I had to do a medical exam for life insurance underwriting last week. The standard tests – blood pressure, cholesterol, medical history, etc. As the nurse was taking my heart rate, she informed me that it was quite low, and told me in her Eastern European accent how “the world is much fitter now”. Back when she started practicing, they didn’t know what to do with patients with a low heart rate – they would often predict the worse and get the defibrillator warmed up to “jumpstart them back to life”.

It’s true, the world is obsessed with fitness.

There’s another obsession we’ve been engulfed in – productivity.

I am a case in point – I love going for an early morning sunrise trot, and I can get equally excited about the newest productivity hack or process.

These two things – fitness and productivity – can take pages from each other’s books. Allow me to explain.

the fitness obsession:

Endurance athletes have this concept of heart-rate-training. If you want to try it, here are the basics:

1. Calculate your maximum heart rate. For simplicity, you can use a proxy of 220 beats per minute less your age.
2. Calculate your 5 heart rate zones.

    1. a.  Zone 1 is 68% to 73% of your max
    1. b.  Zone 2 is 73% to 80% of your max
    1. c.  Zone 3 is 80% to 87% of your max
    1. d.  Zone 4 is 87% to 93% of your max
    1. e.  Zone 5 is 93% to 100% of your max

3. So, if you sprint as fast as you can for as long as you can, you’re in zone 5. A brisk walk would be zone 1.
4. The theory then says you should be doing around 80% of your training in zone 2, and 20% in zone 4.

(Give it a try and see how quickly you move out of zone 2, it’s quite scary.)

Now here’s the catch: Most people are very comfortable training in zone 3. This is known as the deadzone. The training is not difficult enough to build muscle (zone 4), but also not easy enough to build endurance (zone 2). For your body, it’s just confusing. Hence, the deadzone.

Okay, onto productivity.

the productivity obsession (and productive meetings!):

The productivity craze attempts to get us into zone 4 all the time. In a corporate environment, this means you’re getting things done, operating at full blast, and loving it.

However, you will burn out if you live in zone 4.

So, what do we do? We go to zone 3. Because that’s comfortable, and we still get things done. I mean, no harm done, right?


Successful and sustainable organisations operate on a foundation of trust. Zone 2 is where trust is built. It’s where relationships get an opportunity to flourish.

You can only build trust when you have enough time to slow down and listen. Actually listen. Not just to their words, but to their feelings. And you then show you care. That’s where a relationship of trust starts.

And that doesn’t happen in zone 3. It doesn’t happen in the deadzone.

If you want to be productive over the long term – if you want to be successful and sustainable – you have to find the balance between zone 2 and zone 4. You have to find the balance between building relationships and being transactional.

practically speaking:

Here are three ways in which it applies:

In meetings:

In your meetings, you need to find the balance between relational engagements (zone 2) and transactional meetings (zone 4).

We have loads of standups, steercos, and project updates, which are all transactional.

Somewhere along the way, we realise this isn’t enough and we need stronger relationships or a foundation of trust in our teams. We address it by tabling a “how are you” into the agenda of our steerco (however authentic it might be!) and think it’ll address that concern.

But all it does is put us into zone 3 – it’s a confused mix of two zones.

Our recommendation: Try splitting the two – have deliberate relational engagements and keep your transactional meetings transactional. Alternatively, ensure there’s a clear split between the two in your meeting. You can authentically operate in both zones.

For ideation and innovation:

Certain types of engagements should encourage innovative thinking, divergent solutions, and broad contributions. We’d classify these as zone 2 meetings as well. Don’t aim for a specific outcome, other than gathering ideas.

But stopping at ideas will get us nowhere. We need to switch to execution mode, which is zone 4. Ideas need to converge and be ruthlessly prioritised.

Our recommendation: It will give your team a sense of comfort if you make the break between the two zones clear. Tell them we have gathered all ideas now, and need to prioritise. And then stick to it.

For team dynamics:

In a team, you’ll have individuals who are gifted in zone 2 – they are relational, possess the strength to woo others, to convince them, to build trust, to galvanise a team.

And others who are gifted in zone 4 – they understand how to turn ideas into action, what to do next, how to prioritise, get it done, and push through.

Our recommendation: Ensure you understand the strengths of your team and use them accordingly. They will appreciate it. They might be able to fulfill both roles, but both roles don’t give them the same amount of energy.

To be successful and sustainable, you need both zone 2 and zone 4. But don’t dabble in zone 3.

If you have questions, we’re always keen for coffee.

Get in touch so that we can brainstorm a few solutions together!

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