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One day a few weeks back, I was experiencing a serious case of what I call “brain overload.” I had a zillion different thoughts and to-dos competing for attention, and was also encountering a constant string of interruptions, many of which were requiring me to mentally rearrange my to-do list while simultaneously coming up with instant solutions to unanticipated problems. Aaargh!

I had reached a point of reactivity that I know to be just a hair’s breadth away from an even more unpleasant state: peevishness.

As a habitually positive person, I find sinking into victim-thinking, frustration and anxiety to be hugely distasteful — in part because I know these states to be largely unproductive, and in part because I experience them as a reflection of my own failing to have noticed and averted them sooner. (OK, so I’m a habitually positive person with certain perfectionist tendencies, but I’m working on becoming an “optimalist” — see “Beyond Perfect.”)

The point is, on this particular day, I got to this just-shy-of-mental-meltdown point and managed to pause long enough to have a moment of clarity. What I needed to do, I realized, was take a time out.

That evening, I had a lovely dinner out with my gal pal, Jacque. I resolved to make it a “no work” affair, so I turned off my cell phone, tuned out my inner taskmaster and set my to-do list aside. We simply sat and chatted and listened and ate and enjoyed each other’s company. As the evening progressed, my spirit started to revive itself, the room seemed to turn sparkly, and I could almost feel my poor frazzled synaptic connections rebuilding themselves.

Our conversation turned to the subject of an article I’d been editing for the October issue. Based on Gay Hendricks’s new book, The Big Leap (HarperOne, 2009), the article (“Overcome Your Upper Limits,” available in the October 2009 archives) explains how we tend to limit our own experiences of success and satisfaction. We typically do this as the result of certain ingrained beliefs, says Hendricks, and these self-imposed “Upper Limits” keep us from spending time in what he calls our “Zones of Genius” — doing the things we enjoy most and are best at.

Long story short, both Jacque and I found the idea of overcoming our Upper Limits and spending more time in our Zones of Genius very appealing. And so we struck an agreement — we dubbed it our Genius Pact — to set some goals around these pursuits, and to spend a certain amount of time each week applying ourselves to exercises and experiences that would help us achieve them.

A big part of the pact, for both of us, was spending three hours a week on some combination of self-care, self-challenge and self-exploration. We decided that we would log and journal about those experiences as we did them. We would also do weekly phone check-ins and monthly in-person check-ins to build in accountability and support, and we agreed to get some outside coaching to help facilitate the process even more. We also built in a series of rewards — for sticking to our commitments and achieving our goals — throughout the entire process.

As our plan took shape over dinner, I felt a sense of elation and excitement that not only completely cleared my former brain overload and calmed my reactivity, but left me feeling blissfully renewed.

We hammered out all the details over the next week or so, drafting an actual pact document, creating a schedule, defining our rewards and so forth (essentially, we used an adjusted version of the “Fitness Pact” template that accompanied our article, “Pact Mentality,” available in the September 2009 archives).

But the first spark of magic really happened because of that dinner. And that dinner only happened because I recognized that I was in desperate need of a break, and then took one. I consider it a valuable lesson.

For the past month or so, Jacque and I have been working our Genius Pact and both reaping huge rewards. As the result of setting a clear intention and committing just a few hours a week to these self-renewing activities, I’ve felt an amazing influx of inspiration and energy. I’ve also experienced a flood of exciting ideas that will undoubtedly find their way into the magazine over the next several months, starting with this month’s “Relax and Renew” issue.

We’ve pulled together a whole collection of information and advice designed to help you calm down, get centered and reconnect with your own personal sense of inspiration and vitality.

Whether you’re dealing with anxiety and exhaustion, longing for an influx of new energy, or are just eager to live your life at your healthiest, happiest best, this issue is for you.

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