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It’s a simple, alluring four letter word. At this time of year, when work slows for many people, calm can magically surface. We cherish it, but then it disappears, as the maelstrom of our regular routine re-emerges.

Ottawa’s Chris Bailey gave much thought to calm after he found himself in an embarrassing, oxymoronic situation: a productivity consultant overwhelmed by anxiety and accompanying burnout. “I was relieved to discover that the productivity advice I’d been giving wasn’t wrong. It was, however, missing a critical piece of the productivity picture,” he writes in How to Calm your Mind.

That missing piece is you must invest in calm to be fully productive. “The productivity benefits of calm can be profound,” he says. And because it’s so beneficial, you shouldn’t feel guilty for investing in it, even if the signals you get from around you might encourage ceaseless, frenzied activity as the secret to success.

He has lots of techniques, but first you must grapple with this basic principle: The two main enemies of calm are our quest for more and our related desire for dopamine, a neurochemical in our brain that leads us to overstimulate ourselves.

Our identity often revolves around accomplishment. He achieved the pinnacle, after a year of productivity experiments on himself led to a book and the TED Talks organization suggesting he might be the most productive man you would meet. By accepting the narrative that he was unstoppably productive, he failed to realize there was a point where he could go too far.

And as you seek more – more plaudits, more promotions, more accomplishments and more money – the same could happen. Keep in mind accomplishment can lead to both success and harm. “More always has a cost,” he warns.

Often when we seek more, we are actually seeking dopamine. It has been called a “pleasure chemical” but he says research suggests it’s more a chemical of anticipation. Our brain rewards us with dopamine immediately before we engage in something pleasurable. When you check your e-mail or your news feed or otherwise seek overstimulation, it’s dopamine you are craving.

Those two principles lead to two starting points on the road to calm.

To counter the accomplishment mindset, he found it helpful to set boundaries, carving out time to purposefully not care about productivity or accomplishment. “I was shocked by how well it worked,” he says.

Now, every day, he defines what his productivity hours will be, both for work and the housework of his life. If you try the technique, he says you will find it liberating because even when you are swamped you will know there is some end in sight. It nudges you to work on priorities by creating a deadline to get things done. And, as compensation, it gives you little packets of time not to worry about getting things done.

He also recommends a stimulation detox – or, perhaps more accurately, a dopamine detox – abstaining from any behaviours driven by dopamine for a prescribed period of time. He stepped back from artificial stimuli as much as possible for one month and has repeated that over time. In his non-digital, or analogue, life he cut out all alcohol, because it provides a substantial dopamine rush. He also didn’t order any takeout food, which has been an escape route from stress, and he was mindful not to overeat, again particularly in stressful situations.

Most of his limits came from digital stimuli, using a blocker app for websites and social media – an exception was yoga and workout videos on YouTube – and checked e-mail just three times a day. If he wanted to watch TV, a movie or something on a streaming site, he had to decide 24 hours ahead of time, so he was not giving in to impulse, and if he bought something online he had to know what he wanted before visiting the site. He limited his news to the morning print newspaper, part of a broader and important shift from digital to analogue living.

The result: calm.

Try it in the new year.

Quick hits

  • The most powerful productivity tool ever invented is the word “no,” says Shane Parrish, of the Ottawa-based Farnam Street blog.
  • When someone asks your opinion, give it. Academics Alixandra Barasch, Kaitlin Woolley and Peggy J. Liu found in three research studies that failure to do so makes you seem less likeable – even when you are trying to be easygoing and non-offensive – and suggests your opinion is actually negative.
  • Life coach Andrea Mein DeWitt recommends embracing your so-called masculine and feminine energies for effectiveness. Masculine energies include being courageous, forthright and focused while feminine energies include being receptive, collaborative and intuitive. Masculine energies involve doing; female energies involve being. We all embody both energies, so use them.
  • Document performance or behaviour issues that arise in your day-to-day activity so that you can explain your actions and decisions to others. “You may have to explain what you did and why years after the incident in a hostile, adversarial environment,” notes consultant Wally Bock.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.