Permission to stare out the window - Next Action Associates

“Honey, I just realised – nothing is going to try to kill me out here.” My wife and I were ambling along one of England’s many public footpaths through gentle countryside. I agree it may sound like an unusual observation. But having come from California, where trails wind through the domains of bear, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and rattlesnakes – I suddenly realised that Old World ‘wilderness’ was, by comparison, considerably tame.

Assuming that nothing really is trying to kill you, being in nature can be profoundly relaxing. Years ago in a seminar, David Allen pointed out that the natural world produces a tremendous amount of stimulation. Still, he continued, none of this stimulation (assuming you’re not being snarled at by a coyote) – is actually actionable. I deepen my understanding of this paradox every time I listen to a complex piece of baroque classical music, or watch ripples on a lake: tremendous stimulation is coming my way, but I have zero decisions to make. Result? Calm.

The workplace is different, though, isn’t it? Our email inboxes are a hotchpotch of actionable requests and reminders, useful reference data, and of course spam and other rubbish. The very fact that it all comes in a mish-mash requires us to make decisions, and then often to make more decisions based on those previous decisions. This may be why nobody watches their email inbox fill up with messages the way they gaze up at dappled sunlight through the trees.

Just a cursory review of the neurological implications of decision making leads to the conclusion that “even simple decisions are hard.” And as I pointed out in an earlier article, constantly making decisions within radically different contexts comes at a price. Couple this with any form of Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (which some estimate as much as 15% of us have), or just an ever-increasing pace of data flow, and you’re going to trip a neurological circuit breaker pretty soon.

Another paradox is that simply going faster through this high-speed stream of input and decisions doesn’t always help. In fact, it is well understood in business that “increasing the pace of production often leads to decreased value over time.

Put more simply, sometimes the best way to go fast is to slow down. More than just reducing mistakes, I find that slowing down and even stepping away from the constant flow of input completely from time to time does something remarkable inside of me – it transforms information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom.

One of the most productive ways I know to slow down is to do a weekly review of my GTD® system. By gaining an integrated view of how the pieces of the system come together, I naturally begin thinking strategically (as opposed to the tactical approach of the day-to-day). The Weekly Review® also offers me a chance to reflect on my practice, and this ‘meta-cognition’ (thinking more broadly about how I think and do, instead of just thinking and doing in the moment all the time) lends itself to continual refinement.

This is a great way to get my ‘second brain’ – i.e. my GTD system – into a more coherent state that integrates past knowledge and experience.

A great way to let my actual brain cool down, collect, and achieve an equally more coherent state is to put the kettle on, and settle down to a nice cup of tea in front of the window.

Think about it – when’s the last time you just had a cup of tea and stared out the window – and nothing else? (Though, admittedly, if you do this in a crowded cafe, all the people on their phones and laptops might think you’re a bit creepy.)

Still, if you’ve ever felt that you needed permission to stare out the window for a while, as a productivity coach for high-performing individuals, I am giving that permission to you just now.

In fact, if it were not for the nice big window in front of me, this article might not have been written at all.

Happy sipping, and staring.

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