perceived tranquillity rating

Whatever you’re working on, whatever you’re grappling with: relax, relax, relax some more. Breathe. Make it a deep one. Drop your shoulders. There you go. Now your jaw—open your mouth wide and then let all the tension go. That’s right. You’re doing it.

At a stressful moment in a recent Forged in Fire championship, one smith reminded himself, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” This is while slinging white-hot metal around a crowded forge with fifty grand on the line. Apparently that’s a SEAL slogan, so think sniper rifles and scuba gear. Your Word document qualifies. They don’t mean “deadline” literally.

The point isn’t that you can relax when the stakes are low. It’s that you must relax when the stakes are high. This wisdom can be found in nearly every religious, spiritual, and philosophical tradition, but I’ll need to tattoo it on my knuckles to remember it while I’m writing. (Here’s hoping the person with the needle is relaxed while they’re doing it.)

Accidents or destroying something can lead to something good. It can lead to something good. Very controlled things, not being open to, these boundaries, they just screw you. And you have to sometimes make a huge mess and make big mistakes to find that thing that you’re looking for.

David Lynch

Writers call this huge mess “the first draft.” There’s no sidestepping it. If you’re worrying about cleaning the mess up while you’re making it, you’ll never get to the good stuff.

The above quote, by the way, is from David Lynch: The Art Life. It’s a profoundly relaxed documentary. They dug up some archival footage and photographs, but mostly it’s just Lynch working quietly on his paintings or even just staring into space and thinking. Over the footage, Lynch talks into a microphone about life and work. I can only aspire to be so completely laid back in the making of something.

Laid back doesn’t mean easy. In fact, being controlling is a form of laziness—when I’m controlling, it’s because I’m trying to prevent a mess so I don’t have to clean it up later. Relaxing takes more vigor, more confidence.

You know that scene in a movie where two people in an office are so excited to get it on that the guy sweeps everything off his desk and then the woman tears his shirt off, sending buttons everywhere? Scenes like that take my wife and I right out of the story because we can’t help thinking of the poor PAs who had to reassemble the stuff on the desk and pick up all the buttons after each take for one stupid trope.

As the creator, however, you have to be willing to sweep everything off the desk.

My thinking about this case has become very uptight.

The Dude

To solve the case, relax. When the cocaine didn’t help, Holmes went the other direction and played his violin.

Concentration requires relaxation. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) was developed in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, two professors of psychology at the University of Michigan. According to the theory, focused attention uses up our reserve of mental energy. By spending time in “restorative environments,” we can replenish that energy. What makes an environment restorative? The Kaplans created a set of formal characteristics, but they boil down to “take a hike.” Get out of your space into a new environment and move through it.

No, not like Stephen Wolfram does, with a laptop tied around his neck so he can type as he walks. What you’re looking for is an area with soft fascination, when “there is enough interest in the surroundings to hold attention but not so much that it compromises the ability to reflect.” Think leaves rustling in a breeze or puffy white clouds drifting across the sky. (I like jazz and other “ambient” types of live performance for this, too. Sorry, jazz musicians.)

Researchers have developed a metric for soft fascination: the perceived Tranquility Rating (TR) of a given environment. The higher it is, the more effectively it will restore your depleted attention. Without regular intervals in a sufficiently tranquil environment, all your attempts at control will only strangle the life from your work.

Taking it easy is the best way to keep it.