October 6, 2022

Preoccupations: The Personal Energy Crisis

“Tony, it’s unsustainable,” he said, almost as if he was making a confession.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I have 1,000 unread e-mails in my inbox,” he told me. “I can’t imagine I’m ever going to get through all of them.”

“Are any of them important?” I asked.

“How would I know?” he said ruefully.

In the year since then, I’ve heard the phrase “it’s unsustainable,” or something close to it, repeated dozens of times by clients including corporate executives, government employees, small-business owners, hospital administrators and physicians, school administrators and teachers.

What’s changed? The answer is simple. Demand has finally begun to exceed our capacity. We’re facing an energy crisis, and this one is personal.

As demand has increased in recent years, fueled by advances in technology, we’ve relied on an external resource to get more done: time. When there’s more to do, we put in more hours.

Time, however, is finite, and most of us don’t have any more hours left to invest. The solution is staring us in the face. We need to learn to manage our energy rather than our time.

In physics, energy is defined simply as the capacity to do work. The more skillful we are at renewing our energy, the more capacity we have available. Human beings aren’t meant to operate like computers — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods. Instead, we’re physiologically designed to pulse, to move rhythmically between spending and renewing energy.

The pressure to stay forever connected has taken a toll on the time we once instinctively devoted to renewing and recharging. How long has it been since you went out for a leisurely lunch at work? How often do you commute home from work without making a phone call, or checking your BlackBerry or iPhone? When was the last time you took an e-mail-free vacation?

The problem is that rest and renewal are counterintuitive for most of us, and countercultural in most organizations. Rewards go to those who do just the opposite in the face of demand. The guiding ethic is more, bigger, faster. We admire those who hunker down, stay the course, burn the midnight oil.

The costs seem self-evident. In a workday devoid of real breaks, we don’t think as clearly, logically or creatively in the eighth hour as we did in the second. We don’t listen as attentively in the third hour of an endless meeting as we did during the first. Put in too many hours, too continuously, and collateral damage eventually ensues, in the form of disengagement, broken relationships, sickness and a lower quality of work.

Consider this striking example: When pilots get a nap of just 30 minutes on long-haul flights, they experience a 16 percent increase in their reaction time, in contrast to a 34 percent decrease in reaction time among non-napping pilots over the course of the flight.

When fatigue sets in over the course of a day, we all increasingly and unconsciously rely on emergency sources of energy: adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol. In this aroused fight-or-flight state, our prefrontal cortex, which helps us think reflectively and creatively, begins to shut down. We become more reactive, reflexive and impulsive.

THE pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman gave the name “basic rest activity cycle” to the 90-minute period at night during which we move through the five stages of sleep. A decade later, he reported that we experience a parallel 90-minute cycle in our waking lives.

At night, we move from light to deep sleep and back out. During the day, we oscillate every 90 minutes from higher to lower alertness. In effect, our bodies are asking us for a break every 90 minutes. But we override the signals with coffee, sugar and our stress hormones.

To help workers manage demand, some employers have begun providing fitness facilities, energy-rich food and even napping pods. The companies that build enduring competitive advantage, I believe, will be those that embrace a truly new way of working. They’ll actively encourage all of their employees to work with higher focus for shorter periods, and then to rest and renew, so they get more done, in less time, more sustainably.

Tony Schwartz is president of the Energy Project and the author most recently of “Be Excellent at Anything.” E-mail: preoccupations@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=41bf07145a82849d7c9f3b77a82f4077

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