The Power of Full Engagement
Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
Free Press, 245 pages, $16.50
Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance. But most executives are obsessed with time. It’s the currency we believe buys more effective performance – find more time or handle the time you have more efficiently, and you will be more productive. But two consultants who work with both athletes and executives to nurture higher performance say we’ve got it wrong. “The skilful management of energy, individually and organizationally, makes possible something we call full engagement,” Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz write in The Power of Full Engagement. It was published in 2003 but outshines more recent works.
“It means being able to immerse yourself in the mission you are on, whether that is grappling with a creative challenge at work, managing a group of people on a project, spending time with loved ones or simply having fun.”
Their ideas trace back to Loehr’s performance coaching with world-class tennis players. He spent hundreds of hours watching matches and tapes, trying to understand what set the greatest competitors in the world apart from the rest of the pack. Studying their serve, volleying, and other activities during points revealed nothing different between them.
It was only when he started noticing what they did between rallies that he saw a difference. It was so subtle, even the players weren’t aware of this crucial factor. But the best players had each built almost exactly the same set of routines between points. Those included the way they walked back to the baseline after a point; how they held their head and shoulders; where they focused their eyes; the pattern of breathing; and even the way they talked to themselves.
It dawned on him that these stars were using the time between points to maximize their recovery from the stress of the point they had just battled over. Many lower-ranked players, he noted, had no recovery routines at all. To test this hypothesis, he hooked the players up to EKG telemetry, to monitor heart rates, and found that in the 16- to 20-second interval between points, the heart rates of top competitors dropped as much as 20 beats per minute. Lesser competitors, on the other hand, with no comparable routines for slowing their pace down and recovering, often remained at high levels throughout the matches, regardless of their level of fitness.
By building highly efficient and focused recovery routines, the top players had found a way to derive extraordinary energy renewal in a very short period of time. In the third hour of a match, that would pay off, as they were less fatigued, better able to concentrate, and less susceptible to the negative emotions that erupt under stress and exhaustion.
Even sports requiring less physical energy require the ability to manage mental energy. Premier golfer Jack Nicklaus noted that he required sharp focus to be successful, but it would be impossible to maintain that concentration for the time it takes to play 18 holes. “Unless the tee shot finds serious trouble, when I might immediately start processing possible recoveries, I descend into a valley as I leave the tee, either through casual conversation with a fellow competitor or by letting my mind dwell on whatever happens into it. I try to adhere to this pattern whether I’m playing my best or worst, but obviously have to work harder at it when things aren’t going well,” he has explained.
All this, the authors say, is guidance for workplace athletes like you. Full engagement requires drawing on four separate but related sources of energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and underuse, you must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.
“We rarely consider how much energy we are spending because we take it for granted that the energy available to us is limitless. In fact, increased demand progressively depletes our energy reserves – especially in the absence of any effort to reverse the progressive loss of capacity that occurs with age. By training in all dimensions we can dramatically slow our decline physically and mentally,” they write.
You need to learn to live your life like a series of sprints – fully engaging for periods of time and then fully disengaging and seeking renewal before jumping back into the fray to face whatever challenges confront you next. That means taking vacations that are truly vacations and arranging times during the week when you deliberately put work aside and become fully engaged in something else, be it family or exercise.
Take a break every 90 minutes during the working day to recharge. The tactics you choose can vary from a casual stroll to meditation. “To maintain a powerful pulse in our lives, we must learn how to rhythmically spend and renew energy,” they stress.
Just as sports athletes push beyond their normal limits to build capacity, workplace athletes must build their own energy capacity, so in the periods of intense activity they are stronger not just from the renewal but also from their own conditioning. The authors recommend at least two cardiovascular interval workouts a week – in which you raise and lower your heartbeat in short-to-moderate bursts of activity interspaced with periods of relaxation or reduced effort – as well as two strength-training workouts to boost your energy resources.
But building your capacity involves more than physical strength. You want to build emotional, mental, and spiritual capacity in the same way, by testing yourself against stress. “The limiting factor in building any ‘muscle’ is that many of us back off at the slightest hint of discomfort. To meet increased demand in our lives, we must learn to systematically build and strengthen muscles wherever our capacity is insufficient. Any form of stress that prompts discomfort has the potential to expand our capacity – so long as it is followed by adequate recovery. As Nietzsche put it, ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’.”
So if you want to build up spiritual energy, for example, you must regularly revisit your deepest values and hold yourself accountable in your behaviour. But it is in the oscillation between stress and renewal that your capacity to do more will expand. If you start taking breaks during the day every 90 minutes, that refresher will allow you to work more intensely in the next 90-minute stint, and that builds upon itself over time.
Those breaks are a positive energy ritual, no different from a tennis player bouncing the ball three times and breathing deeply before the next serve. Positive energy rituals – in tennis or your workplace – are the key to full engagement.
“Look at any part of your life in which you are consistently effective and you will find certain habits help make that possible. If you eat in a healthy way, it is probably because you have built routines around the food you buy and what you are willing to order in a restaurant. If you are fit, it is probably because you have regular days and routines for working out…. If you manage others effectively, you most likely have a style of giving feedback that leaves people feeling challenged rather than threatened,” they write.
This process involves defining your purpose, so you are expending your energies in a way that aligns with your deepest values. But it also involves thinking how to manage the four energies – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – in better ways through such rituals as walks, reading uplifting works, gardening, dancing, curtailing negative thoughts, and building confidence.
The key, in your busy day, is to stop obsessing over time management. It’s energy management t