The Skill of Energy Management
The aim of this article is two fold:
1. To get you to consider the way we typically work as unsustainable
2. To convince you that taking breaks periodicially throughout your day is a key to sustainable energy as well as maintaining a high level of both physical and mental health.
In a previous article I wrote called “Neglecting your health is nothing to boast about” I talk about my own experiences of my colleagues and I taking pride in ‘working hard’ at the expense of our bodies as if it was a badge of honour to be worn to watch the slow deterioration of your body from stress, overwork, and lack of proper nutrition. Seems silly right?
Consider your own work culture. Are you being asked to do more with less? Less time? Less support? Less resources? Are you finding yourself eating lunch at your desk or even worse not eating at all and not taking a lunch break? Is there a sense of guilt for taking a lunch?
There is a serious cost to neglecting our bodies in this way. The end result sadly is burnout which I have witnessed many times and have experienced myself. Burnout being a state of extreme fatigue, depression, physical ailments, cynicism, and inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Alongside huge personal costs are organizational costs of absenteeism and health care claims related to medication and therapies. Burnout has many causes which is beyond the scope of this piece to review, but one key is the mismanagement of energy. In terms of work this can be thought of as focused attention.
I have reviewed many journal articles and books and even consulted with academic and clinical psychologists and there’s no clear consensus on the average human attention span. Time ranges between 20 to 90 minutes with so much variance due to individual differences, differences in content, and the challenges of studying and even defining attention. There is no study proposing that we can sustain attention for 8 to 10 hours a day (i.e., a typical workday)! Yet this is the way many of us work continuously throughout the day without any conscious planning around our attention span and our need for periodic rest or at least a shift in focus/task.
If we observe nature and our bodies we can see that organisms and systems work in cycles. Our days move from periods of sleeping and being awake, our metabolism cycles through periods where it is higher at the beginning of the day and slows towards the evening. There is a rhythmic pattern within our cardiovascular system and our respiratory system. In nature, animals are observed to rest and hibernate after periods of foraging or hunting.
Nothing in nature is ON all the time.
I’ll use a hockey analogy to illustrate this idea of energy cycles further, which Canadian readers will appreciate. Imagine two hockey teams that are equally matched in skill and physical attributes, but one team has 12 players and the other team has only 6, which team do you think would win considering that 6 players need to be on the ice at all times in a traditional hockey game?
I’ve never seen an NHL hockey game played like this and I don’t think a team that was short handed like this would even step up to face off, but I think it’s safe to assume the team with 12 would win handedly remembering that they are equally matched in every other way.
If you have ever watched a hockey game you know that players work in minute long shifts. This keeps them fresh and ready to play at the highest intensity possible. If you only had 6 players it wouldn’t take long before the 6 would fatigue, gas out, and the 12 would still have a much higher level of intensity in their play.
Extending this analogy there is an important person on the team that never sees any ice time but dictates everyone’s playing time. It is his role to manage the rotation of players to get the maximum effort from each of them. This is the coach. He is the energy manager on the hockey team. If there was no coach I’m sure many of the players would want to stay on the ice as long as possible as they would be focused on winning the game and wanting to do as much as they can for the team. The office worker is like the keen hockey player in that he or she may not be mindful of his own energy or fatigue and may push up him or her self beyond his optimal playing/working time.
Now the wonderful thing about being human is we all have a part of us that has the role of coach. It is the amazing human ability to self reflect and to observe oneself and ask, “How am I doing with this?”, “Are there better tools, skills or strategies I could use to go about my day?” Psychologists call this function self-monitoring; Buddhists within the mindfulness meditation practice call this the ‘observer’ mind. Self-reflection begins in asking yourself good questions as in the examples already given.
So what can you do to better manage your energy and attention?
The first thing would be to shift your expectations away from expecting optimal performance and attention for 10 hours straight. This is unrealistic. Beyond this, maybe you work in an environment that would not be open to you taking periodic breaks throughout your day. Perhaps the corporate culture is such that you aren’t a good employee unless your butt is glued to the chair for 10-12 hour long days, no eating, drinking, standing up or walking around to stretch. To which I would say, that sounds horribly oppressive and I’m sorry you work in such an environment! That being said, there are still things you can do. The next thing after shifting expectations would be to use your inner coach to figure out your optimal attention level. When do you start feeling tired and drained from doing work? Is it 30, 45, 60 minutes? Once you have a sense of your optimal period of focused attention, try switching tasks to something easier like checking email or something different, get up to ask that question or hand that report to your colleague, get a drink of water, or just stop what you’re doing and take a few deep breathes for even as little as 10-15 seconds (close your eyes or look away from your computer if you can).
The break period is important because it helps us renew our energy and continue to work productively beyond the break. Also taking a break helps us consolidate information and sometimes see a situation in a new way opening up creativity and problem solving possibilities.
Often what is renewing is based on the individual. For some it might be having a snack, going for a walk outside, doing some exercise, or chatting with a co-worker.
Basically you want to establish what your optimal working phase is and create a corresponding period of rest/break to alternate between. For me this is somewhere between 20-30 minutes and a 2 to 3 minute rest. It’s important to experiment and determine what your range is and to work flexibly with this ratio.
If your work place is more progressive and would appreciate these ideas of sustainable energy and the importance of minding your health at the work place, then contact me at [email protected]. We have an innovative new program called MOVE which helps groups of staff develop the habit of taking periodic breaks throughout their day that attend to both physical and mental health.