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Relax and Be More Productive

Posted: 06/16/08 08:37 AM ET

Every once in a while a little brush with a heart attack or cancer has some super busy person knocking reluctantly on my door. They may want to explore the power of their mind to heal, but are afraid that learning to relax and be present might take away their competitive edge and dull their motivation. Visions of transcendental zombiehood dance through many minds. Some fear that they might have to trade their business suit for a turban, and a lifetime of navel-gazing and herbal teas. More than once I've heard the sentiment that it might be better to forget the whole thing and just die in the saddle.

In the late 1970s, Dr, Herbert Benson, my erstwhile colleague and boss at what was then Boston's Beth Israel Hospital, co-authored an article for the Harvard Business Review featuring an arcane, but immediately obvious, relationship called the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Don't let the words scare you. Named after two intrepid physiologists, this handy little law looks like an upside-down letter U on a piece of graph paper. As stress increases (the x axis), so does productivity (the y axis). In other words, the more stressed you are, the better your output until you get to the top of the curve, where the upside-down U is poised to start down again. From there it's a rapid downhill slide to poor productivity and mood misery. Whereas mild to moderate stress helps us power through to-do's, more serious stress gives rise to the un-do's.

Let me give you a down-home case in point. If company is coming in an hour and the house is messy, I feel slightly stressed, and challenged to clean up so as to avoid looking like a slob. I get a certain look in my eye, and swoop into action like the white tornado. My output is unbelievable. Like a thousand-armed goddess, I vanquish the dirt and sort the piles. But suppose, on a particularly bad dirt day, I find out that company is coming in ten minutes. The stress is so great, and the job seems so big, that I'm likely to get flustered and confused. I may then be found wandering around the house, looking dazed, with the same pile in my hand for several minutes. My internal wiring is sizzling, and smoke seems to be coming from my ears, because the load on the circuits is too large.

I believe that most busy, highly productive people operate in the high-stress range, somewhere on the descending limb of the stress/productivity curve. Their output is still high, but the internal wires are starting to short-circuit and burn. If they learned to relax and shifted back to the left on the Yerkes-Dodson curve, they would find themselves nearer to the top of the inverted U. Their output would actually be greater, while the toll on their body would be lessened. If they relaxed even more--to a point where it seemed like the turban was only another breath away--they would still be able to maintain the same output they had before, when they were burning out.

The only workable strategy for maintaining productivity and inner peace over the long haul is to learn how to relax. I don't know what relaxes you, and neither does anyone else. You are the best and only judge of what it is that shuts off the internal dialogue that's always urging you to do more, do faster, and do better. But shut off the internal dialogue we must, if the clever system of body and mind is to restore itself and be available in its full power.

This week, put aside an hour a day--yes, I really mean that--to relax in whatever way you enjoy. You will find that instead of constricting the amount of time available for you to get things done, the day will seem to unfold in a more languorous, spacious way. The to-do list will still get done, but you will live to tell about it.

For more information on how to relax, go to www.joanboryseko.com or pick up a copy of "Inner Peace for Busy People", published by Hay House, from which this column was adapted.