Work hard and be successful. Work hard and overcome. Work hard… or lose your livelihood.
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 book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, Schwartz and co-authors Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy, Ph.D., expose the problems stemming from relentless hours at the desk.
Schwartz, founder and CEO of The Energy Project, advocates for a work style based on a series of sprints rather than a marathon. He says intermittently pushing and renewing ourselves builds strength. And without such renewal, our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy declines.
How to prevent burnout by renewing your energy
“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 how to recharge your energy to prevent burnout and perform at your best:
1. How to recharge your physical energy
The top priority for physical energy? Sleeping at least seven hours per night.
“Sleep is more important at the physical level than anything that you can do,” Schwartz says. “It’s more important than food. 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 performance, and focus allows you to accomplish more during your workday. Poor sleep habits impair judgment, impede working memory and reduce emotional regulation and willingness to help others. Additionally, sleep aids have the potential to cause side effects including grogginess, a “hangover effect” and even dependence.
To perform at your best, take a morning renewal break after spending 90 minutes or less on focused work. Then take an afternoon break between 1 and 3 p.m. for a nap, walk or workout. Passive renewal (meditation, listening to music) and active renewal (weightlifting, strenuous yoga, aerobic exercise) can stoke your physical energy. Even breaks of 30 to 60 seconds—for example, taking time to practice breathing techniques—can be restorative and help prevent burnout.
Exercise, which can help reduce symptoms of depression, also 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.”
We are more productive and creative after taking vacations for in-depth renewal, but Americans aren’t doing so. According to data from Qualtrics, “Only 27% of employees used all their allotted paid vacation, whereas 26% had a week or more of unused time leftover at the end of 2021.”
2. How to recharge your emotional energy
Any time you’re not feeling optimistic, engaged, upbeat, focused, enthused and committed, you’re performing at a suboptimal level. Negative emotions—fear, frustration, anger, exhaustion or sadness, for example—quickly deplete emotional 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 helps prevent burnout, too.
You can also cultivate a realistically optimistic perspective to replenish 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.
3. How to recharge your mental energy
The world’s information avalanche can actually hobble learning, Schwartz says. Learning is most efficient when dispensed in spaced cycles rather than in one big glut. And when projects are likewise broken down into smaller chunks, you can maintain high levels of focus as you conquer interim challenges.
In order to be productive, you have to be able to remove distractions from your environment. Email, for example, 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 bicep—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 priorities so you can 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.
One exercise to improve brain function 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 lightbulb ideas.
4. How to recharge your spiritual energy
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.
This sense of meaning and significance generates the energy and passion necessary to propel yourself beyond a learning curve and stay committed to growth.
Your first spiritual challenge? 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.
The takeaway to prevent burnout
Live intentionally. Schedule rituals to develop and maintain these four kinds of energy. Avoid (rather than resist) temptations that would sidetrack those rituals, as 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.”
This article was published in May 2011 and has been updated. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock