I was reading David Allen’s Ready for Anything this morning and the chapter’s opening line fit right in with some ideas I’ve been pondering lately:
Stress comes from unkept agreements with yourself.
Of course, it’s not like this is the only place stress comes from. The world we live in is rife with stressors. But I think it is an often overlooked or entirely unrealized source of stress that is worth noting and mitigating.
If you’re not familiar with David Allen, he’s a productivity guru that created and popularized a methodology known as Getting Things Done (or GTD for short). Beyond simple day-to-day task prioritization and management, GTD is more a holistic approach to managing all of life, delving into the psychology and mental aspects beneath the surface of to-dos.
It was a lightbulb moment for me years ago when I first discovered his works. He put into words so many feelings and frustrations I experienced as life increasingly asked more of me. As a young, inexperienced manager at work, along with being a husband, father and homeowner, I wore a lot of hats and regularly got overwhelmed by it all.
One aspect of Allen’s teaching that resonated with me most was the idea that our brain is great for having thoughts and ideas, not so much for holding them. Many people regularly have a hundred-and-one thoughts, ideas and tasks floating around their brains, clogging up their mental RAM. And if you know anything about computers, when they max out their RAM, things really bog down. Apps run slow. Games get choppy. Sometimes the whole computer freezes up and crashes.
What does “bog down” look like to humans? Overwhelm, stress, outbursts, cravings, fatigue… The list could go on.
Freeing your mental RAM
Allen’s prescription for this is to regularly perform brain dumps of all those things floating around your brain into a more suitable storage mechanism, such as lists, planners, and task managers—essentially offloading and freeing up mental RAM for things the mind is more adept at, such as creativity and strategy.
But say you’ve done this and your mind is no longer a messy melting pot of things screaming for your attention. You have some loosely prioritized projects and tasks and you know what needs to be done today, maybe even the whole week. Now comes the challenge of actually doing them. And with it, the potential stressor of not doing them.
When I walk into my garage to exercise, I walk past probably 5–6 incomplete tasks—things I’ve told myself I’m going to do that I haven’t yet done. A shelf for Jacob and Naylan’s closet; wood to be cut, sanded, stained and installed as a countertop; a sump pump to replace; door locks to swap, etc. All those things represent agreements I made with myself for projects I will perform. Yet, I haven’t fully kept those agreements and thus they cause me stress each time I see those things.
The GTD solution for this is to acknowledge those agreements by writing them down, getting them out of your psyche. Then, regularly revisit them, renegotiating with yourself as necessary, be it with a new deadline, indefinite deferment or (gasp!) completely retracting the agreement. But don’t just let them linger.
Living true to yourself
Now, let’s take this concept and apply it a little more directly to what I’ve been pondering. What about the non project- or task-related agreements we’ve made with ourselves? Agreements to eat better, read more or get to bed earlier? Or what about even deeper agreements—those that reach to the heart of who we really are? Things like desire and identity?
For example, if, at the core of your being, you believe and have agreed in your heart that you are an artist, but day-to-day ignore and put off that part of you, you’ll experience stress. Maybe not the acute stress you’re accustomed to experiencing under a looming project deadline (such as an elevated heart rate), but more subtle forms such as irritability, negative self-talk and depleted energy.
It’s empowering to live true to yourself. Just as completing a task or project fills you with energy and imparts fulfillment and satisfaction, so too does acknowledging and living in agreement with the deepest truths about who you are. Allowing your calling, identity and desires to sit there collecting dust while you walk past them each day will be a constant drain on your soul.
Keeping agreements at this level isn’t always as simple as task-based ones. But you can still apply Allen’s GTD methodology. For any multi-step project, GTD simply asks, “What’s the next action?” You don’t have to know all of the actions to complete a project, just the next one.
So, going back to the artist example, what’s one simple action you could take that would bring you into agreement with that identity? How about buying a canvas? Taking a class? Watching an inspirational documentary? What’s nearly certain is that it’s not quitting your job to become an artist. That time may come down the road, but keeping agreements with ourselves doesn’t have to be dramatic.
I’ve often overcomplicated living in my calling by having an all-or-nothing mindset. I’m discovering that small, simple steps that can be made today move the needle more than I ever imagined and help eliminate the stress of unkept agreements.