Energy, the capacity to work, is not a finite resource.
I really want to believe this. I often get exhausted though, or sick of working on something, or drained, or just lazy. My capacity to work seems fluctuates all over the place. Depending on my mood, or what I ate, or what’s going on in various relationships, or a million other factors, my energy rarely seems infinite. Enter, The Energy Project:
Energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind, and spirit. In each, energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals — behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible.
Hmmm. That makes tons of sense. We try to automate all sorts of things, from the way our software handles our email to the way our cars get built. It’s efficient. Why not automate ourselves? This isn’t about turning our brains off while we plow through some menial task though. Instead, it’s about automating the things that expand our energy reserves.
We’re only good for about 90-120 minutes of solid effort at at time. During these periods, our bodies physiologically shift from a high-energy state into a low-energy state. Toward the end of each cycle, our bodies begin to crave a break. Knowing this makes things easier: take a real break when you hit the low energy cycle. Even if it’s only a few minutes, The Energy Project has found that truly disengaging from work, getting up from your desk to go for a walk or talk to a coworker about sports, helps tremendously. All the traditional advice still applies: get to bed early, work out, eat healthy (smaller meals & snacks, eaten every three hours).
One of the most interesting suggestions given by the authors is to ritualize showing appreciation to others. Set aside a time each day to do something to thank or show appreciation for those around you. Whether its writing someone an email or a note, calling them, listening to them or helping them, or actually buying them a gift, the act of giving is powerful mood changer. It really is better to give than receive.
Reframing your emotions can boost your energy quite a bit. Instead of viewing yourself as a victim, frame situations positively. Even if you’re doing something miserable, take stock to see what you can learn from it or how it can better you.
Another technique, particularly valuable when you’re feeling overwhelmed, is deep abdominal breathing. Exhaling slowly for five or six seconds induces relaxation and recovery, and turns off the fight or flight response. Submerging your face in water will also quickly lower your heart rate and calm you down.
Multi-tasking sucks. No matter what kind of work you’re doing, focusing all of your attention on one thing will make you more productive. A temporary shift in attention from one task to another increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25% (aka “switching time”). So, set up systems to banish interruptions:
- E-mail: Check only twice per day. If someone has an emergency, they’ll call.
- Phone: when all your mental horsepower is needed, get away from the phones. Go to a conference room to write, or turn your phone off during your brainstorming sessions and meetings.
The breaks from the “body” section also apply here. Taking a walk or working out, or doing something physical allows your left-brain to take over for a while, which can not only lead to more insights and creative solutions, but also lets the right-side of your brain have a rest.
Do something meaningful. Even if you can’t possibly find a way to make your work meaningful (hint: you almost certainly can), find something meaningful outside of work. Focus on that thing.
Establish priorities and long-term goals. Set aside specific time to work on those long-term goals. Many people prefer to do it first thing in the morning: not only are you fully charged and distraction free, but if a crisis hits and that’s all you accomplish that day, you’ll still feel productive.
Practice reflection. You don’t have to go all Buddhist monk here, but set aside some time to think about what’s important to you, what you value, how you want to live your life, and what you want to achieve. Then practice those things.
The short article is definitely worth a read. The ideas about batching and automating aren’t new to readers of this blog, but there is some solid advice in here.
My favorite is the part about making a ritual out of showing appreciation. I incorporated a similar version of this in the last version of my time tracking template under the category of “Help Someone”. The daily goal was simply to reach out and help someone, even in a tiny way. Most days I was unsuccessful and had to write “No”, but the days I was able to write “Yes” were almost always fantastic days. Not only did I feel better in general, but looking through the records now, I was also more productive. I have a feeling “Show Appreciation” will have much the same effect, but will actually be easier to execute on a daily basis.