The Art of Stillness

In Japan in the 1990s, the madogiwazoku – ‘the Window Tribe’ – were ageing employees who were no longer seen as useful to the organisation. However, since there was a reluctance to make people redundant in the land of the rising sun, they would instead be left to take a quiet seat by the window in the twilight of their careers.

Practicing the Getting Things Done (GTD®) methodology can propel your own career up towards the top floor instead of sideways towards the double-glazing, but staring out of windows can be an important and productive part of your day nonetheless.

It can, of course, simply be a break, a conscious effort to switch off from the task at hand and take a refreshing mental pause as you enjoy the wide blue yonder (or maybe the fifty shades of grey if you’re enjoying autumn in the British Isles).

But staring at the sky can also have a serious creative purpose. It’s known that we look away in conversation to avoid the cognitive distraction of the listener’s face when we want to formulate a response. It’s called ‘gaze aversion’ and looking skyward serves a similar purpose. Mentally disengaging from your screen or paperwork can often help you achieve the insight, perspective or creative breakthrough you’ve been seeking.

It’s harder to access this quiet space, however, if your mind is filled with uncontrolled distractions instead of mental space, and this is where GTD comes in. Whether you’re in need of a break or a breakthrough, GTD helps declutter your headspace by enabling you to consistently and completely park everything that has your attention outside of your head so your mind can then be clear.

Indeed, David Allen, who created the Getting Things Done methodology, has said that it is one of the hallmarks of effective GTD practice to successfully be able to do nothing at all – completely free of distraction – if that’s what you want to do.

As you look out your office window, then, if the reflection looking back at you is someone who can successfully focus or de-focus, even just for a minute or two, then you’re experiencing one of the benefits that GTD habits reliably provide, even at busy times. Effective GTD ‘capture’ practices – described in my colleague Todd Brown’s recent blog – will be a particular help in getting you to that empty space.

There is even greater restorative potential, however, in the undistracted quality time we spend away from our work, whether it’s walking the dog, riding a bike or walking in the park with loved ones. These times are vital for restoring the creative energy that drives your other endeavours and, here too, the ability to completely switch off is key if you want to be able to completely switch back on again, fully refreshed.

The Japan-based travel writer, Pico Iyer, whose windows look out over the serene ancient capital of Nara – describes the importance of quiet and reflection to the creative process in his lyrical TED talk, ‘The Art of Stillness’. While he recognises the initial wrench of dragging himself away from his inbox, he recognises the ultimate importance of the empty space to his creative rejuvenation:

“A part of me still feels guilty… to be ignoring all those seemingly urgent emails from my bosses… but as soon as I get to a place of real quiet, I realise that it’s only by going there that I’ll have anything fresh or creative or joyful to share with my wife or bosses or friends. Otherwise, really, I’m just foisting on them my exhaustion or my distractedness, which is no blessing at all.”

The view from your own window may not be that of a Japanese mountain but GTD can still help you carve out the quiet and undistracted mental space you need to make the most of it and keep offering your most creative, productive and fresh self to the world.