Relaxation Management

Relaxation Management

Sunday, on review, was a pretty productive day. It wasn’t super intense, yet it was not slack. I got a bunch of things started, even finished a few. I didn’t stress out over the projects yet to come or the tasks that I left unfinished for another day. This morning, I feel the anticipation of a new day, and with that some of the good feeling had started to slip away until I remembered the key principle from Getting Things Done: relax. This is the whole point of all those systems. David Allen’s particular approach is to target that which causes the most stress in the lives of “busy people”: the mountain of things that they’re responsible for getting done.

I suspect that part of the appeal of GTD is that it has just enough insight presented in combination with a malleable set of working principles. They lend themselves to endless customization and adaptation, which appeals to self-empowered tinkerers and tool-builders. And why do we tinker? Because we believe that somewhere, somehow, there is the right tool that is shaped to fit me, the magic tool that converts the meager stores of ability I have into pure energy. So far, that ain’t happened, and today I was starting to feel the old stress come back.

However, I’ve gained some new insight since last week through old friend Senia and new friend Ashish, and what they told me dovetails nicely.

First, Senia had tweeted about 5 main contributors to happiness which had caught my eye–they are as follows:

  1. sleep
  2. exercise
  3. nutrition
  4. incremental actions
  5. alone vs. social time balance

Senia is one of the smartest and most buoyantly awesome people I know, with degrees in Mathematics, Business, and Positive Psychology from all the right places, so I tend to take what she says at face value. I do, however, have the annoying habit of analyzing everything that piques my curiosity, so I ran the list through my personal experience filter anyway for about half a second until I remembered I had blogged about experiments in all these areas over the past few years and had found them to be true. Items #4 and #5, “incremental action” and “alone vs. social time balance”, had been on my mind a lot in recent days, because I’m a bit stressed about all the things I want to get done versus having the human connections that inspire me. Knowing that these five things have been found to be top contributors to happiness puts me at ease. I relaxed, just a little bit.

A few days ago Ashish and I were having a good conversation about productivity and personal challenges. We were both have been looking at our lack of superhuman achievement as some kind of failing, even though we both know better. Ashish brought up a book he’d read called The Four Agreements that he said were things we already knew, but presented them in a way I might find interesting. We were in Barnes and Noble, so he hunted it down; The Four Agreements are as follows:

  1. Be Impeccable with your Word
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions
  4. Always Do Your Best

They are called agreements because they are made with yourself. The interesting spin that the book provides is to present the world as an illusion stemming from the set of beliefs (“agreements”) we hold. The first agreement, “Be Impeccable with your Word”, recognizes us that words have the power to shape belief, and when wielded poorly they have terrible consequences to ourselves and to others. The author, Don Miguel Ruiz, tells a story about a little girl with a beautiful voice who was bouncing up and down on her bed singing. Her mother, ordinarily a kind person but exhausted and stressed by a tough day at work, snapped harshly at her to stop her ugly singing. The little girl took this to heart, stricken, and from that day on believed her voice was horrible and ugly, and never sang again…I find this story incredibly sad. We constantly do this to ourselves too, by using negative language and subtly putting ourselves down…we call this “being realistic”. I do this all the time, casting the same spell of limitation on myself over and over. I also liked Ruiz’s take on “Always Do Your Best”, which is such a tired old chestnut I couldn’t possibly imagine what he could say on the subject, but he added an important qualifier: one should always do their best given the circumstances of the moment. If you are tired, your best is not going to be the same as it is when you are well-rested, so don’t beat yourself up over it. But do do your best. This modification has subtle ramifications with regards to pursuing excellence, and I appreciated its subtlety as I relaxed a little more. The book reminded me a bit of The Alchemist and One Hundred Years of Solitude in its spiritual tone; curiously, both of these other books are by South American writers. Maybe I need to go there and see what’s going on.

Between Western-researched approach to happiness and South American Toltec wisdom, I find that the net result is a sense of relaxation. I’m relaxed because I’ve gotten some outside affirmation that there’s some things I can do to achieve a base level of happiness, and that there’s a simple set of philosophical principles that are compatible with the way I prefer to see the world. And with relaxation comes a lowered threshold of energy-blocking inhibitions and doubt, which will allow (I am hoping) my productivity to flow. I’m thinking the combination of relaxation and expectation management might be the key to a kick-butt life.


  1. Peter Bilton 13 years ago

    Good stuff, David. My favorite take on the power of being your best is David Allen’s essay “Best is much better than good,” Chapter 19 in Ready for Anything. On google books – It certainly opened my mind.

  2. Lynn O'Connor 13 years ago

    I’ve been studying Tibetan Buddhism for a few years. If only I remembered to apply what I have learned, I sure would relax more and more effectively. I just have to keep working on it. Research on happiness suggests that cherishing our social connections, giving ourselves just enough challenge to work in a state of “flow,” showing love and compassion to ourselves and to others, and doing things for the well-being of others are the secret of happiness.


  3. Klaus 13 years ago

    Relaxation Management – Did you ever consider to do nothing ‘useful’ on Sunday – brunching, golfing, skydiving – anything to please your inner child?

    Just RELAX!

  4. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Peter: That’s a cool essay…will have to look through that book someday! Thanks for the link!

    Lynn: The flow state keeps coming up. I wish I found the book “Flow” more readable…like “Stumbling Upon Happiness” I will need to use an outliner with it.

    Klaus: I do a lot of “not useful” things already, but that form of relaxation is fleeting because it defers the effort that will be rewarding to me in the long run, or ensure my long-term survival. My inner child is spoiled rotten, that’s how much I relax! But not moving forward on my life dreams, as I age and watch those dreams turn into dusty never-happened…that’s a terrifying thought and it’s not relaxing at all. I could perhaps drink myself into a stupor, or brunch myself every weekend to distraction…but I will know that I’m not trying to reach that next state. So this is “climb the mountain, then relax” I am reaching for here, which is different from the form of relaxation I think you’re describing.

  5. Marcus 13 years ago

    I try to remember what one of my professors told once: “it is sad, but true that most people are not nice when they are talking to themselves.”
    Here he meant the inner voice, of course. :-)

  6. Samuel Kordik 13 years ago

    Great article, as usual, David. I appreciate the effort you put into deconstructing the good life. I would venture to add that this neglects to address a very important component of happiness: Fulfillment. Doing what you love, making a change in the world, living according to your values, listening to your heart—whatever you want to call it, I think fulfillment + the factors you listed would equal happiness.

    As I mentioned on my blog (, I also think these factors have direct bearing on our effectiveness. Perhaps the greatest key to success might be focusing on these factors you’ve explored here instead of focusing so much on the rat race.

  7. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Marcus: What class was this, incidentally? I’m curious! :-)

    Samuel: I think you’re absolutely right. I’m still looking for fulfillment and meaning to make it seem worthwhile. But I think I do have a hint on this now, thanks to some reading I’ve been doing.