One of the most popular OPEN Forum articles of 2010 was "10 Tips for Reenergizing Your Day, Every Day," which was based on the work by Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, contained in his book The Way We're Working Isn't Working, and which has been recently republished as Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys To Transforming the Way We Work and Live.
I recently had a chance to circle back with Tony to ask him a few questions about energy and excellence.
Q: I've gone on record as saying I believe 2011 is a pivotal year, a year of opportunity. The notion of flowing one's energy toward excellence dovetails nicely with that idea -- do you think people are especially ready to excel?
A: Actually, I think people are feeling more overwhelmed than ever. The recession was brutal and its effects are still reverberating, even for those who’ve managed to hold onto their jobs. They’re once again being asked to do more work because their companies have significantly downsized, but now face resurgent demand. The unread e-mails in our inboxes keep growing. The meetings get piled one on another. The complexity of the challenges we’re facing continues to increase.
I think people are hungry for ways to to escape the tyranny of the urgent and reclaim excellence in their lives. But most of us simply haven’t developed the set of skills necessary to meet modern demand in a sustainable way. There's a good bit of pain stemming from a great many distracted workers who become disengaged when they simply can’t get everything off their to-do list no matter how long or how hard they work.
Q: Are companies paying attention to that problem?
A: It’s a problem that companies simply can’t afford to ignore any longer, and I’m very happy to say that they finally are paying attention. More and more I hear the same message from senior executives, referring to the challenge of distraction, overwhelm, and the growing impact on both employee engagement and productivity. To a person, they tell me, “Tony, it’s just unsustainable.” The good news is there are solutions to the problem.
Q: Can anyone, or everyone, really be excellent at anything?
A: Yes, and I think we been burdened by a longstanding myth: that our greatest talents are inborn and genetic, and that there’s not much we can do to change that fact. The research is increasingly clear that the key to excellence has far less to do with your genes than it does with your willingness to work really hard in a deliberate way.
The researcher Anders Ericsson has demonstrated across a range of disciplines--from music, to sports, to improving memory--that the only way to excel is to put in deliberate practice, day in and day out, over a long period of time. Now, that’s undeniably difficult, and sometimes painful. It requires delaying more immediate gratification, which is harder than ever today, when so much distraction and gratification is just a keystroke away on a laptop or a smart phone.
The compensation, if you’re willing to put in the time, is that you can achieve excellence at nearly anything, and you can change almost any behavior, even basic personality traits. That’s a very empowering notion, and I think it has the potential to inspire all kinds of people to pursue excellence in any field that interests them, without worrying about whether or not they have so-called “natural gifts.”
Q: You have been spearheading years of research through your company, The Energy Project, and you have some hard numbers for a problem that has been difficult, in many ways, to substantiate. What’s the most compelling thing you've discovered?
A: I think it has to be realizing the mountain of evidence pointing to a better, more efficient, more sustainable way of working. For the past two centuries, the model in organizations has been “more, bigger, faster.” The person who works the longest hours gets the rewards. In reality, human beings are not meant to operate like computers: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. Rather, we’re designed to "pulse"--to move rhythmically between spending and renewing energy.
We’re far and away more productive when we work in relatively short uninterrupted bursts of no more than 90 minutes, followed by a period of true renewal and recovery. Interestingly, the more you practice renewing, the better you get at it, and the quicker it occurs. The implications of this discovery are profound. It means that we are capable of getting more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality by working fewer overall hours, but more strategically. By adopting this wiser way of working, we can be more productive, more sustaining, and ultimately happier. That’s good for us and good for employers.
Q: What are the keys to doing anything well?
A: There are four, and I'll tick through them quickly.
1. Get enough sleep. Get a minimum of seven to eight hours a night, so you’re fully rested when you go to work. The best violinists in Anders Ericsson’s famous study, for example, reported that other than practice, sufficient sleep is the single most important factor in improving as violinists. It’s also key to renew intermittently through the day. The best violinists also take a 20-30 minute nap every afternoon. Even if you can’t do that, be sure to get away from your desk at least three to four times a day.
2. Do the most important work first every morning. That’s typically when you have the most energy, and the fewest distractions. And do it without interruption, because focusing on one thing at a time not only is more efficient, it also makes it possible to achieve greater depth and do higher quality work.
3. Cultivate positive emotions. We perform best when we feel best. All day long we experience challenges that influence how we feel. Become more aware when you’re moving into negative emotions--what we call the “Survival Zone.” Take a moment to reset yourself--a couple of deep breaths is a good start. Refocus your attention on what you can feel good about. Ask yourself a question like “What’s right in my life?” and take a minute to write down a few examples.
4. Pursue your passion. Don’t settle for something that doesn’t make you feel excited to get up in the morning. You may not be able to find the perfect job, but that doesn’t mean you should settle for whatever happens to be available. What do you do best? What do you enjoy most? What sort of work would give you a greater sense of meaning? Take the time to identify what ideal looks like. And then make that your aspiration. Don’t let others--or circumstances--define you. Define yourself from the inside out, and use the energy that generates to pursue more of what you really want.
I know for a fact that Tony practices what he preaches. If you're overwhelmed and distracted, wanting to climb out of the clutter and begin taking back your life, or looking for ways to reenergize, give Be Excellent at Anything a read. You can also find The Energy Project team on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @energy_project.