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Work hard and be successful. Work hard and overcome. Work hard… or lose your livelihood.
We seem hardwired to work hard. But we’re also working longer… day after day, week after week. In fact, Type A’s may totally spurn vacations—how could they relax while obsessing about unfinished tasks?
That’s what performance expert Tony Schwartz finds in today’s prevailing work styles: a do-more-with-less, no-slacking environment that paradoxically undermines efficiency. In his books, including Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live, released this year, Schwartz and co-authors Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy expose the problems stemming from relentless hours at the desk.
Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, advocates a work style based on a series of sprints rather than a marathon. He says intermittently pushing ourselves, then renewing, builds strength and that without such renewal, our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy decline.
“Energy is really the fuel in your tank,” Schwartz tells SUCCESS. “It’s what makes it possible for you to bring your skill and your talent to life.”
Schwartz offers the following tactics and insights for maximizing your energy and performing at your best.
The top priority for physical energy is sleeping at least seven hours per night. “Sleep is more important at the physical level than anything that you can do. It’s more important than food,” Schwartz says. “Deprive a rat of sleep for 21 days, and the rat will be dead. Deprive a rat of food for 21 days, and the rat will be hungry but alive…. Sleep is more important than food, but we don’t accord it the respect it deserves.”
Adequate rest supports focus, and focus allows you to accomplish more during your workday. Poor sleep habits impair judgment (especially under pressure), increase irritability and slow thinking and impede memory. Sleep aids such as alcohol and medication can cause grogginess and potential addiction.
To perform your best, take a renewal break after spending 90 minutes or less on highly focused morning work, then take an afternoon break between 1 and 3 p.m. for perhaps a nap, walk or gym workout. Passive renewal (deep breathing, meditation, listening to music) and active renewal (weightlifting, strenuous yoga, aerobic exercise) can stoke your physical energy. Even breaks of 30 to 60 seconds, perhaps through breathing techniques, are restorative.
Exercise, a natural antidepressant, enhances physical energy. Schwartz supports three types of training: interval (intense workouts followed by full recovery), resistance and strength—the last being “arguably more fundamental than endurance, simply because we require strength to move at all.”
Vacate the Premises
We are more productive when we regularly take vacations for in-depth renewal, but Americans aren’t doing so. Americans fail to use 439 million paid vacations days each year.
In 2008 a third of Americans said they intended to take no vacations; another 33 percent planned a vacation of seven days or less.
Only 14 percent scheduled a vacation of at least two weeks during 2008.
A study of 12,000 men found that infrequent vacationers were 50 percent more likely to die of a heart attack than frequent vacationers.
A study of 1,500 women found that those who took vacations twice a year were half as likely to be depressed as those who took a vacation once every two to five years.
Eating habits play a huge role in physical energy, of course, and The Energy Project recommends eating every three hours. This includes a breakfast of about 300 to 400 calories, conservative portions at other meals, and snacks such as an apple or handful of almonds to break the habit of waiting to eat until famished and then overindulging. The trick is to maintain blood sugar at consistent levels. Going long periods between meals can lead to drops in blood sugar, causing lethargy, irritability, unsteadiness and a tendency to be distracted easily. Consuming too many sweets or simple carbohydrates such as potatoes, pasta and bread can result in blood sugar spikes. Some people prone to hypoglycemia overreact to blood sugar spikes, as their bodies produce a surge of insulin that quickly depletes blood sugar.
Anytime you’re not feeling optimistic, engaged, upbeat, focused, enthused and committed, you’re performing at a sub-optimal level. Negative emotions—fear, frustration, anger, exhaustion or sadness, for example— quickly deplete energy. When you experience negative emotions, perhaps from a stinging criticism or a workplace disappointment, you need renewal. Calling a loved one or having an emotionally positive conversation are ways to refuel.
“The more you remove yourself from your ongoing work environment,” Schwartz says, “the more likely you are to get mental and emotional renewal. So if you walk out of the office, that’s a change of venue.… If you spend time with people whom you like, with friends or colleagues you like, that’s a source of emotional renewal.” Going home to spend time with family, instead of working late, offers renewal, too.
Cultivating a realistically optimistic perspective also replenishes your emotional reservoir. Do this by systematically training yourself to appreciate the good things in your life and by seeking people and activities that make you feel better about yourself.
Emotions are contagious, so you can seed a work environment with positive emotions by encouraging, recognizing, appreciating and rewarding the accomplishments of others, even in small ways. You’ll make them feel valued and respected while engendering the sense of belonging that is crucial to effectiveness.
The world’s information avalanche actually can hobble learning, Schwartz says. Learning is most efficient when dispensed in spaced cycles rather than in one big glut. And when projects likewise are broken down into smaller chunks, you can maintain high levels of focus as you conquer interim challenges.
The capacity for absorbed attention is perhaps the most influential factor on productivity. Multitasking is actually a time-waster, with studies showing it takes 25 percent longer to work on multiple assignments at once (actually switching back and forth between them) than if the tasks were completed sequentially. Email, a tremendous distraction, saps and squanders mental energy that could be applied to more meaningful work.
Freeing yourself from interruptions by periodically turning off email and closing your office door enables absorption in the work at hand. You can build the muscle of attention just as you would a biceps, by subjecting it to intense increments of stress (focus) and then relaxing.
One tip for managing mental energy is to assess the day’s top priority so you plan where to deploy most of your energy. Do this the night before or perhaps at the beginning of the week for a long project.
An exercise to improve right-brain function, which deals in context (as opposed to the left brain, which deals in text), involves letting go of conscious control during an unfocused activity such as showering or running. This liberates innovative thinking, but you should record your inspirations immediately because they can quickly slip away. One Energy Project client took a voice recorder on runs so he could capture those light-bulb ideas.
Schwartz says spiritual energy is “derived from the experience that what you do matters [but] that doesn’t mean you have to be Mother Teresa.… You can feel that what you’re doing matters by how you interact with other people in your workplace. You can feel it because you are committed to a level of excellence.… You can feel it from the fact that you have a certain set of values” and you live by them.
Meaning and significance—the idea of doing things for the greater good—generate energy and ignite passion vital for propelling yourself beyond a learning curve and staying committed to growth.
The first spiritual challenge is accepting that your highest and lowest selves coexist inside you and forever compete for your favor. A powerful spiritual practice is to ask yourself, “In what way is this my responsibility, and what could I do better?” By recognizing your shortcomings, you salvage energy otherwise wasted on denial, rationalization and blame.
Live intentionally. To develop and maintain the four kinds of energy, schedule rituals. Avoid (rather than resist) temptations that would sidetrack those rituals because the act of resisting drains energy.
Schwartz says his goal is to raise people’s awareness so they understand how their bodies and brains work, and so they don’t misuse them and end up getting less when they thought they were getting more.
He recommends a process that involves asking yourself a few introspective questions: Who am I? What do I stand for? What do I really want? What’s my purpose in life? What is it that really is most meaningful to me? What do I love to do that could add value in the world?
While you won’t necessarily get the deepest answers the first time, it’s a process, he says. “I continue to revisit and refine this process, and I do it because… the clearer I am about what really matters to me, the clearer I am about who I want to be and what I want to do and, as a consequence, the more energy I have to do it.”