Editor's Note: This story contains one of our 11 New Years resolutions you can actually keep in 2014. For the full list, click here.
We have plenty of time for the things that matter to us.
If we work 50 hours a week, it shouldn’t be hard to find five of those hours to invest in activities that would nurture our careers and grow our organizations. The problem is that in the midst of back-to-back meetings and email firefights, we often lack the energy to do these meaningful things that would make us more productive.
So how do we get more energy? The answer may be, in part, the long frowned-upon practice of making personal phone calls from work.
The science of energy management is a growing area of research, especially in the corporate context, as companies adopt wellness programs. Recently, Janet Nikolovski and Jack Groppel, both with Wellness & Prevention, Inc. (a Johnson & Johnson company), released a white paper on the power of what they call "microbursts." (A download is available here.)
A microburst is a small activity that has a big energy payoff. Groppel reports that the concept comes from tennis, which he studied while working with the U.S. Professional Tennis Association. Elite players turn out to have very structured recovery rituals in the 20 seconds between points. "The theory—that a tennis player can get a trough of recovery in 20 seconds—is a very powerful learning," he says. The insight is that it doesn’t take much time to change your energy levels significantly. If you recover right, even though you’ve just done something very hard, you can do something else very hard again soon.
To test this, Groppel and Nikolovski asked people in multiple organizations to monitor their energy levels through the day. While people started off strong, energy levels fell quickly through the day, and, depressingly, stayed low even when people got home to their loved ones. This is why many of us spend all evening watching TV.
But when coached to use microbursts—in particular, small bits of physical activity like taking the stairs and walking briskly for five minutes every hour—people’s energy levels changed considerably. An hour after a microburst, people reported that their energy levels were still twice as high as before. "You see that curve shift," says Nikolovski. "People have more energy throughout the day. But most important, they had more energy after they went home. Walking home to their loved ones, they weren’t drained and exhausted."
The most fascinating part of their work, though, is their finding that physical activity isn’t the only thing that boosts energy. Interacting with people is also energizing, though it has to be the right people. "Talking to a coworker wasn’t nearly as energizing as talking to a loved one," Nikolovski says. They plotted various energy boosters on a 1-10 point scale and compared these to the default energy booster: coffee. "When you go to reach for energy, you reach for caffeine," Nikolovski says. People who’d had a coffee in the 30 minutes before reporting their energy levels scored a 6.8. People who’d talked to a loved one? They scored around 7 on the 1-10 point scale.
In other words, if you need a pick-me-up at work, calling a loved one is better than an espresso.
To be sure, personal phone calls don’t always linger in the microburst state. Really connecting with a loved one can take more than two to five minutes. Done right, such connections also require actively disengaging from work matters for a bit. "The worst thing is if while you’re talking you’re multitasking," Groppel says. But if such connections can make for more energized employees, the boost in productivity may be worth the trade-off in time.