflect and find your biggest constraint — whatever you are dealing with, and focus on solving that constraint and taking care of that opportunity,” says Tank.

Sometimes solutions to major problems come to you while you are doing nothing, says Tank. In fact, he recalls a night when he and some employees went to a wedding together. While they were at the reception, they thought up a solution to a major problem they had been trying to tackle for months. The idea, recalls Tank, just popped up while they were having fun together.

“Even though we had meetings, that idea never came to us,” he says. “But having that down time and just discussing freely without any expectations, just brought that idea to us.”

He says the company now has weekly lunch get-togethers and monthly outings where his employees can unwind and have more fun together.

Busy people are addicted to being busy

The CEO has seen his employees waste too much of their time being busy. The problem, he observes, is addiction.

“I’ve seen this in some people who came to our company, and they were so addicted to working all the time,” remembers Tank. “And I actually had to tell them ‘Stop working at night. Stop sending emails at night, because it’s just not good for you.’”

Tank says he was a former busy-addict himself. He used to spend his weekends constantly looking at his phone, he recalls, instead of paying attention to his wife and two young children.

“And my wife actually said, ‘We’re not spending good quality time’ and ‘Why are you looking at your phone all the time?’”

He says he solved the problem by turning the internet off on his phone during the weekends.

“Disabling the internet really helped me with having better weekends with my family,” says Tank.

Tank says that making more personal time for himself and his employees has taught him that busyness doesn’t equal success.

“What really matters is what you are working on,” says Tank. “Are you really taking care of the highest things that are really high priority, or are you putting that off?”

He adds, “If you want to make impact you need to find the things that are the highest priority and you need to spend your time on it.”

How to embrace the ‘power of doing nothing at all’:

  • Deal with your most difficult problems. Often, we ignore overwhelming problems by burying ourselves in busy work. If you are constantly busy, ask yourself if you are putting off a major dilemma, such as a health concern or an issue at work.
  • Get over your ‘busyness-is-a-badge-of-honor’ mentality. Our modern-day culture treats busyness as a badge of honor. But when you waste time on things that aren’t a priority, you often neglect the bigger problems you need solve.
  • Stop thinking you need to be busy to make progress. When we busy ourselves with lots of small things, it’s easy to believe we are making progress. Instead of obsessing over the small tasks you need to get done, ask yourself: What is the biggest problem I need to solve right now?
  • Confront your addiction to busyness. When we allow ourselves to be constantly overburdened and overstimulated, busyness becomes an addiction. Turn off your phone and any other distractions that may be driving your addiction, and reserve time for yourself where you do nothing at all.

TAKE YOUR CAREER TO THE NEXT LEVEL

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