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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Best Use of Your Energy


During our home leave in the Netherlands the question of time, energy, and balance presented itself on a daily basis, as it does every year. It’s always a wonderful time with family and friends. And it’s a busy, restless, and tiring time. It raises the question of how to best make use of every day whether it be cramping it with yet another visit or safeguarding family time and me-time. One thing is clear, the old time-management practice of spending your time more efficiently has been kicked of its throne by the practice of using your energy wiser.

Americans Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr of the Energy Project assist employees of many companies amongst which the big ones, to optimally perform. They argue for better managing your energy supply. It’s just like money: once it’s spent, it’s gone. If you don’t watch, it the more you have the more you seem to need it (or think you need it), and, still, just like with money, even with a small supply you get pretty far by using it wisely. In their book “The Power of Full Engagement” Schwartz and Loehr explain that managing your time efficiently does not in any way guarantee that you’ll feel energetic enough to do what you have to do or choose to do. How effective is a meeting if your thoughts keep wandering off? How effective is it to read a report if you don’t know what you’re reading because you’re tired? What sense does it make to spend time with friends if you can’t really listen to what they’re saying because you feel exhausted or because you are fretting about organizational issues?
Four common sense, useful tips for more energy:

1.       One piece of advice is to live like a sprinter, not like a marathon runner. It doesn’t matter how intense sprinting is, the finish line is visible. According to Schwartz and Loehr the best thing is to totally give yourself for something and to then fully relax so as to rejuvenate until you decide to give yourself fully for the next challenge awaiting you. Put otherwise: it’s essential to regularly reload your battery. Nothing shocking, nothing new, but is this how you lead your life? A practical way to get closer to life as a marathon runner: reserve a few minutes of personal time in the morning. Whether it is some lines from a poem or an inspirational book, breakfast with the family, a walk, some music, or whatever it is that relaxes and reloads you, use it to start off your day and use it in between the sprints. Make it a ritual, make it a habit, something you do without giving it much thought. That’s the best guarantee that a great idea and good intention is not set aside within 3 days.

2.       Make good use of your energy peaks. In his book “Calm Energy” psychologist Robert Thayer of the California State University states that our energy level is not even during the day, something we all know from experience. Examples of low energy periods are right after getting up in the morning and after lunch, whereas the late morning and early afternoon are generally high energy periods. There is obviously considerable individual variation so the point is to get to know yourself better: which are your high and low energy periods and how can you best adjust your agenda and activities to this knowledge? Also awareness of daily variation, depending on your health situation, the kind of week you had, and on your moods. Also remember that problems can seem insurmountable in low energy periods, so know when to worry about challenging situations.

3.       Feed your basic psychological needs just like you take care of your body with food, water, and clothes. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci from the University of Rochester list three major psychological needs: autonomy, belonging or connectedness (being in contact and feeling loved), and feeling competent (doing things we’re good at and succeeding). Ryan’s and Deci’s research shows that your energy level goes up when you satisfy these three psychological needs. If you don’t, you will eventually feel exhausted. The most ideal situation is to have these needs met in your personal and your work life, but if it is (hopefully temporarily) missing in one major area of your life do all you can to assure the satisfaction of these needs in other important areas.

4.     Watch out for activities and people that drain your energy. Again no rocket science, but how well do you reflect on energy providers and energy drainers and how well do you intervene, even if it means disappointing someone?  How much time do you spend with people that drain your energy for whatever reason? Whenever you need to assert self-control (which is generally the case with energy drainers) you take from your supply of energy. Psychologist Roy Baumeister from the Florida State University writes in his book “The Curse of the Self”: “Every time you control yourself, your self control is temporarily weakened because you’ve taken from your stock. Any next situation before you were able to reload and that asks for self-control is more difficult to deal with. An example: a father who gave all his energy and self-control on the job will have few psychological sources left for handling frustrations and exercising control once at home. Empty is empty, even when you try very hard. The practical implications? Do not attempt to quit smoking, lose weight, and start a sport you don’t like at the same time. Avoid an attempt to master a long, boring file after an emotionally draining conversation. If you have an important meeting with top executives planned attempt to plan less draining activities before and after. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but your awareness of your energy, your schedule, and your obligations can help you avoid bad planning of draining or difficult activities wherever possible.

All common sense stuff, so let me indulge in another one in this category: Stay out of the kitchen cabinets. It’s generally not an effective energy or mood enhancer to raid the candy jar or to start eating when you’re feeling depleted. Even though it might sound and feel counter intuitive it is more effective to take a ten minute walk, do some exercises at home or create any other opportunity for physical activity after which you will feel so much more energetic and after which it is perfectly okay to eat or snack, of course, as long as it’s healthy.
Returning from our home leaf I realize once again how easy it is to forget that too much of a good thing is still too much, and how easy it is to over-schedule.  In the meantime, we cherish our home leaves.

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