Take it easy, it’s only your job

If you’re under pressure to get more done, the worst thing you can do is work longer hours. That’s the message in this month’s Harvard Business Review, where Tony Schwartz says the key to productivity is managing your energy, not your time.

Schwartz is the president and founder of The Energy Project in New York and a co-author of “The Power of Full Engagement”. He spoke to us about how to do more high quality work in less time and get your life back in the process.

You write that working longer hours isn’t the solution to the increasing pressure many of us feel at work. Why?
Because the fundamental mistake that organizations make with their people is to treat them as machines — indeed as computers. Companies make the assumption that people can operate for very long periods at high speeds running multiple programs at the same time. In fact, human beings are not designed to be linear, but rather to pulse — to move between expenditure of energy and renewal of energy. When we establish that rhythm, we’re most productive and most sustaining. Instead, we’ve begun mistaking activity for productivity. “More” has become the measure of success. The more things we do, the more tasks we juggle, the more hours we work, the more we’re rewarded. But the real measure should be the quality of our output — the value we add at the end of the day. We’ve lost sight of that.

What’s the alternative when you’ve got deadlines that don’t move?
Managing energy rather than time is more efficient. Here’s an example: When I wrote a book about this work, I had a very, very tight deadline — three months. I had written three books before and none had taken less than a year. But rather than working more hours, I actually worked fewer. I worked in four 90-minute “sprints” a day and I didn’t allow myself to be interrupted during those work periods. In between each work period, I fully disengaged for 20 to 30 minutes — and by that I don’t mean I surfed the Web or answered e-mail. Instead, I either had something to eat with my family, took a run or spent time reading the newspaper. I was vastly more efficient when I was working because I wasn’t interrupted. And when I wasn’t working, I was truly refueling. I wrote the book in 90 days working half the number of hours each day that I had for previous books.

Tell me about the four main dimensions of energy.
The first level is physical. That’s the core energy any human needs to get out of bed in the morning and do what he needs to do. Corporations typically haven’t considered that business-relevant. But if a person doesn’t have sufficient physical energy, there’s no way she can think at her best, manage her emotions effectively and or feel any passion about what she’s doing. The keys are pretty simple: eating frequently and nutritiously in small portions, working out regularly, sleeping sufficiently and taking at least short breaks every 90 to 120 minutes during the work day. If you’ve got those nailed, you’re in great shape. The problem is that virtually no one we work with does have those nailed.

What might, I, a typical IT worker, be doing wrong in that area?
I think IT workers may be among the most challenged about taking care of themselves physically, because they so often get addicted to their computers. They fail to change channels. The more time you spend in front of that screen — continuous time — the more depleted you get. It’s critical during the day to physically move, disengage, eat, have a conversation about something other than work, get outside.

How do emotions play into energy?
We learned from our years of work with elite athletes that they all feel the same way when they’re performing at their best: optimistic, focused, happy, calm. In short, positive emotions serve performance. If you’re not feeling positive emotions, you can’t perform at your best. Negative emotions engage the sympathetic nervous system: fight or flight. Thinking and focus degrade, and because all emotions are contagious, negative ones drag the people around you down, too.

You write that the stories we tell ourselves affect our emotions. What do you mean?
We assume that negative emotions are a response to external circumstances: My boss yells at me, so I’m upset. What we fail to realize is that it’s not the facts that influence our emotions, it’s the story we tell about those facts. And we have a choice about the stories we tell. To help people tell stories that serve them better, we encourage them to look for the story they would tell at their best. Or we might ask, “What story would the person you admire the most tell about those facts?” In the case of your boss, the story doesn’t have to be “He’s a jerk,” or “I’m no good,” but perhaps instead, “He’s probably having a bad day, and in any case, part of what he said is right, and I can learn from it.” The stories we tell ourselves are important because, as Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” At a certain point, through enough repetition, people can get accustomed to telling more empowering stories about challenging circumstances. They begin to do it automatically. The result is that they feel better, and ultimately they perform better.

You also write about focusing your mind amid all the interruptions of the workplace. But isn’t multitasking necessary?

If you’re in IT, your mental energy — your capacity for focus — is critical. In a world characterized by total information overload, people believe that only way to deal with it is to multitask. What we’ve lost sight of is the power of absorbed focus — doing one thing at a time. The evidence is pretty consistent that if you switch attention from a primary task to a secondary one — say from a program you’re writing to an e-mail that’s just come in — the time it takes to complete the program increases by an average of 25%. It’s called “switching time.” Imagine the impact when it comes to e-mail, which many people now check 50, 75 and 100 times a day. Should it be any surprise that the tasks that require the most concentration never seem to get done, or get completed in a flurry at the last minute? You may be able to accomplish 100 tasks in a day, but if you aren’t doing any of them really well, how much value are you really adding? Doing one thing at a time requires intentionality, but it pays great dividends.

The final dimension is energy of the spirit. What do you mean by that?
It’s the energy derived from doing something you feel really matters. The more you feel that what you’re doing is significant and meaningful, the more energy you bring to it. If the work you’re doing every day isn’t aligned with what you value, it’s tough to feel fully engaged in it.

Tell me about some of the things companies have done to support this new approach.
Sony Europe, where we’ve taken 2,000 leaders and managers though this work, has transformed its culture with a focus on managing energy to maximize performance. They’ve banned laptops and BlackBerries from meetings so that people can be focused on the topic of the meeting. They’ve built gyms and encouraged people to use them during the workday, and they’re building renewal and recovery rooms for people to go and chill out and not be seen as slackers when they do. They’ve taken the language of energy management into the company, so they talk now about the value of renewal, the impact of the stories they tell, the energy state they’re in and how that’s affecting their performance. They’re building a culture that values the quantity and quality of energy people bring to work rather than the number of hours they work. If I give you my time but I don’t give you my energy, I’m not giving you much.

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