A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry forthcoming—B.P. (3/28)
“Sorry, I can’t go to work tomorrow. I fractured my motivation” (3/28)
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Entry from May 15, 2011
“The problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re finished”

"The problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re finished” has been credited to Ben Franklin (1706-1790) and Groucho Marx (1890-1977), but there’s no evidence that either ever used it. Nelson DeMille’s book, Plum Island (1997), did contain “the problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished,” but DeMille wasn’t the first to used the line.

Nathan S. Mitchell was credited in 1977 and 1978 with “The trouble with doing nothing is that it’s too difficult to tell when you’re finished.” The book 1,001 Logical Laws (1979) called the saying “Stovall’s Law of Negative Inaction.”

“The problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you are finished” has been cited in print since at least 1971, but is of unknown authorship. The saying can be applicable in business and in government.

Similar sayings date much earlier. “The big trouble with ‘doing nothing’ is that it’s apt to be overdone” is from 1925. “The trouble with doing nothing is you can’t quit and rest” has been cited in print since at least 1944.


27 November 1925, Brownwood (TX) Bulletin, pg. 5, col. 7 ad:
The big trouble with “doing nothing” is that it’s apt to be overdone.
(Renfro’s drug stores—ed.)

1 September 1944, Altoona (PA) Mirror, “Mirrorgrams,” pg. 8, col. 2:
The trouble with doing nothing is you can’t quit and rest.

16 April 1950, Oregonian (Portland, OR), “Radio Gag Bag” culled by Larry Wolters, Magazine, pg. 15, col. 1:
Sam (Clowning) Cowling recites from his so-called Fiction and Fact Almanac practically every morning on the Breakfast club. A lot of people think he draws these items fro ma printed almanac. It exists only in his imagination. If he ever should publish it, however, here are some of the observations he has made on the air which he should like to see included:
(...)
The trouble with doing nothing is that you can’t stop and rest. (But now you can rest!)

Google News Archive
11 June 1961, Nevada (MO) Herald, pg. 2, col. 1:
The trouble with doing nothing is that you can’t stop.

1 December 1961, Springfield (MA) Union, pg. 1, col. 2:
Today’s Chuckle
The trouble with doing nothing is that you can’t stop and rest.

Google Books
Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record
Volumes 109-110
1962
Pg. XXI:
A retired, well-heeled friend of ours complains that his major trouble with doing nothing is that he can’t stop and rest.

Google Books
International Stereotypers’ and Electrotypers’ Union Journal
Volume 57
1962
Pg. 26:
The trouble with doing nothing is that you can’t stop and rest.

Google Books
The Normal Woman
By Madeline Gray
New York, NY: Scribner
1967
Pg. 338:
Hotel women, even more than career women, are the great complainers about insomnia. Dr. William Menninger puts this into a memorable sentence when he says , “The trouble with doing nothing is that you cannot rest from it.”

19 June 1971, Massillon (OH) Evening Independent, “Danger of Satisfaction” by Rev. David H. Patton (Pastor of First Methodist Church), pg. 6, col. 5:
As one person who never worked pointed out, the problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you are finished. For those who have worked the time of vacation comes marking the completion of a time of accomplishment and the pleasure of resting from labor.

Google Books
Good Housekeeping
Volume 184
1977
Pg. 440:
The trouble with doing nothing is that it’s too difficult to tell when you’re finished.
-- Nathan S. Mitchell

16 January 1978, Tyrone (PA) Daily Herald, “Daily Cryptoquote,” pg. 8:
THE TROUBLE WITH DOING NOTHING IS THAT IT’S TOO DIFFICULT TO TELL WHEN YOU’RE FINISHED—NATHAN S. MITCHELL

Google Books
1,001 logical laws, accurate axioms, profound principles, trusty truisms, homey homilies, colorful corollaries, quotable quotes, and rambunctious ruminations for all walks of life
By John Peers and Gordon Bennett
Garden City, NY: Doubleday
1979
Pg. 121:
Stovall’s Law of Negative Inaction: The only thing wrong with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re finished.

Google News Archive
16 August 1981, Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune, “Author Of Romance Novels Lives Life As Happy, Wealthy Heroine” by Tad Bartimus (Associated Press Writer), pg. 6E, col. 1:
“The idea was to travel and enjoy life,” adds the sandyhaired entrepreneur. “We soon found out that the problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re done.”
(Janet Dailey—ed.)

18 January 1984, Elyria (OH) Chronicle-Telegram, “Peter’s Almanac” by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, pg. D10, col. 1:
The problem with doing nothing is that you don’t know when quitting time is.

7 January 1987, Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), “New Age for this Golf Star”:
“Maria (his wife) finally told me, ‘The problem with doing nothing is you never know when you’re finished.’”
(Ray Floyd—ed.)

Google Books
A View From Above
By Wilt Chamberlain
New York, NY: Penguin Books
1992
Pg. 68:
WILTISM
The problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you are through.

Google Books
Plum Island
By Nelson DeMille
New York, NY: Warner Books
1997
Pg. ? (Chapter 1):
It occurred to me that the problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.

14 October 1999, St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, “Look at who’s in and who’s out in the world of sports” by Jeff Gordon, pg. D2:
“The problem with doing nothing is you never know when you are through.”

Google Books
Night Fall: a novel
By Nelson DeMille
New York, NY: Warner Books
2004
Pg. ?:
As a wise man (me) once said, “The problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.”

Google Books
A Warrior Culture
By Donny Prater
XulonPress.com
2006
Pg. 98:
The best way I can relate this to my never ending cycle of sharpening is in a quote the great Groucho Marx once said: “The only problem with doing nothing is you never know when you’re done.”

Photo Business News & Forum
Thursday, February 15, 2007
The Problem With Doing Nothing
Nelson DeMille, one my most favorite fiction authors, wrote one line for one of his characters in his book Plum Island, and it has remained with me for atleast a decade. He wrote (for his character) “The problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re finished.”

Google Books
The Lion: a novel
By Nelson DeMille
New York, NY: Grand Central Pub.
2010
Pg. ? (Chapter 39):
I didn’t have anything specific planned for the day, reminding me that the problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re done.

Amazon.com
“THE PROBLEM WITH DOING NOTHING IS YOU DON’T KNOW WHEN YOU’RE DONE.” Purse Note Pad
by Shannon Martin
Date first available at Amazon.com: February 15, 2010

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Sunday, May 15, 2011 • Permalink