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Relax and Get More Done

By: Heather Mundell




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The faster you work and the harder you work, the more you get done, right? Most of us American workers believe this, so in response to pressure at work and at home we figure out ways to squeeze more tasks into less time. We are used to stress and thrive on it. In fact stress is our badge of honor, and the more of it we feel, the more we feel we must be accomplishing. But do we actually know whether stress helps us maximize our productivity?

The answer can be found in the Yerkes-Dodson Law -- the relationship between stress and productivity, named after the physiologists who researched the matter. Imagine a piece of graph paper with an upside down U on it. Label the vertical axis productivity, and the horizontal axis stress. As stress increases so does productivity -- to a point. At the top of the curve productivity slides notably downhill, suggesting that high stress does not correspond to high productivity.

Most professionals I work with who want to become more productive routinely describe themselves as "high stress" people who are used to plowing through enormous workloads and to-do lists. However they are starting to fry internally and are headed downward on the Yerkes-Dodson curve, toward lower productivity and burn-out. I help them learn how to relax so they can get back to the top of the curve, where productivity is highest.

We all have different ideas of what feels relaxing. It's important to tune in to what rings true for you and give yourself time and space to do it. Here are a few ideas to help spark your imagination. Which of these appeal to you?

  • Spend time outside.
  • Play with kids.
  • Pick up a hobby you used to love doing.
  • Resume a physical activity you really enjoy.
  • Meditate or clear your mind for ten minutes a day.
  • Create art.
  • See friends.
  • Set aside one weekend day a week for resting and relaxing.
  • Drop a draining activity.
  • Take a nap.
  • Cultivate the habit of noticing the present rather than anticipating the "next thing."
When you've decided what one or two things you're willing to do to begin to relax more, plan how you will make it happen. Adding relaxation to your life may seem like a stressful enterprise itself, but if you try it for a couple of weeks you'll feel yourself drawn toward keeping up your relaxing activity. Will you make it the first thing you do each day? Block off time in your calendar? Find a friend to pair up with to help you stick with it? Whatever your strategy, make it a plan that reflects who you are and how you develop rituals.

If you're thinking that you'll relax more as soon as that project at work is over or your in-laws go home or the kids grow up, recognize that response as a sign that you need to begin to relax more right now. If you're up to your elbows, choose an activity that doesn't take a lot of time, such as stretching, frequent deep breathing or five minutes a day of daydreaming.

Before you begin to relax more, write down where you are right now with productivity. What are you not getting done that is bothering you? How would you describe your energy level on a scale of one to ten? What kind of stress symptoms -- such as mood swings, concentration problems, irritability, or an inability to stop working, eating or shopping -- are you noticing? After you've shifted your routines for two weeks to include time for relaxation, return to what you wrote about productivity. What has changed? How are your energy and stress levels? What's happening to your productivity?

Challenge yourself to relax each and every week. If you're a hard-driving personality, become driven to create time and opportunities for relaxation. Notice when your stress level begins to push your productivity downhill, then choose an activity that relaxes you and do it. Knowing how to relax more just may become your new badge of honor.


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