Is it possible to be emotionally relaxed and joyful, yet highly productive?
Think of a master in martial arts … they aren’t fretting, tense, worried, or stressed out. They have a relaxed focus, a calm strength, a powerful composure.
Their face might appear emotionless, yet their body expresses a wide range of motion, able to accomplish a great deal with both precision and flexibility.
Inside, they are experiencing clarity, confidence, and a calm joy.
I’m not a martial arts master, but I have developed a sort of calm, joyful productivity within my own sphere of work: content creation, business coaching, and book writing.
While I was writing my first book, Authentic Content Marketing, a dear client asked me:
“As the grand finale [of your book’s completion] approaches, what are your feelings at this moment? Soon is the moment of ‘letting go’… any thoughts on that?”
I have never really “held on” to what the book’s results would be, so there is no “letting go.”
As for a “grand finale”… I don’t see it, I said to her, since I was already planning my second book, Joyful Productivity.
I now see each and every project as simply a mile marker on a lifelong journey of growing into greater service and deeper self-knowledge.
Joy occurs throughout the process… at the beginning, in the middle, and at the “end” of a project… and again onto the next project, with a calm and joyful heart.
There’s no anxiety about results, no gritting of teeth, no failure or success.
There’s only constant experimentation, the steady progress of learning, and consistent Self-exploration and service to the greater whole.
Recently I came across an Alan Watts lecture that summed this up beautifully:
What do you do if I say to you, “Take a hard look at me. Take a real hard look.” Now what are you doing? What’s the difference between a “hard look” and a “soft look?”
Why, with your hard look, you are straining the muscles around your eyes, and you’re starting to stare.
If you stare at a distant image far away from you, you’ll make it fuzzy. If you want to see it clearly you must close your eyes, imagine black for awhile, and then lazily and easily open them and you’ll see the image. The light will come to you.
And what do you do if I say, “Now, listen carefully, listen very carefully to what I’m saying.” You’ll find you’re beginning to strain yourself around the ears.
Supposing somebody says, “O.K. now, you’ve got to use your will, you’ve got to exercise strong will.” That’s the ego, isn’t it?
What do you do when you exercise your will? You grit your teeth, you clench your fists. If you want to stop wayward emotions, you go uptight. You pull your stomach in, or hold your breath, or contract your rectal muscles. But all these activities have absolutely nothing to do with the efficient functioning of your nervous system.
Just as staring at images makes them fuzzy, listening hard with all this muscular tension distracts you from what you’re actually hearing; gritting your teeth has nothing to do with courage. All this is a total distraction.
And yet we do it all the time; we have a chronic sensation of muscular strain, the object of which is an attempt to make our nervous system, our brains, our sensitivity function properly — and it doesn’t work.
From the moment when we were little children, teachers in class screamed at us, “Pay Attention!” to see or hear more clearly, to concentrate, or to will something… which is supposed to be difficult to do. And that constitutes a habitual tension over the whole body…
That feeling of unnecessary tension is, as it were, the material on which we fashion this concept of “I”. We hang it onto that feeling. That concept is not us, the feeling of tension is completely phony. It has nothing to do with success, or seeing, or hearing, or acting.
— Alan Watts
So let us question our “hard efforting”, #hustle, trying so hard to “make” things happen, and instead, relax into what we are to do in this moment.
Being in this moment doesn’t mean that I don’t plan. I plan everyday.
And then, I simply do the plan with an inner calmness of non-attachment — even playfulness — rather than “trying hard.”
Again: Whatever I have planned in my work, I do it, even if I don’t initially feel like it. I show up with curiosity, wondering what will emerge as I give my energy to it. Afterwards, I am always glad that I stayed and tried, instead of avoiding it with distractions.
Here is an important nuance to all this — however “badly” I do the task is just fine. I am not trying to force a result. I stay curious as to what outcome might emerge. I focus on the calmness and joy that is possible within that work in the moment.
One of my favorite quotes, written thousands of years ago, summarizes this beautifully:
“To action alone has thou a right and never at all to its fruits;
Let not the fruits of action be thy motive;
Neither let there be in thou any attachment to inaction….
Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty,
for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.”
— The Bhagavad Gita
What matters is not the result. What matters is the action, the learning, and the inner composure & joy along the way.
Therefore: No performance anxiety.
As I take action, I may also pause occasionally to update my systems and processes, as I learn what is more effective.
I simply do what I plan, step by step, and enjoy the scene of productive actions that I witness myself doing.
This prevents strain, exhaustion, and burnout.
One can be active outside, yet deeply relaxed inside.
Externally productive, yet deeply joyful.
(Originally published Oct. 24, 2017. Updated May 18, 2020.)
The above is the introductory chapter to the book. Check out the Joyful Productivity Audiobook.