The whole concept of "work life balance" may be completely wrong. Rather than a zero-sum game -- give up work hours to gain play time -- new research shows we can turbocharge our work time by investing in and prioritizing play.
"The key," says energy expert Al Lee, is to "rhythmically create, spend, and renew energy." The result is highly productive workdays that don't leave you exhausted.
I first stumbled on this years ago, unknowingly, when I coached a sales manager who was overwhelmed. Erin was getting divorced, moving, selling her home, and trying to manage a salesforce that was underperforming. As part of our work, I showed her how to reduce her work hours by 40% while emphasizing a few key activities she'd been avoiding. She retained her sanity -- and sales went up 50%.
Taking Energy to the Bank
A study in 2006 at Wachovia Bank that focused specifically on Energy Management showed a similar payoff: in their Harvard Business Review article "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time," Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy document their one-year study of a group of bankers trained on Energy Management. The study group, compared to a control group at the same bank, showed a increase in loan revenue of 13%, and their revenue from deposits went up 20%.
Other adopters of this emerging science of Energy Management include the Canadian Olympic Team. Their "Own the Podium" program spent $200 million to maximize the number of Canadian gold medals won, and considerable emphasis was placed on teaching athletes Energy Management. "This allowed the athletes to better manage their emotions, the stress of competition, and their creativity -- as well as pure physical performance," said Al. "As I researched this -- with athletes, astronauts, fighter pilots, zen archers -- over and over we found people who used these techniques to get the most out of their minds and bodies."
"What I've found with clients I've worked with," said Al, "mostly corporate, most of them realize their employees are their most valuable resource, yet their high stress environment creates an unsustainable situation. Executives need to take care of themselves. I've worked with international pharmaceutical companies, sportswear firms, and on and on, to create ways for executives to renew themselves, so they don't burn them out and have to replace them."
To test this himself, Al Lee was meticulous in tracking his energy levels over 100 days. "I wanted to be truly objective about my results. It was amazing."
Five Steps to Energy Management
- Create a list of the things that give you energy -- anything from playing with the kids to taking a walk. These are things that we are tempted to STOP doing when we feel overwhelmed -- they feel like luxuries. Keep this list visible at your desk. Make sure you are doing these every day.
- Stop working marathon hours, and start working in "sprints." If you're creating a workday of back-to-back meetings, eating lunch at your desk, and having no breaks, you're destroying your productivity.
- After every 90-120 minute "sprint" of work, stop and do an activity from the list of energy-creating activities, to relax and recover. Like a weight lifter who does intense work and then allows time for regeneration, you can literally build your energy reserves by pushing hard and then stopping to regenerate.
- Take this pattern of sprint, relax, sprint, relax -- and turn it into an unbreakable, sacred ritual. The more you create rituals of behaviors that are good for you, the easier it is for you to do those behaviors without having to summon your will or exercise self-control. It'll actually be easier to be virtuous than to break the ritual.
- Do not multitask during your sprint -- stay focused on one activity that demands attention. While the brain can time-split effectively across one low-focus activity (i.e. ironing shirts) while monitoring a stream of low-density information (i.e. watching a baseball game), you literally cannot focus on two demanding tasks at one time. A teacher can help a child with her reading, while scanning the classroom for trouble. However, once the trouble breaks out, that becomes the focus. (Imagine having a crucial talk with your Significant Other about the future of your relationship... and simultaneously, one of you is also working on the company's annual budget. One or both of those tasks is going to suffer.)
Ultimately, powerful results do not come from grinding ourselves down, burning ourselves out or using ourselves up. Our best performance comes from working in harmony with the rhythmic way our brains and bodies want to work.
Interview with Al Lee
"Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time," by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy - HBR
"Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School" by John Medina