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Energy Rules

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 8 May 2017

Energy is a hot topic these days. We hear and read about energy shortages, about alternative energy sources and about the spiralling demand for energy.

It's also a hot topic at the personal and organisational level. The Energy Project, in a survey of 150,000 people, found that "74% of employees are experiencing a personal energy crisis". That's worrying, but not surprising, given the increasing demands, uncertainty and stresses many of us face.

Energy is critical for personal and organisational performance. "Energy is the fuel that makes great organizations run," wrote Jane Dutton in her book Energize Your Workplace. "Every interaction with others at work - big or small, short or lengthy- has the potential to create or deplete vital energy."

This issue comes up frequently in workshops and coaching conversations, so I've drawn together some principles from a handful of interesting sources that I hope will help to harness and renew your energy and/or the energy of those around you (and they are linked).
While energy is a "renewable resource", it's also a resource that is easily depleted. So it's important to be careful and intentional about where and how we direct our energy.

Shawn Achor helped develop and teach Harvard Business School's "happiness" course and has taught the principles around the world. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, he talks about how workplace distractions (e.g., low-value email or apparently urgent but unimportant interruptions) can rapidly drain energy that would be better directed to high-value tasks. Many people lament getting to the end of a day and wondering what they actually accomplished, despite being "busy" the whole time. He also notes how extended periods of passive leisure (unfocused relaxation with social media, tv, etc.) can lead to "psychic entropy" (listlessness and apathy) after about 30 minutes. Even relaxing creates an energy crisis!

It turns out that a big part of the problem lies with a little thing called "habits". A pioneer of modern psychology, William James, described human beings as "bundles of habits".

"Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself," he said. "So that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results."

That insight is played out in all of our lives multiple times every day. Sometimes our habits preserve or renew our energy and sometimes they burn it uselessly and drain it rapidly.

And here's a kicker: if you try to break an energy-wasting habit, there's every chance you'll suffer an energy crisis because of the huge drain willpower makes on our energy.

"The reason willpower is so ineffective at sustaining change is that the more we use it, the more worn-out it gets," says Achor.

So, if everything from distractions to willpower to relaxation is draining our energy, how can we regain and manage our energy?

First, rather than depleting energy by trying to simply resist bad habits (whether it's those distracting and unproductive habits at the start of the working day, or too many after-dinner snacks) identify something positive you want to achieve instead. Establish a focus that increases energy. What do you have the most energy for? What genuinely motivates you also generally energises you. In goalsetting it's the shift from "avoidance goals" (what I don't want to do) to "approach goals" (what I do want to be doing). Lots of energy gets wasted (and for very little return) focusing on not doing the things we habitually do.

"When leaders shift their focus away from what they want to avoid to what they want to achieve, they experience a dramatic shift in energy away from insecurity and perennial urgency and toward a calmer and more purposeful disposition," writes Peter Fuda in Leadership Transformed. Fuda uses the "fire" metaphor as a central element in his leadership framework.  

Second, because we are "bundles of habits" it's worth making our habits our energy allies instead of energy enemies. Our habits are usually formed by following the path of least resistance. It's easier to check an inbox than start on a new project; it's easier to watch the next episode of a show than get up and exercise; it's easier to check a social media feed than focus attention on someone's meeting presentation.

One of the keys that people like Shawn Achor, William James and Charles Duhigg (in The Power of Habit) suggest is to create new, positive habits. These are not easy to establish, but there are some ways to make them easier.

In Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Chip and Dan Heath advise "tweaking the environment". This is about "making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder". So if you want to give yourself 60 minutes on a high-value project early in the day, don't go to your desk but find a quiet area away from usual distractions. Or if you are easily distracted by your phone in meetings, put it in your bag, leave it at your desk (or just turn the damned thing off!).

"Put the desired behaviour on the path of least resistance," Achor advises. This fuels your energy with supportive and productive habits.

Third, set up some basic energy rules so you don't waste time overthinking your next steps. You might set a rule that your day starts with an investment in your energy by going for a walk or taking ten minutes to practise mindfulness. (Then set an alarm and set out your clothes for the activity the night before.) You might set a rule to fuel your health by eating a healthy lunch (and then support that by preparing it the night before, thus eliminating the barrier and reducing the choices). You might set yourself a rule to turn off your phone in meetings. Or to not check email until a certain time.

Simple energy rules are important because we love the idea of choice and options, but we also become quickly overwhelmed by too many choices and options. Too many choices sap our physical, mental and emotional energy. Too many options create distracting paths that weaken our focus on the direction we actually want to go. So reducing the available choices focuses our energy on what we've "pre-chosen".

They're called "second order decisions": decisions about when to make decisions. If you've established the rule in advance then there's no decision to make. It's an intentional form of habit that clears the path or tweaks the environment to make it easier to direct our energy effectively.

As talented and focused a mind as President Barak Obama is among those who "pre-chooses" apparently small decisions. "You'll see I wear only grey or blue suits," he told Vanity Fair. "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."

"Put your energy into building what is creative, valuable and empowering," advised Ralph Marston. "And you won't have to constantly fight against what is destructive and draining."

For more on the subject of harnessing your energy and/or managing habit I recommend the following resources:
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage.
Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and in business.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace.
Fuda, P. (2013). Leadership Transformed.
Heath, C. & D. (2016). Switch: How to change when change is hard.
Popova, M. (n.d.) William James and the psychology of habit. https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/09/25/william-james-on-habit
Schwartz. T. & McCarthy, C. (2007). Manage your energy, not your time. (October).
The Energy Project www.theenergyproject.com.

Aubrey Warren
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies
© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017

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