Relax. No, Really. - Next Action Associates

Rest and relaxation

“Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.”
-David Allen

One of the hallmarks of true productivity is a sense of fulfilment.

In a recent article, I looked at the difference between performance as in professional effectiveness, and performance as in drama. Ultimately, drama is not very fulfilling.

So many of the messages around us–from marketing slogans to career development plans–tell us that if we simply do more (or are seen to do more), we will end up being more fulfilled. If you have ever come home from work exhausted, wondering what you accomplished that day, you will know that activity and fulfilment aren’t always linked.

In conversation recently, my wife and I were reflecting on the idea of fulfilment, and she pointed out that my own levels of sheer activity don’t necessarily correlate to fulfilment–at work or even at play. Simply put, I can be happy or miserable whether I am doing a lot or doing very little.

This may seem pretty obvious, but when we started to brainstorm and then chart out the qualities associated with different levels of activity and fulfilment, it began to look interesting:


Look familiar? Ever been in one of these states? I think it is a universal human experience to bounce around, experiencing the words associated in these different boxes, from time to time. How often, though, do we take the time to reflect on how to systematically and repeatably move into the experiences in the upper quadrants—and stay there?

The Getting Things Done (GTD) method is, for me, a reliable approach to “up” my game on this particular game board. Specifically, it helps me to gain perspective when I feel “stuck” and uninspired, and gain a real practical sense of control and positive traction when I feel overwhelmed and off the rails. It creates a kind of steady updraft effect that looks like this:


By investing the time to consciously capture my commitments, clarify my outcomes, organise them in useful ways, reflect on them at appropriate intervals, and engage meaningfully moment-to-moment, my fulfilment factor goes way up. This comes from generating perspective (knowing where I am going) and control (knowing I can get there).

Trying to do my life without GTD, by contrast, looks a lot like this cycle:


Does this also look familiar? It feels a bit like alternating between flooring the accelerator and slamming on the brakes. I wrote a bit more about navigating through the straits of boredom and overwhelm, using GTD tools like the someday/maybe list, in this article.

Recently, I have found some even more subtle and powerful ways in which my GTD practice helps me to sustain engagement with the upper quadrants. It looks like this:


When opportunities to swing into high levels of activity appear in my life, having a complete, current inventory of my existing commitments helps me to embrace these opportunities (or not) wholeheartedly and consciously. More and more, I realise I have choices, and can weigh new commitments against my current work- and play-load. Furthermore, by keeping my commitments (to myself and others), I have fresh energy available to take on new challenges with confidence.

A powerful side-effect of working from my next action lists is a heightened understanding of when I am reaching those points of “diminishing return” in my efforts. I can then manage the sustainability of my efforts by consciously moving into a more recuperative mode–whether that’s for a few minutes or a few days. My personal best varies constantly, and so treating my GTD system as a menu of options–not obligations–helps me to avoid overdoing it and sinking down into those places where both boredom and overwhelm lie.

In fact, the ability to be relaxed and present–whether I am highly active or quietly still–is one of the most powerful effects of my lifelong GTD practice. It both takes–and generates–awareness, so that I can recognise the opportunities to sustain the game of life in the upper quadrants, and to generate the perspective and control that I need to get back on track when I get stuck in the “fits and starts” of pushing too hard and collapsing back.

In the end, there is a smarter way–both to work and to rest. It takes some self-awareness, and the tools to help you stay on track. If you have resonated with any of this, and are looking to upgrade the game you’re playing, I encourage you to leave a comment or get in touch.

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