Nutshell: Replenishing our energy to revitalise our work

Written by
Future Talent Learning

04 May 2020

04 May 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Since time is a finite resource, we must find ways to boost our capacity – day to day, and throughout our lives – by managing our energy.

Our workload may be sky high and our time limited, but according to the science of stamina (yes, there is such a thing), it’s quite possible to increase our capacity to get things done.

“The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not,” affirm Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr in their bestselling book The Power of Full Engagement.

They argue that managing our energy, rather than our time, is the key to achieving sustainable high performance: to be fully engaged, we must be physically energised, emotionally connected, mentally focused and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest. According to their theory:

  • physical energy is the fundamental source of fuel in life – our ability to perform physical tasks. It relates to how much and how well we sleep, eat, exercise, recover and look after our body’s physical needs.
  • emotional energy allows us to transform threat into challenge. To perform at our best, we must access and strengthen positive emotions (which are fuelled by the ‘emotional muscles’ of self-confidence, self-control, interpersonal effectiveness and empathy) and manage the negative emotions that serve survival.
  • mental energy enables us to organise our lives, focus our attention and adopt a position of ‘realistic optimism’. The key supportive ‘mental muscles’ include mental preparation, visualisation, positive self-talk, effective time management and creativity.
  • spiritual energy provides the force for action in all dimensions of our lives, fuelling passion, perseverance and commitment. It is derived from a connection to deeply held values and a purpose beyond our self-interest, supported by the ‘spiritual muscles’ of passion, commitment, integrity and honesty.

Renewing these four (separate but related) dimensions of personal energy means fostering deceptively simple rituals, and practising them systematically and intentionally until they become habits. Behaviours include taking brief but regular breaks away from our desk (physical); defusing negative emotions through deep abdominal breathing (emotional); responding to emails at designated times during the day (mental), and allocating time and energy to what we consider most important (spiritual).

A full list of rituals, based on Schwartz and Loehr’s recommendations, can be found at the end of this article.

Transforming our wellbeing and productivity

There are clear reasons for us (at least to attempt) to adopt these behaviours: why wouldn’t we want to enhance our wellbeing, relationships and impact by finding ways to manage our four dimensions of personal energy?

And there is also an incentive – beyond staff welfare – for employers to help us to build and sustain our capacity. Research shows that growing our resilience in this way enables us to get more done in less time at a higher level of engagement – and with greater sustainability.

“Organizations need to shift their emphasis from getting more out of people to investing more in them, so they are motivated – and able – to bring more of themselves to work every day,” stresses Schwartz, who runs The Energy Project, working with companies to fuel high performance by meeting the needs of their employees. His clients include Google, Bank of America, Microsoft and Pfizer.

For example, implementing ‘renewal rooms’, where people can relax, subsidising gym subscriptions and establishing rules around sending work emails out of hours can all help to energise our teams. Dropping unnecessary dress codes or enabling flexible working may also boost engagement. We should also be encouraged to use techniques that enhance our ability to do focused work (while harnessing moments of ‘unfocus’, of course).

An excess of meetings (particularly virtual ones) is invariably draining; the phrase ‘Zoom fatigue’ has not been coined for nothing. Not only do lengthy sessions in front of a screen further reduce the mobility of the already desk-bound, but we’re forced to look at ourselves for hours at a time – causing stressful self-evaluation. Then there’s the increased cognitive load associated with videoconferencing, plus sustained periods of direct eye gaze (essentially being stared at for most of the day).

Researchers at Stanford University have developed the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale to help measure the impact of the steep rise in videoconferencing and to develop guidance. Until platforms evolve, they suggest actions such as hiding ‘self-view’, reducing our screen size during drawn-out calls, and giving ourselves regular periods of ‘audio only’. Thinking more carefully about the configuration of our space – including where the camera is positioned and whether accessories such as an external keyboard can help create distance or flexibility – may go some way to reducing discomfort.

Tailoring solutions

While most of us can empathise with the strain of video calls, nuanced energy-saving solutions will be required in line with particular demographics and personality types. For instance, extroverts gain energy from social interactions and may struggle when deprived of collaborative opportunities, while introverts tend to recharge by spending time alone; those of us working in-house may need to address the distractions of open-plan offices – plus tiring commutes – while home workers battle to set boundaries between their work and personal lives.

Different times of our lives bring different energy challenges which we (and our organisations) must address for optimum wellbeing and productivity. These include the physical strains and sleep deprivation associated with pregnancy and having a young family, plus the challenges of ageing – including, for women, the energy-depleting phase of menopause.

In a 2019 survey from Bupa and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 59% of working women aged 45 to 55 who were experiencing the menopause reported that it had a negative impact on them at work, with the most common issues including a reduced ability to concentrate, feeling more stressed and being less patient with clients and colleagues. The study estimated that 900,000 women had so far left their jobs due to menopausal symptoms. Simple role adjustments could help prevent this.

Harnessing chronobiology and longevity

Our energy levels are in flux, then, throughout our careers. However, if we recognise what is usual for us, and how we work best, we will be more able to address the changes that life brings. Understanding when and why our own energy ebbs and flows is an important part of enhancing our capacity. When we do things can be as important as what we do, points out Daniel Pink (author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing), arguing that each of us is driven by our chronotype – our natural, daily physiological rhythms.

This ‘hidden pattern of the day’ affects our mood, energy, cognitive abilities and, ultimately, performance, revolving around the three stages of peak, trough and recovery. The exact timing of these vary according to our specific chronotype, but most people peak in the morning, are least cognitively alert after lunch and rebound in the evening.

As individuals – and managers – we need to take this pattern into account, becoming intentional and strategic about scheduling different activities in a way that makes best use of energy, and taking regular restorative breaks. We don’t always have control over our schedule, but where we do, we should aim to take advantage of times of natural high and low energy.

A similar peak and trough over the course of our lifetimes is often thought to be inevitable. Typically, we view life as a youthful ascendency followed by a decline from midlife. However, given increasing longevity, reframing the second half of our lives is vital to getting the most out of our allotted time.

Managing our energy over the course of our lives involves achieving a “Second Bounce”, according to philosopher Robert Rowland Smith and coach Mark McCartney, who describe a period, usually in our 40s or 50s, when instead of falling foul of a midlife crisis, we reflect on where we’ve got to, regather our energy, and bounce back with renewed vitality for the second half of our lives.

This takes the form of a deliberate ritual, rather than a panic-fuelled crisis: a process of reflection and self-assessment, during which we take stock of our life so far, think about our achievements, learn from our experiences, define our current ambitions, and work out how to achieve them. It requires us to embrace our age and to adopt a growth, rather than a fixed, mindset.

“Whereas a midlife crisis takes the shape of a blip of false energy followed by a decline, the V of the Second Bounce refers to how we can come back with our vitality renewed,” they write.

Neuroscience supports the idea that the second half of our lives can be as productive as the first. In his bestselling book The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge demonstrates that our brain has a plasticity that allows it to be repatterned and remoulded.

Given this, Rowland Smith and McCartney advise us to design a lifestyle that leads to a productive life long into old age, maximising our energy by reducing unproductive ‘busyness’, making small inroads towards big goals and finding a coach or mentor to support us along the way. Developing a healthier lifestyle will help us to manage fatigue, while we can fuel our motivation by pre-empting later regrets, and developing a positive image of our ‘older self’. “Paint a picture of yourself in the future that is one that interests and inspires you,” they advise.

Becoming the chief energy officer

While it’s important to manage energy for our personal achievement and wellbeing, Schwartz and Loehr point out that, as leaders, we are the stewards of organisational energy, inspiring or demotivating others – first by the way in which we manage our own energy, and second by how we harness, mobilise and renew the collective energy of those we lead.

Just as emotional contagion can take down the whole team, so energy is contagious; a CEO is a “chief energy officer” according to Schwarz. He argues that a leader’s responsibility is to fuel their people in every possible way to bring the best of themselves to their jobs every day. By virtue of a leader’s disproportionate position and power, the way they are feeling at any given moment profoundly influences how the people who work for them feel. How they’re feeling, in turn, profoundly influences how well they perform. 

Success means balancing our own – and our teams’ ­– energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal: too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown, and too much recovery without sufficient stress leads to atrophy and weakness. Pushing ourselves (and our teams) to expand our capacity is important – but only with periodic renewal built into our daily routines.

When we get this right, we create a high-energy environment for our people, enabling creation and innovation, while giving ourselves the best chances of personal success. It seems that time is not our most precious resource after all.

Rituals for renewing our four dimensions of personal energy:

Physical energy

  • Enhance your sleep by setting an earlier bedtime and reducing alcohol use.
  • Reduce stress by engaging in cardiovascular activity at least three times a week and strength training at least once.
  • Eat small meals and light snacks every three hours. 
  • Improve your metabolism (and blood sugar cycles) with intermittent fasting (for example, eating all your meals within an eight-hour time period and fasting for the remaining 16 hours.
  • Learn to notice signs of imminent energy flagging, including restlessness, yawning, hunger and difficulty concentrating.
  • Take brief but regular breaks, away from your desk, at 90- to 120-minute intervals throughout the day.

Emotional energy

  • Defuse negative emotions such as irritability, impatience, anxiety and insecurity through deep abdominal breathing.
  • Fuel positive emotions in yourself and others by regularly expressing appreciation in detailed, specific terms through notes, emails, calls or conversations.
  • Look at upsetting situations through new lenses. Adopt a ‘reverse lens’ to ask, “what would the other person in this conflict say, and how might they be right?”. Use a ‘long lens’ to ask, “how will I likely view this situation in six months?”. Employ a ‘wide lens’ to ask, “how can I grow and learn from this situation?”.

Mental energy

  • Reduce interruptions by performing high-concentration tasks away from phones and email.
  • Respond to voicemails and emails at designated times during the day.
  • Every night, identify the most important challenge for the next day and make it your first priority when you arrive at work in the morning.

Spiritual energy

  • Identify your ‘sweet-spot activities' – those that give you feelings of effectiveness, effortless absorption and fulfilment – and find ways to do more of these.
  • Allocate time and energy to what you consider most important.
  • Live your core values. For instance, if consideration is important to you but you’re perpetually late for meetings, practise intentionally showing up five minutes early for meetings.

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