Are you a good manager? That is, of your energy…?

Energy politics is one of the hottest topics, especially after the disaster in Fukushima. As we try to keep up with the information coming at us from all directions – media, internet, email – are we overlooking the issue of energy management within ourselves?

Many experts in leadership and professional development have long shifted their focus from time management to energy management. That is, the challenge lies rather in how we manage our physical, mental and emotional energy. How we generate, allocate, use, sustain, and replenish energy in these different domains is one of the core dimensions of self-management.

Even though one might think physical, mental and emotional domains as relatively independent from one another, numerous studies from cognitive and social psychology indicate that we’re tapping into the same resource. In other words, when you are using your mental resources to focus on an important task or problem solving, less energy is left for example, for suppressing your frustration with one of you colleagues. Or, if you are an introvert attending to a networking lunch – dealing with anxiety – you have less resources available for the budget meeting in the afternoon.

Among other things, this has some significant implications for managing our attention. Our attention determines what we perceive, recognize, comprehend, and remember. Therefore, anything that influences attention influences how we process information about the world.

Directing attention on things that you want to focus on, and keeping it there long enough requires energy. You also need to consider that some of your energy is spent monitoring the environment/background without conscious effort – that’s why you recognize your favorite song coming up on the radio although you cannot report the name of the previous song, or recognizing someone mentioning your name in a noisy room, while holding a conversation.*

So much for the claim “We are using only 10% of our brain”! Actually our brain is working in full capacity in managing all the conscious and unconscious processes of human functioning.

Thus, it is important to manage the limited resources wisely. You cannot count on your brain to allocate some of that “remaining 90%” capacity to properly run a meeting, draft a contract, or hold a decent conversation when you are multi-tasking by checking your Blackberry and surfing through the net, with your email program alerting you each time you receive a new message!  It just isn’t a wise way of managing your precious energy. 

Just like for any limited resource, you need to have a clear budget for your attention. Our lives might have become a target of demands that require us to attend to multiple things at once, but neither our hardware (e.g., our immune system suppressed by stress, the speed of neural transmission of information), or software (e.g., selective attention as opposed to unlimited attention) is ready to handle these pressing demands. That is, at least without any costs (e.g., poor quality of work and relationships, burn-out, more mistakes, decreased enjoyment from work or conversations). 

With every interruption, you need to put in more energy to re-focus your attention to the task at hand. So, instead of saving time with multi-tasking you are wasting some of your valuable energy with added costs.

If you would like to optimize your attention and the energy invested in it, here’re a few tips that’ll help you:

  1. Resist multi-tasking! If multi-tasking has become a habit, it will take some time to break it but be persistent.
  2. Create a work environment that will minimize both the distractions and  the temptation to multi-task. Block a certain time for checking and answering emails – outside that turn-off your email program completely. Form an “email parking lot ” on a piece of paper to note down emails to be sent later.
  3. Control your urge to answer the phone each time it rings. The ringing creates an unwarranted sense of urgency – like emails, many phone calls can wait. Even better, turn-off your phone when working on an important task.
  4. To optimize results and time use, strictly implement “no-cell phones” rule in meetings.
  5. Replenish your energy by taking short breaks – resist the urge to work for uninterrupted blocks that last longer than 90 minutes. One can learn much from sports, especially from tennis where attention determines the scoreboard as much as physical talent. Research shows that taking even “micro-pauses” of 16 to 20 seconds in between points translates into top performance. 
  6. Learn to meditate. This will help you to get better in directing your attention to the task at hand much more effectively even in the face of interruptions.

Working for long hours without breaks or trying to accomplish more by multi-tasking is neither a sustainable way to work, nor the path towards high performance. Next time more on how to optimize your energy further and how to strengthen your willpower for successful self-management.

*Never mind all the effort your brain invests in regulating survival functions such as respiration, digestion etc..

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