Not a single blank space in my calendar. That’s what I saw one Sunday night while reviewing the week ahead of me. I had filled every waking 30-minute block with some productive commitment. Nirvana? No. Existential dread? Yep.
I had finally turned myself into the efficiency robot that I’d unwittingly been building for years, a kind of Lean Frankenstein. I had entombed myself in my own supposed productivity. There’s a comedic hopelessness that comes from knowing you’ve robbed yourself of the little joys that make life worth living, like time to go to the bathroom.
I decided I could do what I normally do in these running-at-the-red-line situations: cancel all my meetings, and start an inner rebellion from the war room of my man-cave futon. I would binge on some TV show with a wildly irresponsible male lead, someone who keeps no calendar but still gets all the girls. A man who suffers—but in style, whose adventures make my life look like hard labor. Thanks, Californication.
No, not this time. I have no time to be a man-child with you today, Hank Moody. I have to fix my life (is probably what I said at the time).
Peering through a small crack in the nearly impenetrable chain mail of my Google Calendar, I saw on the other side my subconscious, screaming that there must be a better way to live.
1. The burn box
The first emissary in the ceasefire of my revolt came in the form of a two-by-two matrix. By happy coincidence, I had been reading Neil Pasricha’s book The Happiness Equation. In it, he lays out a scribble with four quadrants. On one axis is “doing,” high and low. On the other is “thinking,” high and low. We are always in one of four boxes.
I had been living in the Burn Box, a state of high doing and high thinking. My inner boilerman had been shoveling highly flammable goals into my burn box at an irresponsible rate, and I was one Pomodoro away from running off the rails.
It was lucky, then, that Pasricha taught me about those other three beautiful quadrants:
- The Space Box is the perfect opposite of Burn: low thinking, low doing. It’s the sandy beach vacation, or a cold beer with your feet hanging off the dock, up at the lake.
- In the Think Box, our mental fires are raging but we’re not doing much of anything. We’re thinking. Journaling. Talking to a friend.
- The Doing Box is pure activity—building a shed or climbing a mountain—and not letting the lazier parts of our mind have a say in it.
Successful people move freely and often between these boxes.
Achieving success some of the time is easy. But if you want to sustain it over several years, you need to pick up a fire extinguisher and visit the kinder, gentler boxes from time to time.
2. Protected play and the unschedule
Neil Fiore is an expert in motivation. He has a doctorate in getting stuff done* and has spent a lifetime studying procrastination to beat it. What’s his recipe for accomplishment? Get organized? Pharmaceuticals? A special project management app?
No. His No. 1 dictate for sustained productivity is… start with a firm commitment to guilt free play. Huh?
Yes. He recommends that when scheduling your week, poker, video games and beers with friends get slotted in first. He calls this “The Unschedule.”
“That’s right, you can be more productive if you play more!” he says in his best-selling book, The Now Habit.
Most top producers’ activity is what Fiore calls workaholism—the constant, diligent grinding away at tasks until our tools are blunt and we’ve become coffee-fueled, sleep-deprived automatons.
The antidote is to ensure we do not put off the best things in life, like spending time with your kids—or having five minutes of peace away from them.
Why does the unschedule work? Because when you know that your hairiest tasks will be interrupted by immovable commitments to fun, you can approach work without the dread and overwhelm of the workaholic.
*His doctorate is actually in psychology and counseling.
3. The blade of essentialism
You’re moving freely between the boxes, and your playtime quality rivals the best of the 6-year-olds’. Does that guarantee effective doing time? Not exactly.
The necessary third tool is a machete to hack away at all but the most essential work tasks.
Enter Greg McKeown, prophet of essentialism, and author of the book by the same name.
The essentialist sees the big picture; they know what actions will generate not just results, but the greatest return on the investment of time and energy. Then, they get out their knife.
“The Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means ‘to cut,’” says McKeown.
Cutting can be scary. We have obligations at work and home, we want to please people and we are offered a thousand exciting opportunities each year. But when we prioritize too much, we prioritize nothing.
To prevent spreading yourself thin, practice extreme criteria. It’s the essentialist mantra: “No more yes, it’s either a ‘hell, yeah!’ or no.”
Scaling back, in action
Rob Bell was a super pastor. For years, he ran a rapidly-growing church in California and in his waking moments burned white-hot.
Like all people who insist on running at 147% capacity, he crashed, curled up on his office floor. Bell now laughs at that image, but he used it to get out of the burn box, and to practice essentialism.
He didn’t really want to do seven sermons and weddings a day, so he cut those out of his life. Now he focuses on teaching spirituality. In one episode of his podcast, he tells his wife Kristen, “You meet people who say ‘We’re just so busy, you know how it is.’ And you and I will be like, ‘No. We don’t know how it is.’”
At the end of each Friday’s workday, Bell and Kristen close their laptops and spend 24 hours with no appointments, no to-do’s and no screen time.
Bell is a living example of the success that comes if you’d just leave the burn box, play a little and practice essentialism. “Think about how much more productive we are in a fraction of the time, and a fraction of the energy,” he says to his wife. “It would have taken you 10 hours to do that thing and now it takes 17 minutes. It’s that dramatic.”
Bell is now the host of The Robcast podcast, has published 11 books, has multiple films of his tours, and travels the U.S. all year giving lectures and workshops. Not exactly a lazy guy.
More importantly, you can hear the joy in his voice wherever he goes. I want that. I know from experience that “push” will wear you out. I’m ready to try “work less to do more.”
Are you with me?
This article was published in March 2018 and has been updated. Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock