Relaxation in Work

I recently received some flash cards that contain short quotes about GTD. I've been selecting one at random each week and posting it on the wall near my desk. A couple weeks ago I came across a card that read, “Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.” GTD aficionados will recognize this concept from David Allen talking about martial arts and the ability of seemingly physically slight people to accomplish impressive feats of strength. This quote came to me at the right time because it seemed like my work life was quickly spiraling out of control to the point of pretty serious imbalance. I was feeling burnt out, run down, and generally exhausted from trying to move forward many projects and meet all the responsibilities I had accepted into my life.

The first time I read the quote it made me think about the importance of taking breaks and allowing myself to rejuvenate. This is important on both a micro and more macro scale. Small breaks throughout the day that allow me to recharge (ala Tony Schwarz and The Power of Full Engagement), having clearly delineated starting and ending points to my day, and even stepping away from work for days or weeks at a time. I was missing all of these components.

The more I reflected on the quote, however, the more I realized that it's actually about more than just taking time away from work to relax and recharge. It's also about the ability to relax while doing work. The state of mental relaxation doesn't have to be separate from the experience of actually being productive. In fact, true productivity may be inextricably connected to approaching work with a relaxed mindset.

I thought about what I'm like when I'm at my best and I realized I never feel like I'm rushing to complete tasks or even feeling heavily emotionally invested in what I'm doing. In fact, my biggest battles with procrastination usually take place when I care about the work I'm doing to such an extent that I can't bring myself to even begin because I care so much about the outcome. However, when I approach my work with a relaxed mindset I'm able to see the experience for what it is -- usually just sitting in a climate controlled room and moving my fingers across a keyboard. When I'm relaxed I can separate myself from the longer-term outcomes of a project and instead focus on the experience of just completing this next task.

For example, I'm currently writing a thesis proposal that is 30+ pages of highly researched and extremely academic writing. I've been working on it for nine months and it has gone through greater than 10 revisions. I care deeply about the subject I'm writing about and I want nothing more than for my advisor to be impressed with the caliber of my thinking and writing and for the research project to be successful. However, sometimes I can get stuck in a rut of not being able to bring myself to read through the next round of comments I receive from my advisor for weeks on end. I get too wound up in both thinking about how much time I've already spent on it and how much more time I have yet to spend. I'm not relaxed and thus I'm generating no power.

Ever since contemplating the quote that opened this article I've been trying to adjust the way I approach giant projects like this. I've been focused on 30-45 minutes blocks of work that in and of themselves do not seem terribly important. Instead of sitting down to "work on my thesis" and wrestling with all the feelings that evokes I sit down to work on "revising the first paragraph of the Introduction" or "rethink the logic supporting hypothesis 1." I don't get all hyped up when I break off a discrete chunk of a project -- I'm able to bring a relaxed mindset to what I'm doing and am thus able to generate more power (i.e. get more done) than I would otherwise.

It's a given that we could all probably use more time away from work, more true relaxation in our lives. While we're working toward that, let's see how much relaxation we can build into our working lives as well.

Photo by Retrofresh!