Strategic Relaxation: It’s Possible

I try my best to be a productive person, to use my time as wisely as I can, to think about what I can be doing to improve.

Exhibit A: I arrange my shopping lists in order of how I traverse the grocery store, and, most importantly, I always hit up the store first thing on Sunday mornings because I waste less time sitting in traffic and weaving around other shoppers while pushing a full cart. This approach to grocery shopping has undoubtedly enabled me to grasp at least an extra half hour for the weekend, something I’m always grateful for. My 21-year-old self, who had a penchant for waking up at noon on days starting with an “S,” would probably nervously laugh at the image of me wearing running attire while striding through the local Safeway at 9 a.m. on a given Sunday, but whatever! I’m operating at close to max efficiency in my grocery shopping routine, and that’s important to me.

Am I always successful at my earnest attempts at productivity? Of course not.

But every now and then, I hit a wall, shortly after my energy has plummeted to zero and the to-do list I had quickly typed up in Gmail Tasks feels oppressive.

What’s the best response during those moments when you absolutely cannot find the energy to do what normally you’d consider to be productive?

I chill out, quite often spending an unusually large amount of time doing the electronic equivalent of window shopping, or binging on stupid videos (the other day, I watched the entire series of Celebrities Read Mean Tweets). I bump the due date of those Gmail Tasks to another day. I head to bed early while also telling myself that, come morning, it’ll be okay if I don’t feel up to a workout–although I try to wake up around 5 a.m., an extra 45 minutes of sleep will not set my day up for failure.

What’s important is that I don’t push myself to produce, plan, or do when I’m physically and cognitively spent.

You’ll find a fair amount of reading on the topic of the importance of taking breaks during the day–remember the formula of 52 minutes of work plus 17 minutes of a break?–as well as why and how to disconnect while out of the office in order to feel a comfortable separation from the world of work. The result of not strategizing breaks, however long or short, also gets attention in the form of coverage on ways to cope with burnout. I’m an avid reader of these types of articles and essays as a way to fine-tune the way I balance work and life.

But my offering to the discussion is to encourage people to consider the need quell their inner drive in the moments when you must address that balance.

Sometimes it feels easier to put some extra time in on a project, or a business plan, or a workout instead of realizing that the most effective solution to momentary stress and exhaustion is simply to take it easy for an hour or two, in a meaningful way. What “taking it easy” looks like for one person may be different from another, and cheating yourself out of a break won’t enable you to reap the benefits of legitimate relaxation. (Some people may feel the need to go on a jog as a way to unwind after a 12-hour day at the office. No way I’d be interested in that–I’d rather read one of the delightfully nerdy historical nonfiction books currently stocked up in my Kindle).

Jerry Jao’s conclusion in his Forbes column, “Taking A Break: How To Fight Your Inner Control Freak And Win,” captures my feelings on this topic:

“I can provide you with more stories about how I came to peace with taking time off from my business, but ultimately, the choice will rest on you. Whatever you decide, make sure you’re doing it because it’s what you need and not because your inner control freak made the decision for you.”

Every situation will dictate different approaches to work and relaxation. But a sense of self-awareness that enables you to sense your level of productivity, and when that level wanes to the point that you need a break, will help you achieve strategic relaxation. Self-awareness also tells us what this break looks like, how long it needs to be, and when it’s time to jump back in.

There’s no formula for strategic relaxation, but like any skill, time and practice will help you realize it to the point where it becomes habit. And what highly productive person wants to turn down the possibility of developing another good habit?

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