There are times in high performing organisations where things can break down and go wrong. Why? Often, it is when driven, top calibre leaders are not properly managing their energy levels – physical, mental and emotional – and allowing reserves to run down.
At the root of the problem is that the most ambitious performers are often the ones who are most demanding on themselves: they are educated and taught – from childhood and during their careers – to believe that they can do and achieve just about anything. There is something extraordinary about this idea of limitless achievement. It is part of the reason why many have become so successful, pushing themselves towards ever vertiginous benchmarks where being ‘normal’ is in itself almost super human. They ignore the warning signs and keep on pushing until at some point, the energy tank runs dry. At which point, even the most resourceful leaders start to operate with limited creativity, engagement and fulfilment. Their potential becomes constrained. Their performance starts to suffer.
How do you avoid running on empty? I see it as managing and replenishing three energy tanks: the one that fuels your body and movement, the one that fuels your intellect and mind and the one that fuels your emotional responses. All three are equally important and critical to every individual’s long term success. The three tanks are interconnected, and any one full tank can help replenish the others when they’re running dry…
The physical energy tank is probably the most straightforward to visualise and manage, but interestingly the one we most often overlook. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz point out in their book “The Power of Full Engagement’, that because most of us are evaluated more by what we do with our minds than with our bodies, we tend to discount the role that physical energy plays in performance at work. Balanced nutrition, hydration, sleep, exercise routines are all core ingredients to maintaining a full tank. While overlooking any of these occasionally may not impede our ability to function successfully in the short term, over time it limits our capacity to think creatively and lead with impact. Because our bodies are incredibly resilient, we may not notice the signs of a low tank until we’re running dry, so ensuring that we take preventative measures in this space is critical.
The tank that fuels our intellect and mind is the one we are most likely to be attentive to, but we may not always know how to go about replenishing it. Thanks to greater awareness of mental health in recent years, we have become more tuned into the importance of fuelling mental energy and the need to rest our minds. Any practice aimed at breaking the restless rhythms at which our minds work and stopping us from going on “autopilot” are incredibly helpful tools in creating that extra “headspace” which enables us to think more clearly, concentrate for longer periods of time and gain greater perspective. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga have become increasingly popular recently, but for those of us who can’t quite focus for so long, even the simple habit of stopping for 30 seconds every couple of hours to breathe deeply can make a big difference. As long as we take the opportunity to truly savour them, a quick sip of an ice-cold drink or the sharp tangy taste of lemon can be enough to break our mental patterns. The trick is to build in enough of these brief 15-30 second “rituals” throughout the day, and to enjoy each one to the max!
Emotional energy is in many ways the trickiest to define. At its best, a full emotional energy tank enables us to manage our emotions, rather than allowing our emotions to manage us and our reactions. For many, that’s easier said than done… often the first step in creating more energy is to become more aware of what triggers our negative emotions. We can then learn to recognise these triggers from a distance and pre-empt unhelpful emotional hijacks. As Viktor Frankl taught us, we can learn to identify a space between events that trigger us and our subsequent emotional reactions. We begin to transform our impulsive thoughts and reactions into more helpful responses. With practice, we learn to expand this space until we are able to respond, rather than react, to most triggers. This in turn keeps the energy tank at healthy levels and doesn’t drain us of the juice we need to operate effectively in the mental and physical spheres.
At the heart of any energy management practice (mental, physical or emotional) is the need for recovery. Professor Marie Asberg visualised this as an Exhaustion Funnel: at its widest part, life is a healthy mix of challenges and forms of recovery (such as “me time”, hobbies, exercise, family, friends etc.). Under work and time pressure, often the most driven, successful and hardworking leaders tend to identify those forms of recovery as a luxury and a “nice-to-have” – and they gradually exclude them from their lives, moving to the narrower part of Asberg’s Funnel. This in turn leads to greater levels of exhaustion, joylessness and depression.
Research shows that in order to sustain high performance, recovery cannot be confused with an extra that we can manage without. The problem is that highly resourceful people are wired to think that they can push themselves just a little bit harder – and the more demanding they are of themselves, the more likely it is they will fall into this trap.
The difference between experiencing one off bouts of high performance versus sustaining high performance over a longer term career lies in how disciplined we are about getting the right mix of mental, physical and emotional recovery. The solution? Replacing old behavioural patterns with new healthier habits and rituals, which can help us to include many of these helpful activities in our everyday lives without having to think about it too much!