I often begin talks by asking my audience three questions:
“How many of you would say that demand in your lives has increased significantly during the past several years?”
“How many of you,” I ask next, “expect that demand in your lives is going to get even greater during the next several years?”
For both, nearly every hand goes up.
“OK,” I say, “so here’s the $64,000 question: How many of you expect your capacity to rise right along with demand?”
A lone soul or two raises a hand, usually tentatively. A wave of nervous laughter typically follows. It’s as if everyone senses they ought to be alarmed, but instead they just feel sucker-punched. Why is that?
The answer seems clear to me. Throughout our lives, we’ve taken our capacity — the fuel in our tanks — for granted. It’s no big deal to spend down our resources, or the planet’s, so long as we’re assuming there will always be more available.
The problem is that demand is outstripping our capacity. To mildly mix metaphors, we’re dancing as fast as we can, but we’re increasingly running on empty.
We’re in an energy crisis, and this one is personal.
The company I run, the Energy Project, helps reenergize individuals and organizations. Over the past six months, we’ve fielded dozens of calls from executives at large companies sharing the same message: It’s unsustainable.
The paradigm of “more, bigger, faster” — the free market rallying cry ever since the industrial revolution began 200 years ago — has hit a wall. As more and more of us reach our limits, the rules of the game need to change.
It’s axiomatic that the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for intermittent renewal — time to rest, reflect, reset and recharge.
Human beings aren’t designed to run like computers: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. By mimicking them, they’re ending up running us.
The only resources that last are those we renew. As part of my own intentional effort to manage demand, I sleep at least 8 hours a night, nap more frequently, work out more religiously, and take more regular breaks during the work day.
I do so because I spend more energy than ever during the hours I am working. But even with all my intentional focus on renewal, I hit my own wall last week. On Thursday, feeling tired after lunch, I told my team I was going to take a nap in the room we have set aside for that purpose. It’s something I do at least a couple of times a week, for 20 to 30 minutes, and I find it’s incredibly reenergizing.
The difference was that this time I slept for more than two hours. When I woke up, I still felt tired — and puzzled about why. It didn’t take long to figure it out. For the past eight weeks, I’d spent at least two to three days traveling. It had taken a cumulative toll.
I know from our clients that I’m far from alone. Nearly every week now I hear their stories, and they are remarkably alike.
There’s the senior executive at a big consumer products company who told me she can’t remember the last time she was able to focus on one thing, uninterrupted, for more than 30 minutes.
There’s the technology executive who has nearly 1000 unread emails in his inbox. “Are any of them important?” I asked him. “How would I know?” he replied.
Just last week, I had a conversation with an HR executive at a leading financial institution. He was calling because two of his firm’s most important executives — each paid millions and millions of dollars — had come to him saying they just weren’t sure they could keep it up anymore.
They each listed their challenges: incredibly long hours, relentless travel, 24-7 digital demands, time away from their families and insufficient energy to even take care of themselves. Sound familiar?
“Can you help?” this executive asked. I told him we could, because I know we have strategies that work. But I also know we can’t solve it alone. Companies need to take up the cause of a new way of working.
The companies that build competitive advantage in the years ahead aren’t going to do it by seeking to get more out of their people. They’ll do it instead better meeting people’s core needs — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual — so they’re freed, fueled and inspired to bring more of themselves to work every day.
Think of it this way: Would you rather have someone working at 60 per cent of capacity for 11 hours a day, or someone who only puts in eight working hours a day, but by taking breaks to renew and recharge, is able to operate at 95 per cent capacity?
You do the math.
(If you’re interested in how you’re doing, take our Energy Audit.)
Reprinted from Harvard Business Review
Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony’s most recent book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @TonySchwartz.