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Manage Your E-bank

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 7 March 2018

We all have the same amount of time, but we also know that within that time we can get more or less done depending on our energy levels. And yet we tend to look at the clock a lot more than we pay attention to our energy account; we try to manage time when we'd be better managing our energy.

Dr Alan Watkins offers a useful technique to help with this in his book, Coherence: The secret science of brilliant leadership. His work is based on the idea of coherence: "in essence, the biological underpinning of what elite performers call 'the flow state' (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002): a state of maximum efficiency and super effectiveness, where body and mind are one" (p10).

Flow is a highly productive, satisfying and energising experience. It's also challenging to achieve and sustain, not least because of the frequency of interruptions we experience including the interruptions we impose on ourselves. And these interruptions can be mental and emotional, not just physical.

Interruptions, disruptions and distractions are unavoidable. But it's important to have some mechanism for managing them. Because each of those things not only prevents us from achieving flow, but also reduces our ability to think clearly (which we're doing when in flow) and to manage our emotional state (which directly affects our ability to think clearly). They also hijack our focus. (Don't go there now because that would be distracting yourself, but I wrote a short piece about focus last year.)

Although we are aware of these "anti-flow" agents, Watkins says they actually have an even greater effect on us than we realise due to the way they affect our body. Specifically, our heart. Watkins and others have observed the effects of "heart rate variability", which describes "the distance between one beat and the next" something that is constantly changing. "It is this variability or perpetual change in the interval between each individual heart beat that is measured by heart rate variability (HRV)" (p48).

HRV is measured quite easily (sometimes across a 24-hour period) and provides a "tachogram" or speed picture. "Watching an individual's tachograms during a normal working day reveals that, for most people, the 'normal' pattern of HRV is far from a state of equilibrium. In fact the normal pattern is a chaotic heart beat all day. Changes in an individual's external environment, events and situations at work, physical activity, emotional response nearly everything we do during the course of our day results in almost instantaneous changes in our internal physiological environment ... These internal changes ... most of which are unconscious - change the way we feel, which changes the way we think, which in turn changes what we do and the results we achieve ... 

"We first need to know how much energy or fuel we have in our tanks and how well we use that available fuel. And we must get to grips with our physiology so we can turn that chaotic heart beat into a coherent heart beat" (pp49-51).

(For a demonstration of this, watch Alan Watkins' TED Talk (from the 13 minute mark until the end -about 5 minutes.)

Okay, so all this distraction, interruption and change is creating a chaotic heart rate that is slowing us down, draining our energy and reducing our performance. What can we do? How can we experience more "flow"? How can we manage our energy better?

One simple and immediately applicable activity that Watkins recommends (as have others in different ways) is what he calls the E-bank.

"The first step to generating physiological coherence and energy preservation is practising the E-bank. The E-bank can help us to become aware of where we are currently using our most important resource our energy. This is achieved by tracking the events, situation and people that drain and boost our energy and it can reveal areas of our life where we can make a significant difference " (p62-63).

It's as simple as a piece of paper (or e-diary) and a few minutes of reflection.

The E-bank is just a list of the events, moments, experiences, situations and people that increase your energy (deposits), and the things that rob you of energy (withdrawals). Your list may start with things that have happened today, but can also embrace a longer timeframe. They might be relatively micro (the cheery greeting of your barista or the frustrating political news of the morning) or more macro (your ongoing dispute with the bank or a team member's hostility towards you, or your sense of satisfaction with a relationship or good health). 

Watkins recommends that you relive each of the deposits as you write them down and leave the withdrawals behind.

"The key benefit of this exercise is that it will give you awareness about your current energy levels and what affects those levels" (p62). This enables you to reflect on how "in surplus" or "in deficit" you may be energy-wise. It can help to identify patterns. You can also probably apply a "forcefield analysis" to the various deposits and withdrawals: how relatively powerful are the forces? (Even a few really strong deposits can offset a lot of relatively small withdrawals if you can be more conscious of them.)

The E-bank can also help reset our perspective. The brain's negative bias tends to cause us to focus more attention on the withdrawals than the deposits it's too easy to take the positives for granted as our attention is hijacked by apparently important negatives. (And then it becomes easy to revisit the negatives repeatedly, thus artificially reinforcing their effects.) This is why simple things like "gratitude journals" are so powerful.

The E-bank exercise can also prompt you to consider two initiatives: How you can manage your energy by increasing your focus on and exposure to the deposits (the people, events, situations, experiences) that increase your energy, and how you can reduce your focus on and exposure to the withdrawals that drain your energy.

Sometimes, of course, you simply can't change your exposure to energy draining experiences. But you can limit their impact by being more aware of them in the moment and then consciously choosing your response. (Hint: managing your breathing is a vital and powerful place to start.) We can't change or control other people or situations, but we can change and control our responses.

Managing your E-bank is simple, powerful and filled with potential potential even beyond your own energy.

First, it alerts you to the people, situations and thoughts that you are allowing to make energy withdrawals and erode your performance.

Second, it reminds you to pay more attention to those people, experiences and times that are making energy deposits that give you the power to perform.

Third, it should also increase your sensitivity to your potential to make withdrawals on others' energy. We all do it, even with the best of intentions.

Fourth, it can encourage you to identify ways to make deposits into others' energy accounts. Your energy does flow out and affect others. But to make those deposits you have to be managing your own energy in such a way that you have something in your own account to share.

I'm currently working on a three-page summary of Alan Watkins' book, so if you'd like to read more about it just email me your request and I will send it to you.

And make sure to start managing your E-bank deposits and withdrawals ...

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

References & Resources
Watkins, A. (2014). Coherence: The secret science of brilliant leadership. Kogan Page.
Csikszentmihalyi, C. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. Rider.
Schwartz, T. & McCarthy, C. (2007). Manage your energy, not your time. Harvard Business Review, October...


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