Introducing the Green Zone Framework to Optimize Your Work & Life | by Pete Sena | Jul, 2022

A flashing gif with the words GREEN ZONE in alternating green colors. In between the words green and zone is a silhouette of a man in a blazer and white button down shirt from the chest up standing tall. The man is missing his face and to represent the face and headless body are various symbols forming the shape of a head/face.
Image by Author

We’re living through a time of significant disruption: social, economic, environmental, and for many of us, personal. And if we’ve learned anything from the turmoil, it’s that time is precious — it’s literally our most valuable asset.

So, how do we protect that asset? First, we can get some inspiration from the so-called “Blue Zones” — places like Okinawa, Japan, where people live the longest. Research shows we spend about 90,000 hours or about a third of our lives working, so what we do for a living is critical to how well we live. This is backed up by the ancient Japanese concept of Ikigai — identifying the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning and that you can make a living doing.

This is a screenshot of the Find Your Ikigai toolkit created be thinkFWD, a Design Thinking community. The word Ikigai is in black and bold and underneath it as a subhead text is the words “Reason for living.” Next to these words is a Venn diagram with four circles all of which have various words in them like Love, Passion, Mission, etc.. These lines making up the circles are dotted and in the center of the Venn diagram with four overlapping circles is the word Ikigai.
Image by author (An exercise you can do to find your Ikigai)

But here’s the rub: there’s a big difference between knowing your big-picture mission and getting it done, day in and day out. It’s a mistake to think that you can just change jobs or even careers to find your spark. You do what you do wherever you go, so if you’re not engaged and excited now, you’ll just transport that situation elsewhere. You have to make positive change happen — by design.

So, if Blue Zones help you live the longest, I propose a Green Zone that helps you live the happiest at work — and make the most impact for others and yourself. Green is the color of “go,” and it’s also the color we love seeing on our devices because it means your battery is fully charged. Getting sh*t done happens in the Green Zone, but you must be intentional about getting into that space.

Ready to change your life? Let’s get you into your Green Zone.

The Counterintuitive Reason You’re Stuck

Here’s the truth: your excellence is what’s crushing you. You’re amazing at what you do and smart enough to figure out the things you’re unsure of. And guess what?

You’re screwing things up royally for yourself and others. And, you might also be miserable in the process.

Does that sound familiar?

On top of that, all the digital productivity tools in the world won’t make you productive. They can’t ensure that you achieve the impact and success you richly deserve. Because here’s the secret: It’s not just about managing your time; it’s about owning your time.

I learned this the hard way after bootstrapping and building an eight-figure business. After 17 years, when I looked back, I felt empty, burned out, and unfulfilled instead of being happy and grateful for how much I had achieved.

The concept I call “the Green Zone’’ transformed every aspect of my life. For years, I was a workaholic whose identity was so deeply blended with being an entrepreneur I could barely separate Pete, the human, from Pete, the founder.

I’ve worked with founders and business leaders my entire career. Once I stepped back and analyzed this, I realized what separates the breakthrough business leaders (commonly referred to as unicorns) from the regular Joes and Janes: they know how to maximize things that energize them and minimize things that don’t.

You might have heard the term “Zone of Genius,” which is where the rubber hits the road — and that’s what I’m calling “The Green Zone.” It’s when you’re highly engaged and working in an inspired flow state, producing innovative, unique, and next-level work. You’ve got all cylinders firing so you can go pedal to the metal on game-changing, money-making, empire-building creativity.

For most of us, the Genius Zone revs up on rare occasions. Instead, we spend most of our time doing things that drain our energy for a myriad of reasons that we’ll get into. But the key point is this: the currency we’re dealing with is not merely time. When you take a good look at not just how you spend your time but how you feel about how you’re spending your time, you’ll see the critical factor is energy.

Enter the Green Zone

I talk a lot about what it takes to be a forward-obsessed entrepreneur. So here’s another counterintuitive assertion: this has nothing to do with being a “futurist.” It has everything to do with being fully grounded in the present moment. If you’re hellbent on unlocking possibilities and driving progress like I am, your first obsession has to be with how you spend your time and attention.

By taking stock of what you are doing right now, you’ll be able to use that intel to plot a course for your Genius Zone (aka Green Zone) and optimize the time you spend there daily. But first, we need to define the other areas we spend our time, with a hat tip to the creator of the “zones” theory, productivity, psychologist, writer, and teacher, Gay Hendricks. In his book, The Big Leap, Hendricks identifies four different zones of function:

  1. Incompetence: You’re doing something you don’t understand or aren’t good at.
  2. Competence: You’re doing something you can do efficiently, but many others in your circle or organization are equally skilled in doing the same thing.
  3. Excellence: You’re doing something you’re amazing at and have put a lot of time and effort into developing the necessary skills.
  4. Genius: As mentioned, this is next-level excellence — in this zone, it’s effortless to unleash your innate abilities as an unstoppable creative force. This is what being “in the zone” is all about… and the product of your time in the zone is innovative, remarkable, and beyond anything others are doing.

In other words, the Genius Zone is where your Ikigai lives. It’s where you feel most fulfilled and energized and enjoy the most success.

Have you ever found yourself in such a flow state that you can do something for hours without getting tired? For me, that’s hosting workshops with my clients or coaching and advising founders on how to find their breakthroughs.

Now, it’s easy to identify your zones of Competence and Incompetence. Your Excellence Zone is probably the main thing you do for a living, so that should be simple to identify too.

The Genius Zone, however, might feel tricky to nail down. In Hendricks’ book, he asks you to consider the following questions:

  • “What work do you do that doesn’t seem like work?”
  • “In your work, what produces the highest ratio of abundance and satisfaction to the amount of time spent?”
  • “What is your unique ability?”

So, for example, here are a few more things that fit into my Genius Zone:

  • Drink from the firehose of information and retain key and useful information from it that can be used later
  • Spotting trends and patterns; seeing/predicting the future, and connecting unconventional wisdom to action
  • Creative strategy; rapidly developing and refining new ideas and solutions for creating breakthrough business results
  • Asking unusual and original questions that unlock new possibilities (useful in product design brainstorms and business development and growth-related meetings)
  • Creative marketing that pulls in the worlds of design, technology, and psychology (especially human behavior)
  • Recruiting (both ends of the spectrum, from getting prospects excited about the company or people I represent to being instrumental in acquiring new talent)
  • Creative Consulting: Transforming wants/needs/desires into actionable product roadmaps or strategic recommendations that solve a specific business problem

Once your zones are defined, it’s time to strategize how you can move into the Green Zone.

This is a mini infographic image showing three things with corresponding minimalist icons. First box has the phrase Audit your Calendar, second box has the phrase Plot Time & Energy Usage on a Matrix, Optimize your Work Life. All 3 of these are steps to take to get into the Green Zone.
Image by Author

Getting into Your Green Zone

Step 1: Audit Your Calendar

Start by color-coding the meetings and tasks on your calendar according to how they make you feel.

Green = Things that give your energy
Red = Things that drain your energy
Yellow = Neutral
Gray = Personal to-do list (I do this because it helps me see if I am making time for family, friends, and self-care.)

Of course, this will naturally correlate with zones since the Genius Zone is green and everything else is in other colors.

To get started, do a backward audit by pulling up your calendar and color coding completed meetings/tasks (if you have an easy digital calendar like Google calendar, it’s simple to do online, or you can just use highlighters on a planner). Go back a month, and you’ll start to see patterns. And continue to color code as you add new things to your calendar.

Here’s an example of what your energy audit will look like when you’re done:

This is an animating gif showcasing a calendar at a week view with the times 7am-7pm and the days Monday-Saturday. The calendar gif has calendar hold blocks showing the colors red, yellow, and green. As the gif animates it’s showing the red and yellow blocks become green blocks to represent someone entering a Green Zone.
Image by Author

Step 2: Plot Time & Energy Usage on a Matrix

Once your audit is complete, you can plot meetings and tasks on a matrix with passion on the Y axis (high to low) and competency on the X axis. I did this manually with pen and paper, but you can also easily use a tool like Miro, Figma, or any visual/mapping software.

This is a line graph with an x and y axis to measure passion on the y axis and competence on the x axis. There’s a curved dotted line connecting and mapping points on this graph to showcase how different activities are green, yellow, or red depending on if they give energy, are neutral, or take energy from you.
Image by Author

Now you’ll notice there are four main areas (or zones) to look at:

  • High Passion/High Competence: Green Zone
  • Low Passion/High Competence: Yellow (or orange) Zone
  • High Passion/Low Competence: Red Zone
  • Low Passion/Low Competence: Red Zone

On the left side of the graph are spaces that are either for absolute beginners (high passion/low competence) or a Zone of Incompetence. If you’re advanced in your career and doing tasks that you’re not great at but can figure out… you’re wasting your time and energy.

On the right side of the graph, you’re in the arena you know best and excel at. The high passion/high competency quadrant in the upper right-hand corner is where the Green Zone is. You’re still in the realm of excellence in the bottom right-hand corner, but the low passion aspect makes this quadrant the biggest trap on the chart. It’s likely what you’ve been doing forever, and you’re excellent at it — but you’re also burned out, frustrated, or bored. You’re either neutral about it (yellow), or it drains you (red). Either way, it’s no longer the best use of your time.

For example, as a lifelong designer and developer, it’s relatively easy for me to build a website quickly. This has been a problem in the past when it would almost take longer to explain to my team what I wanted vs. developing a site myself. So I’d say, Screw it, I’ll just do it. While I didn’t hate coding, I also didn’t love it anymore — it no longer brought me the joy it once did. Once I was in the throes of building the site, I could literally feel the energy draining out of me. Eventually, I realized I could be spending my time in many different ways to much greater effect. This is how the idea of the Green Zone was born.

If you’re an entrepreneur or a founder, you know how easy it is to fall back into old competencies without thinking it through. So, be brutally honest as you place all the color-coded tasks from your calendar on your Passion/Competency chart according to what you really feel about them.

Step 3: Optimize Your Work Life

With this clear visual representation of your zones, it’s clear where you can make big shifts to amplify your productivity — and success. All you have to do is:

  • Minimize the areas outside of your Genius Zone: Delete, delegate, or hire someone else to do these things.
  • Maximize the areas inside your Genius Zone: Make time on your calendar to focus on what brings you joy and success.

Sounds simple, right?

Actually, maybe not so much. Delegating or deleting meetings or tasks takes time, effort, and humility. Some things on your graph might feel impossible to get rid of or move, so you must be radically honest with yourself and your team members.

Here are a few tips to help you in the process:

  • You don’t have to deal in absolutes: For example, you might have something in the High Passion/Low Competency Zone that you’re into, like learning a new software program for mind mapping. If it can help you in your Green Zone work, awesome! Just don’t waste time: plan to move that swiftly from low competence to high competence, for example, by hiring a tutor to quickly get you up to speed.
  • Be strategic about the Yellow or Orange Zone: There might be a part of you that kind of likes what you’re excellent at, but there’s something else sucking the joy out of it. So, ask yourself if there’s any way to shift your feelings. For example, I love creating the artistic vision for my blog headers. But I hate asking my busy team to come up with several mock-ups… so often, I’d end up doing it myself. Not anymore! I’ve become obsessed with AI art and use it all the time to get the ideas out of my head and onto paper. My team can then quickly create the artwork I want, and I’m in the Green Zone.
  • Revisit your calendar and graph frequently: I always say change is the only constant. What I love today can be a drag on tomorrow. So, I’d advise you to do a periodic audit of your calendar and plot new meetings (the ultimate energy suck 😉) or tasks on your matrix. You are in charge of your Green Zone, so keep feeding the green machine!

For the record, my Green Zone concept is inspired by another “Green” framework I created, The Four Green Lights. This is a framework my company lives by that puts team satisfaction first (following that is client satisfaction, the impact of the work, and then profitability). It all points in the same direction: when you’re clear on your values and prioritize work that fosters connection and creativity, you create more value — for yourself, your customers, and your team. And that’s living the Green Dream!

I’d love to help you find your Green Zone, so let me know how I can help by leaving a comment or DM me on Twitter.