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  • Jessie Brennan, MPH

Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

I read something recently that initially surprised me, but rang true once I thought about it: the performance demands that most people face in their everyday work environments dwarf those of even professional athletes. Professional athletes typically spend about 90% of their time training, in order to be able to perform 10% of the time. Their entire lives are designed around systematically developing the energy they need to perform their best for short periods of time. Although most of us spend little or no time systematically training in any dimension, we are expected to perform at our best for eight, ten and even twelve hours a day.

When you think of it this way, the demands that we put on our bodies and minds seem extreme. What’s even more extreme is that we expect ourselves to go on this way, performing at our best 5 days a week for years…and years…and years. Are you starting to feel some compassion for yourself? What’s more, is that we expect to be able to do this day in and day out with little to no recovery time built in.

It is common knowledge that chronic stress can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies. In fact, it is linked to six leading causes of death. But athletes will tell you that stress is not the enemy, it’s actually the key to growth. You may know this if you have ever worked to build muscle or train for an athletic event- in order to build muscle, we systematically stress it. However, what we may be missing in that equation is what follows after the stress- a period of recovery. This doesn’t just apply to building muscles. Any form of stress that prompts discomfort has the potential to expand our capacity, physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually, so long as it is followed by adequate recovery. This is critical in managing energy in all facets of our lives.

Too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout, something that many people in the workforce are contending with. So, what does recovery look like? You may be relieved to hear that you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) wait until your vacation dates roll around to start building periods of recovery into your daily activities. There is evidence that suggests that you should actually take some recovery time about every 90 to 120 minutes.

Our energy has a natural ebb and flow throughout the day. This ebb and flow are known as our ultradian rhythms. Physiological measures such as heart rate, hormonal levels, brain activity, and alertness all increase during the first part of the cycle. After approximately 90 to 120 minutes, these measures start to decline and the body begins to crave a period of rest and recovery. To figure out when you are at this point, be on the lookout for your body’s tell-tale signals: a desire to yawn and stretch, hunger pangs, increased tension, difficulty concentrating, an inclination to procrastinate or fantasize, and a higher incidence of mistakes. If you suddenly get the urge to reach for another cup of coffee or a chocolate bar, you may very well be at the end of a cycle.

What’s important to know is that we are capable of overriding these natural cycles by PUSHING THROUGH. I capitalize it because that’s how it feels, right? I’ll…just…PUSH THROUGH. Every time we PUSH THROUGH, we actually trigger our fight or flight response and flood our bodies with stress hormones. It gets us back in the zone, but it does so at a cost. Stress hormones that circulate chronically in our bodies may be temporarily energizing, but over time they prompt symptoms such as hyperactivity, aggressiveness, impatience, irritability, anger, and insensitivity to others. We can only push so hard for so long without burning out. We’ve essentially used up all of our energy, and refuse to give ourselves any recovery time to build it back.

I’ve made this argument in a previous leadership update, and I’ll make it again: Energy, not time, is the most valuable human resource, and is certainly the currency of leadership. Everything a leader does, from interacting with colleagues and making important decisions, to spending time with their families requires energy. Without the right amount and quality of energy we are compromised in any activity we undertake.

So how can we take time to recover when we’ve got so many demands on our time already? We can go back to the professional athletes for the answer. In a study comparing the difference in performance between high-ranking and lower-ranking professional tennis players, it became clear that one major difference was that high-ranking players had found ways to maximize their recovery between points. In the sixteen to twenty seconds between a point being scored and the ball being served again, they were recovering enough to drop their heart rates as much as twenty beats per minute. This incredibly short renewal period was enough to give them an edge over lesser-competitors, who had to PUSH THROUGH with continuously elevated heart rates. If they can manage to renew themselves in 20 seconds, we can most certainly find time in our busy days to devote to this important practice.

The key is to developing a positive energy ritual that works for you. There is no prescribed tactic, or practice that will renew each of us the same way. A well-defined ritual is not something that you have to push yourself to do, it is something that you are pulled to do. Like scratching your dog’s head or kissing your kids in the morning. You would feel worse if you didn’t do it.

Way back in 2000, the magazine Fast Company surveyed a series of leaders to determine how they avoided burnout in their fast-paced, and demanding jobs. What they ended up with was a list of very specific routines that each leader had instituted to ensure regular renewal. One leader described a “lion hunt”, in which she prowled the office asking her staff what they were working on. This gave her a break from her work, and a chance to connect with her staff members. Another leader described getting out in nature and photographing landscapes, while another still described walking up and down flights of stairs in his office and learning how to juggle.

Our capacity to be fully engaged depends on our ability to periodically disengage. As a leader, you are the steward of organizational energy. The amount of positive energy and passion that you bring to your work sets the tone for your entire team. What ritual could you incorporate into your day that would allow you some space to disengage, renew yourself, and recharge?


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