What if I told you that it is possible to work fewer hours per day, have more free time for fun and leisure, produce more work at a higher quality than ever before and never burn out? If you are anything like me then you would probably say that sounds like a nice infomercial - but you're not buying. And I wouldn't blame you because like many of you, I've always had a very industrial mindset when it comes to work. Meaning, if the demand is high then you roll up your sleeves and put in the extra time to get the job done. It doesn't always leave you feeling rejuvenated and sometimes you have to miss out on a bit of fun, but that's life. There's no getting around the fact that work takes time and more work takes more time. Right? Wrong.
More Time Is Not The Answer
Here's the problem with the "overtime" philosophy of work that so many of us subscribe to: Time is a finite resource. There are 24 hours in a day and not a minute more no matter who we are or what we do. So what happens when the demands of our work steadily increase until there is literally not enough time in the day? We've all been there. Some of us have lived there or still do and our response is usually something like this:
We get up earlier, drink more coffee, work through breaks and lunches, work evenings/weekends, and push away responsibilities outside of work so as to spend more time meeting our increasing demand. But since that's stressful, we have a few drinks in the evening to help us relax and unwind. We eat junkfood for quick energy throughout the day and then overeat at night in response to our hunger and as an immediate source of comfort. Unfortunately for us, a poor diet combined with overeating and (of course) no time for exercise results in weight gain and drastic peaks and valleys of both energy and emotion. Alcohol, while immediately relaxing us because it is a short term narcotic (read: downer) is also a long term stimulant. As a result we sleep fitfully and wake up throughout the night or at least a few hours earlier than we need to. We try to fall back asleep but it doesn't take well because our mind is now racing with anxiety over the day ahead. When we do get up we feel exhausted. That's when we grab an extra cup of coffee, something sweet for a quick sugar buzz, and we start the cycle all over again. In short, we neglect everything but work and we run ourselves into the ground. The only reason we're still on our feet is because we've overridden our body's natural rest and renewal rhythms and replaced them with caffein, alcohol, and stress induced adrenaline.
The result of this pattern over time is that the quality of our work declines, our passion takes a nose dive, and we get less done over longer periods of work. While our workload may increase as a result of new clients the truth is that most of our "extra" work is simply work that has slipped passed deadline or consumed more of our time than it should have taken in the first place. Not to mention that since we are working non-stop the instances in our days, weeks, or even months in which we get to relax, hang out with friends, spend time with our family, or simply "be" are few and far between - if existent at all. Add to that, that this non-stop cycle of stress and work and band-aid solutions for short term gain have long term negative consequences on our health, relationships, creativity, and happiness.
So the obvious question if you're in this situation (as I have been many times in the past) is: what can I do to turn things around?
We Need A Paradigm Shift
Enter: The Energy Project and CEO Tony Schwartz who gave an amazing talk at the 99% conference last year that changed everything for me. When I watched the video of his talk on their blog it hit me like a ton of bricks. His mind-blowing perspective on work was a much needed lifeline for a freelancer drowning in stress and deadlines. The scenario above was something he walks the audience through about midway through his talk but it was so right on it felt like he had hired a private detective to study my life. Needless to say, I took his talk to heart and this article is the result of it's application.
Here are the key points but I highly recommend that you watch the video yourself:
ENERGY (not time) is our most valuable resource: Since time is a limited resource outside of our control, we must look for a resource INSIDE of us; one that we have more control over and one that can be renewed. Energy is that resource.
- Energy can be EXPANDED: Unlike time, we can actively cultivate MORE energy than we currently have at our disposal.
- Energy can be RENEWED: In addition to having more energy available to us at any given time, we can renew it when and how we choose. This means that we can maintain our newly gained energy levels through intermittent renewal so we are never caught running on empty again a.k.a. burnt out.
- Energy can be MAXIMIZED: We can learn to manage our energy better than we currently do. This means that not only are we able to cultivate more energy and renew it throughout the day, but we can teach ourselves how best to use that energy ultimately resulting in more work accomplished, in less time, at a higher quality.
Energy can be defined as the capacity to do work. Practically speaking, that means that the more energy we have at our disposal the more capacity we have to accomplish work. So we find that, if we ignore our lack of time (since we have no control over it anyways) and concentrate on energy, the result will be better work, more free time, and the opportunity to lead a more balanced and healthy life.
Tony Schwartz describes four types of energy:
- Physical Energy: Physical energy is the foundation upon which all of the others are built upon. It represents the quantity of energy we are able to cultivate. If you think of it as the base of an energy pyramid, you want it to be wide and strong so that your total energy capacity can reach its full potential.
- Emotional Energy: Emotional energy represents the quality level at which we are able to perform. It turns out there is a way we feel when we are performing at our best. As Tony humorously points out, that feeling can be described as "how we feel when we are performing at our best". His point is this - it is possible to cultivate the emotions that serve us best in the same way that we can actively improve our physical body.
- Mental Energy: Mental energy represents our ability to focus. The most efficient way to get things done is by fully engaging in one thing at a time for extended periods of time.
- Spiritual Energy: Spiritual energy, or the energy of the human spirit as Tony also puts it, is derived from serving a purpose that is bigger than our immediate self interests. Or in other words, believing that what we do with our life matters.
Next he exposes myths about the time dominated work paradigm and reveals truths about the energy based paradigm.
- Myth #1: The best way to get more work done is to work more hours.
- Truth #1: We are more productive when we build in intermittent renewal along the way. Physiologically human beings are not meant to operate in the same way as our technology (at high speeds for long periods of time) but rather to pulse or oscillate between rest and renewal in a rhythmic way.
- Myth #2: One hour less of sleep will lead to one hour more of productivity.
- Truth #2: Even small amounts of sleep depravation have a profound impact not just on our health, but also on our cognitive capacity and effectiveness. Sleep is the most important behavior in our life that we need to get right in order to perform at our best and it is often the first thing we neglect. Shockingly, if we go just four days in a row with five hours or less of sleep each night our mental capacity is about the same as if we were intoxicated.
- Myth #3: It's not the number of tasks we are capable of juggling simultaneously that determines how productive we are.
- Truth #3: We are most efficient when we do one thing at a time, fully absorbed, sequentially. Multi-tasking is yet another behavior of our technology that human beings are simply not capable of performing with a high quality outcome. In fact, we use multi-tasking as a way to feel more productive (because we are involved in a lot of things at once) while the actual result is that we engage several things on a surface level while never deeply focusing on any one task. Additionally, multitasking is extremely detrimental to our limited ability to manage time. Each instance in which we break off of a task to briefly switch our attention elsewhere we increase the total time needed to complete that task by 25%.
Finally, we are left with this illustration:
Right now, under our current work paradigm which is dominated by a "time mentality" we think of our lives as a marathon. In this marathon the goal is to pace ourselves over long hours because as we all know - more time equals more work accomplished. This mentality has not served us well. What ends up happening is that with no end in sight and no rest along the way our initial pace - while reasonable to begin with - leads to eventual burnout, encourages destructive coping behaviors, and never (or at least very rarely) allows us to put our full undivided energy into any one thing.
Under our new energy based paradigm we need to begin seeing life as a series of sprints. A sprinter is able to look down the track and see the finish line clearly. They are able to fully engage at their highest levels of performance in each task set before them because they know that rest and renewal are within reach. The sprinter is powerful, confident, and in total control of their performance. We can be too.
Implementing A High Energy Lifestyle
Before we can put real life change into action we have to take a step back and look at what is really going on in our lives. For me, this meant getting brutally honest with myself about my current lifestyle and performance. I realized that I was out of shape physically, burnt out mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and that all of these things were effectively ruining my ability to find a healthy work/life balance and to perform at my best. Maybe you've been there too? Maybe you've thought to yourself, "why is this so hard right now? I've done much more difficult tasks or projects in the past. This should be easy!" But it's not. The reason it's not easy is because whether or not we were aware of it, somewhere along the way our ability to bring our A-game to work slowly bled out of us in the endless grind of an over-time lifestyle. On top of everything else that realization can be demoralizing.
The good news is that not only is change possible, but an increased level of energy is achievable almost instantly. Above I mentioned thinking of the four types of energy as an energy pyramid in which physical energy is the base and all of the others are built on top of it so that the order from the bottom up is physical, emotional, mental, and then spiritual. When implementing a high energy lifestyle though, we need to apply ourselves to these forms of energy in the reverse order (spiritual to physical) as demonstrated below.
- Connect to your deepest values: By identifying our deepest values we are able to align our life with those beliefs in a positive way. If we believe in what we are doing with our life then we can draw on an incredible energy resource known as purpose. Leading a life full of purpose is the quickest way to increase your energy.
- Develop focus: By learning to focus deeply on one thing at a time we are able to get more done, at a higher level of quality, in less amount of time. This is the easiest step to explain and often the hardest action point to carry out. You may want to start by committing not to multi-task and develop specific work habits around that commitment.
- Cultivate high quality emotions: Connecting to a deep and meaningful purpose as well as learning to focus on one thing at time should give us a lead-in to how we can cultivate high quality emotions. As Tony mentioned in the video and I stated above, we feel our best when we are operating at our best. Learn to recognize these emotions and build up responses to negativity that quickly bring you back to a high quality emotional state. The ability to do this is called resilience.
- Re-define Fitness: Many of us have developed a misperception of fitness which can be defined as how good we are at pushing ourselves to our limits. The problem with that definition of fitness is that we do not take time to rest and renew our capacity. The result is our ability to push ourselves decreases over time until it becomes nearly impossible. More stress on an already depleted body does us no good and we quickly lack the motivation to persist. Re-learning what fitness really is means that we recognize the physiological reality that human beings are designed to pulse between the expenditure of energy and the renewal of energy. In fact, a better guage of fitness than how far and hard we can push ourselves is our ability to efficiently recover or renew energy before its next expenditure. In order to renew our physical energy most efficiently we must take much more than exertion into account. We need to first take back our time for rest and recognize that it is equally if not more important than the time we spend working. A good rule of thumb to begin with is a 15 minute break every 90 minutes of work and a minimum of 7 hours of sleep EVERY night. Diet and exercise also play a significant roll in our ability to renew physical energy. An honest look at what we consume and how physically active we are is very important. If you want to maximize your breaks for optimum energy renewal try incorporating renewal of all energy types into each break. An example might be that on a fifteen minute break you go for a short walk, listen to a song that puts a smile on your face, and remind yourself why it is you do what you do and how meaningful that underlying purpose is.
For me these simple steps have made a world of difference. At this point I'm in much better physical shape than I was a year ago, I sleep about 8 hours a night, wake up feeling ready to go and excited about work, I take weekends off, hang out with my friends more often and I get more done throughout the day than I used to in a day and a half - sometimes two days. I highly recommend that you check out Tony Schwartz's book The Power of Full Engagement. If this post has been helpful to you then a more thorough exploration of this new energy based work paradigm will probably be right up your alley. I really hope you found this post helpful and if you have any thoughts, questions, or comments that you'd like me to address I'd love to see them in the commenting section below.
A few weeks ago I was delighted to stumble across this fantastic post in which John Cleese of Monty Python fame lays out his 5 step process for getting into a creative state.
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