It is energy management, not time management that we need. – Tony Schwartz
Ask any Singaporean: “How are you?” Inevitably, the response is “Very busy!” They might add, “Very tired!” Sounds familiar? This is also true among urban workers around the world.
The new mantra of many high-achieving organizations is CBF (Cheaper, Better, Faster), which has added to the stress of today’s workers. This is because organizations are looking for ways to increase productivity as well as cut cost and reduce headcount.
Professors Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy at Harvard University conclude:
Organizations are demanding ever-higher performance from their workforces. People are trying to comply, but the usual method – putting in longer hours – has backfired. They’re getting exhausted, disengaged and sick.
Most people are thinking of time management when the key should be energy management. How should we manage the expectations others have of us without burning out?
If organizations do not manage energy well among their staff, it will lead to ‘declining levels of engagement, increasing levels of distraction, high turnover rates, and soaring medical costs among employees.’
Mohammed, 34, is a technician in an airline. He has become a victim of energy
depletion and exhaustion as a result of the global financial crisis. Because of cost-cutting measures put in place, the company has put a freeze on headcount. He must put in more hours to cover up for those who have retired or resigned, and the workload has almost doubled.
The cost to his physical and emotional health has escalated. He falls sick more often, and he is emotionally exhausted each day at work. His family life is in shambles – his two young children hardly get to see him, because he has to work overtime to meet demands and ‘due-yesterday’ deadlines.
Most people are thinking of time management when the key should be energy management.
His problem is not time management, but energy management.
What is energy management?
Schwartz and McCarthy suggest that there are four types of energy that have to be managed: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy. They postulate that time is a finite resource, but energy comes from these four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, the emotions, the mind and the spirit. I have added a fifth type, social energy. Energy, unlike time, is renewable and expandable.
Physical energy is derived from nutrition, sleep, exercise and rest. Not getting enough of these is associated with poor nutrition and physical fatigue. It has a direct effect on our ability to perceive our surroundings, manage our emotions and make sound decisions.
Emotional energy is our ability to manage our responses appropriately to troubling situations and difficult people. These negative reactions come from the effect of pressures and stresses of work and life situations, as well as actions/reactions of people on us. We can react negatively by becoming agitated and irritable, adopting the fight, flight or freeze mode triggered by the amygdala hijack. We react emotionally. One of the approaches to energy management is learning about and appreciating our personality type. For example, extraverted people are refreshed and energized by interactions with others, while introverts prefer solitude and reflection.
Mental energy is the ability to focus and not be distracted, to consider options carefully, be creative and make good decisions consistently. A mentally strong person can do so even under highly stressful situations. This can be done by learning to develop our ability to analyze our lives, find our passion and improve our work competence.
Spiritual energy is finding continuous meaning and purpose in what we do. This can be derived from meaningful community outside our normal work routine as well, as seeking ways to connect with the Divine through religious activities and meditation.
Social energy is the ability to relate to and work alongside other people, and how one manages interpersonal relationships. Inability to manage conflicts can make us lose our social energy.
Put simply, we need to focus on investing more in sources of energy so we are energized and motivated. When people are self-energized, they bring more of themselves to work every day, and are more able and willing to put in all the required effort at work.
The goal of energy management
I postulate that the goal of energy management is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow. To him, Flow is the feeling of optimal experience.3 It is the feeling that comes when researchers experience a breakthrough in their experiments, when engineers find the solution to a protracted problem, when speakers sense the energy of the crowd during a climax or when leaders evoke enthusiastic responses from their staff at their annual conference.4 A violinist might feel it while mastering an intricate piece, or a social worker when counseling individuals with personal or relational difficulties.
But Flow does not happen only in favorable outcomes. It is also in the cancer patient who experiences a deep sense of peace as she recognizes that she is going to a far better place. It can come from such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest.
As Csikszentmihalyi writes:
“For each person, there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves … the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
I believe Flow is not only the source of fresh, renewed energy and creativity, but also the result of energy well-managed. This concept is not merely theoretical because over the years, Flow has been ‘used to generate ideas and practices in clinical therapy, the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquency, the organization of activities in old people’s homes, the design of museum exhibits.’
In summary, Flow is indeed possible in life. We can experience it in diverse situations – in triumphs, breakthroughs, serenity, ordinariness and even simple delight in the mundane and routine.
To find Flow more consistently and use it to our advantage, we have to manage our energy well.
This is an adapted excerpt from Dr Ng’s latest book “Dim Sum Leadership: Your Second Serving” – a powerful and insightful series on leadership for busy executives.