Tony Schwartz delves into principles of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy expenditure and renewal for optimal performance.
- Why and how to manage your energy for performance
- Actionable ways to achieve high-positive energy
- Why you should work in 90-minute sprints
Tony Schwartz is the CEO and founder of The Energy Project, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations solve intractable problems and add more value in the world by widening their world view. His clients include Google, Whole Foods, the National Security Agency, and the Los Angeles Police Department. Tony is considered one of the world’s thought leaders around sustainable high performance and building more human workplaces. He began his career as a journalist and has been a reporter for the New York Times, a writer for Newsweek, and a contributor to publications such as New York, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Fast Company. His book The Power of Full Engagement spent 28 weeks on the New York Times best-seller List.
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Tony, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.
Thank you. Really happy to be with you.
I’d love to hear from all of your energy management practices how’s that paying off when it comes to being a grandpa.
Yeah, I have four grandkids and it’s all joy, no pain because as they tell you, it turns out to be true, you don’t have to actually be responsible when things start to blow up and they always do with young children. But you get all the fun time and then the moment that it isn’t fun, you hand them back over to the parents.
It’s all renewal. On that energy expenditure/energy renewal axis which we focus on, grandkids are one more way to get renewal. In fact, I’m sitting in the apartment of one of my daughters. When this over I’ll go hang out with my grandkids, two of them.
That’s awesome, yes. You don’t have the night shift to contend with either.
Yeah, that’s right. I sleep at night. That’s my thing.
Absolutely. I want to dig into The Energy Project. Tell me what is this organization all about.
We are a company that helps big companies or big organizations understand what I would say are the invisible human factors that stand in the way of great performance, whether that’s a lack of energy or it’s blind spots and fears or stories that people tell themselves.
There’s just an enormous amount that organizations generally do not take into account that stands in the way of getting stuff done. It’s what’s going on inside people. What’s going on inside people has a profound impact on how they show up in the world. But we haven’t been comfortable as a culture talking about those things.
What we’ve done at The Energy Project is really to create a language that allows leaders of organizations to feel comfortable and their employees as well in addressing all these things that have up till now simply lurked in the background having a big influence that no one was willing to address.
Oh, I’d love it if you could give me just a couple biggy examples.
Yeah. Let’s say you have a leader who is very angry and frustrated, a person who spends a lot of time in what we would call the survival zone. That leader is easily triggered by what he perceives to be as examples of incompetence or not getting his needs met.
What we would focus on is what’s going on inside that is making you feel that way. What are you missing? What are you not seeing that’s your responsibility? What kinds of strategies could you undertake to better manage the way you show up, the way you respond under stress or under pressure?
That would be an example. Let me give you an organizational example.
You have an organization that is incredibly collegial. This would be an example I’m taking from one of our clients. People treat each other with great care and kindness. There’s very little conflict in that organization.
On its face it looks like everything is great except decision making is completely paralyzed and people are actually extremely anxious because they don’t know beneath the surface comments that are so positive what’s actually going on because nobody has permission to actually say what’s actually going on.
In a case like that we would try to help them understand how to find a better balance between candor and compassion, between candor and care. In fact, one of the primary, what I would call set of opposites that we work with leaders on is to both be challenging and nurturing or challenging and nourishing.
To understand that if you’re too challenging, you overwhelm people and if you’re too nurturing, you are disempowering them. Understanding how to find that balance between those two qualities is the kind of thing we would do with a given leader.
That’s great stuff. Very useful. What really made me want to interview is long ago I read your book The Power of Full Engagement and it was just so, so helpful. I’d love it if you could orient us to a bit of the work you’re doing when it comes to energy and orienting us to the four sources of energy and just kicking us off there.
Sure. The core work of The Energy Project, which is now 16 years old, is built around energy and the notion that it’s as important to manage your energy as it is to manage your time. The notion of energy, we really introduced into the organizational well because nobody thought about it.
Energy in physics is simply the capacity to do work. If you have more energy, you have more capacity. Capacity doesn’t matter so long as demand is less than the capacity you have, but that has completely, Pete, shifted as you well know.
The intensity of demand in people’s lives, almost no one would disagree, has increased dramatically primarily by virtue of the internet and all the demands it puts on us and the fact that we are, by definition, almost never offline anymore.
What we really have worked with to understand is what is energy in the human system. What’s the fuel you need in your time to truly bring your talent and skill to life?
They talk about engagement in the workplace. It’s a very, very important variable that organizations try to measure because it’s one of those things that there’s been a clear correlation made between the level of a person’s engagement and the level of their performance. It’s a very important factor over the last 20 years – 15 years. It refers to the willingness to invest discretionary effort on the job.
What we realized is that willing no longer guarantees able. Energy is about able. You need four sources of energy in order to be firing on all cylinders at work. What are they?
You need physical energy. That’s the ground of energy. That’s the most basic form. Without that nothing else is possible. When I say physical energy, I’m really referring to four components: fitness, sleep, nutrition, and rest.
Rest meaning daytime rest. I was referring to it at the very start of our talk in terms of what provides renewal. I was referring to my grandkids, but of course sleep provides renewal, hanging out, even working out provides both mental and emotional renewal even if it’s physically energy consuming. Those are the four components of physical energy.
Then there’s emotional energy, which is really how you feel because how you feel profoundly influences how you perform. There’s only a very specific way you can feel or there’s a specific way that you do feel when you’re performing at your best. We are helping people to cultivate that way of feeling.
Mental energy really refers to the control of attention, which is of course something we’re all struggling with in the world we live in. It’s the ability to focus on one thing at a time in an absorbed way for a sustained period of time. Critical factor in being able to be effective at work.
Then the fourth one is what we call spiritual energy. If people get nervous around that word, we call it the energy of the human spirit or the energy of purpose, the sense that what you’re doing really matters, that it serves something larger than yourself. Because if you have that feeling and I have it – I’ve got to tell you – almost every minute of every day.
I do something that really gives me a sense of purpose, which is talking about the kinds of things I’m sharing with you right now. It’s an enormous energy source for me in my life and for anybody who takes advantage of it who has a connection to why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Our core work is training people to better manage those four sources of energy and training leaders to better manage not only their own energy, but the energy of those they lead.
Okay, awesome. Well, I want to dig into a lot of what you said there, but first I was just so intrigued by your emotional energy comment. You said there’s one way we feel that really unlocks just great performance. What is that way of feeling and how do we get there?
Pete, it’s how you feel when you’re performing at your best.
Oh, it kind of varies person by person.
No, it’s always the same.
I’m going to ask you how do you feel when you’re performing at your best? Give me three or four adjectives.
Okay, sure. I feel flowing, grooving, enthusiastic. It’s kind of like “All right, let’s keep it going.” It’s kind of like I get into it in such a sense that if I am interrupted, I’ll be irritated by it. I try to ….
Yup, so flowing, grooving, energized. Then the other kinds of words we hear all the time are excited, confident, optimistic, focused, absorbed. Those are the kinds of words that we consistently hear. We never hear somebody say, “Hey, when I’m at my best what I feel is angry,” or, “At my best I’m really anxious.”
The way we feel when we’re performing our best is what we call high positive energy. There are almost no exceptions. That’s the way people perform at their best. We’ve asked literally 200,000 people that question over the last 16 years and always we get the same dozen adjectives or so that people say.
In a way that’s not a big piece of news because if you ask someone, they’ll always tell you. But what most people don’t recognize consciously in everyday life is if I’m not feeling that way, and most people aren’t much of the time, then I’m not capable of performing at my best. That’s what we mean by the right emotions when it comes to performing well.
Okay. I’m intrigued then in terms of how to be there more often. I know you teach a lot in terms of strategies and practices, but what would you say are maybe just the real top, top practical actionable prescriptions that just give you a tremendous return on your investment for bringing forth more high-positive energy?
Yeah, well I’d say it depends on which of the four dimensions because all four of them influence high-positive energy. In the end, the feeling is a consequence of how well you’re managing each of these four dimensions.
At the physical level for example, which is the simplest one to describe, the most important thing you can do is sleep at least seven to eight hours a day. 98% of people require at least seven to eight hours of sleep in order to feel fully rested. Vastly fewer than 98% get seven to eight hours a night. If you don’t, by definition, everything else is going to be undermined.
There’s no single practice you can do that more powerfully and immediately influences your overall experience, the degree to which you feel high-positive energy when you’re getting enough sleep.
Second to that, would be intermittently resting throughout the day, meaning your body’s designed to work in cycles of 90 minutes, very much like what happens at night when you move in a 90-minute cycle called the basic rest activity cycle between very light sleep and then down into deep sleep and back out through something most people know as REM sleep, rapid eye movement sleep.
It turns out that the same exact cycle exists during the day. The only difference is that you move from a high state of alertness into a state of physiological fatigue every 90 minutes if – or the degree to which you move into that trough depends on how intensely you’ve worked during those 90 minutes.
But if you build a rhythm into your life of sprint and recover, sprint and recover it’s a vastly more efficient way to get things done and it feeds a better overall feeling in you then working continuously, which of course you can’t do at 100% any more than you can sprint two miles continuously. You’d fall and collapse if you do that. That’s very much at the most basic level, Pete.
I’ve already described to you this spiritual dimension. A practice that makes sense spiritually is to really look – there’s an awareness process that goes into identifying what is it that gives me a sense of meaning, what is it that makes me feel excited to get up in the morning and go to work, that makes me feel like I’m adding value in the world.
That’s a blend of identifying what you do best because the things that you do best tend to be the things that provide often, all other factors being equal, the greatest source of satisfaction. But they are not necessarily what give you the most immediate pleasure or satisfaction.
In other words you may be – you may love – I mean you may be incredibly good on the saxophone but if your job is to be a salesman, that saxophone is not going to be a source of satisfaction at work. If it is, you’re probably not going to work there very long.
A second component is what do I enjoy doing in the context of what my responsibilities are. A third one is what am I doing that makes me feel I’m adding value to the world or to others. What’s adding value? What do I enjoy most? What am I best at?
Creating a Venn diagram around that, in other words finding the places where all three of those are happening for you is an awareness piece that really allows you to hone in on what deserves more of your attention.
Then once you’ve identified that, we would be helping the people who go through our work to figure out in the context of the work responsibilities that they have, how can they do more of those things in which they’re getting all three of those sources of satisfaction. That’s a couple of examples.
That’s powerful stuff. Thank you for laying this out. I’m so curious to hear some more inside each of these further. Let’s start with sleep then. Seven to eight hours is just putting in the time. Are there any pro tips other than just sort of blocking that out and getting into the bed? …
Yeah, yeah, there certainly are. There certainly are. I’m happy to share them because this is so critical.
Probably on average when we do our corporate work and I’ll ask the question, “How many people in the room by a raise of hands have got at least seven to eight hours of sleep for at least five of the last seven nights?” I would say the average is probably about 40%. 60% of the audiences I’m seeing are not getting enough sleep.
That doesn’t even address the quality of their sleep. Let’s just say the number of hours that their eyes are closed and they’re more or less asleep.
A couple of really critical things. Number one, you’ve got to identify a time to go to sleep that is consistent and a time to wake up that’s consistent. First of all that will drive a better quality of sleep. Second of all, it will make it less likely that you drift, particularly at night, later and later and end up getting too little sleep.
Building it as a ritual, which is very much at the heart of the way we help people make behavioral change. In other words, a ritual is a highly specific behavior that you do over and over at the same time until it becomes automatic and you don’t have to think about it anymore. Because, Pete, the longer you have to think about doing something, the less likely you are to do it. That’s number one about sleep.
The second thing is that you want to wind down rather than simply trying to go to sleep instantly when you turn out the light. From an hour before you go to sleep, 45 minutes minimum, your ritual ought to include that winding down.
Let me give you an example of what isn’t winding down. Watching reruns of 24 is not winding down. Doing your email, your work email, much less even your personal email is not winding down. Why not? Because the screen creates more alertness and makes it harder to go to sleep.
Taking a shower or one shower or much less – or even better a warm bath or having a cup of herbal tea or having a – reading a book would also be a really good way to wind down. In fact, better a boring book than a thriller because you’re going to fall asleep faster. You wouldn’t want to read John le Carré or any other thriller writer because that might keep you up. There’s a lot of common sense in this.
Then the third tip, if this is not the third or the fourth, I’m not keeping track. The third tip would be that before you go to sleep if you’re the kind of person who struggles to go to sleep because you perseverate, because you start to think of things that you’re worried about and then you repetitively rem them in your mind.
That can happen to people before they go to sleep or it can happen when they wake up in the middle of the night and they can’t get back to sleep. What we suggest and we have seen work really, really effectively is that if you are such a person, write down before you go to sleep on a pad right by the side of your bed what it is you’re worrying about, what is on your mind.
Because by writing it down, you get it off your mind. You give your mind permission not to think about it because your mind is being told by your writing that it will be there for you in the morning just as reliably as if you tried to run it over and over in your head.
There are three just very simple ways to increase the likelihood that you’ll get seven to eight hours of sleep.
Excellent. Thank you. Well, now I want to talk a little bit about the intermittent resting. First of all, is that 90 minutes pretty universal across all human beings? Are some 70? Are some 110? Or is 90 the number?
I would say science doesn’t tell us an exact answer to that question, but just as it doesn’t tell us what your sleep cycle will be. It is I would say plus or minus ten minutes probably in the 90s as a percentage. That plus or minus relative to 90 minutes is how long a sleep cycle lasts and how long a what we call an ultradian rhythm.
The sleep cycle is the circadian rhythm of night and day. I’m sorry, the sleep cycle takes place in the context of the circadian rhythm of night and day because the biggest rhythm you have is awake and asleep. Then when you go down into sleep then you have these 90-minute cycles.
Then during the day it’s called an ultradian rhythm. It too, I would say, is a 90 minute rhythm for the vast majority of human beings and within ten minutes or so of that.
I very much have adapted over 16 years, or even longer than that, 20 years during which I’ve been doing this work, my body so that particularly when I’m working intensely, my body begins to scream at me around 80 minutes. I get a little internal alarm clock, which is obviously cued up with an internal rhythm that exists in my body, that’s saying to me give me a break.
Most of us – all of us get this signal somewhere between 70 and – or 80 and 100 minutes, somewhere in there, but we override it. We override it with coffee. We override it with sugar. We override it most of all with adrenaline and cortisol. We override it with our own stress hormones because our anxiety can be arise by any number of – as you well know – any number of things that happen to you over the course of a day.
We use all of these techniques. In the case of adrenaline, we don’t do it consciously. In fact, the more intensely and the more continuously that you work, the more likely it is that you will begin to generate stress hormones. They’re like an emergency source of fuel. But they’re not an ideal source of fuel. Just as coffee is not an ideal source of fuel.
Your best way to energize yourself is to rhythmically move between work and rest. At that 90-minute interval what you want to do is you want to change channels. That might mean mentally and emotionally that what you want to do is quiet the body.
But it also might mean you want to, if you’ve been sitting, you might want to elevate the body because – elevate your physiology, meaning use natural means to increase your heart rate.
Because when you increase your heart rate one of the things that happens is the left hemisphere begins to let go, the verbal part of your brain begins to let go and anybody who has done any kind of aerobics or training, physical training, knows this experience that the more intensely you’re working out the more unlikely or even impossible it is to think. If you can turn off your thinking, that’s a very powerful source of recovery.
It’s the same – not quite for the same reasons – but ultimately the same thing that happens emotionally. Most people find that if they move the body intensely, it’s a source of emotional renewal or positive emotion. It prompts a reduction in anxiety.
Now, the flip side – I call that active renewal. The flip side is passive renewal. Meditation, yoga, taking a walk in nature. All of those are positive and useful renewal activities that you can use in that period when you are disengaging from work and you are in renewal or recovery mode.
When it comes to these cycles, if 90 minutes is the on cycle, about how long is the off cycle?
The off cycle is completely determined by the individual, meaning it’s when you feel refueled and renewed. You can get in an amazingly short period of time if you are skilled at it, if you ritualize it, if you practice it, you can completely clear the bloodstream of cortisol, which is the most insidious of the stress hormones in one minute by breathing in and breathing out.
The particular breathing technique that we recommend is in to a count of three, out to a count of six. In through your nose, out through your mouth. The reason that we think that works better is that it extends the recovery, meaning a long out breath is a way to recover.
You know that even just by its opposite, which is if you breathe very quickly, you know when you’re frightened, it actually uses up your energy. It’s very energy consuming and anxiety provoking.
You can get this very powerful recovery in a very short time, meaning the point is not how long you recover, it’s how effectively your recover. Just as on the flip side, it’s not how long, how many hours you work, it’s how absorbed you are, how intensely you focus during the time that you do work.
For example, I’ve now written five books. I’m in the middle of my sixth. The last three, including the one I’m writing, I wrote with a full awareness of these rhythms. My way of writing as in this very moment when I’m writing a new book, is that I’m up at 6 o’clock.
I do not do any other activity before writing. If I do, if I were to look online and start reading the internet news or if I were to check my email or if I were to do some activity in my house, the likelihood that I would get my writing done would drop dramatically because it’s hard to write.
I sit down. I turn off all my devices and I work in an absorbed way for 90 minutes. I will tell you I don’t work for 100 and I don’t work for 70. I work for 90 or 80. I don’t work for 80 and I don’t work for 100. I work for 90 minutes and then I take a break.
That first break is usually breakfast. Then I work for 90 minutes more. Then I take a run. That run is a source of mental and emotional recovery after a very intense cognitive demand that I put myself under. This is how I use my time.
Now, in the first three books that I wrote, each of them took me at least a year to write. One took me nine months, but nine months to a year. I was working 12-hour days. I wasn’t working efficiently. I wasn’t working effectively. I was often finding excuses to stop writing. But I sat at my desk for up to 11 or 12 hours a day as many writers I know do, stupid writers.
In the last three books, I write in three – actually for this book it’s only two, because I also run a company – but the two previous books I wrote in three 90-minute sprints with breaks in between and that was my total writing day, four and a half hours. In those four and a half hours, I wrote each of those books in six months. In the 12 hours I never wrote a book in less than a year.
It’s the energy you expend, not the time you spend.
Oh, nice little rhyming turn of phrase. I’m digging it. I also want to zoom in on this one-minute practice. With the breathing in, I’m imagining one should breathe into the diaphragm or belly as opposed to the shoulders and the ….
Absolutely. Yeah, okay. Good for you. Imagine, let’s do it together. You go in through your nose and you’re counting. And now you exhale through your mouth, presumably from your diaphragm. Six. You may want to purse your lips because you want to extend the breath so you’ve got more time out than in. In three, out six.
And my mental attention is upon the count or where is ….
Yes, 100%. That’s what will keep you focused and absorbed.
Are we thinking eyes open/eyes closed? Sitting/standing posture?
I would say sitting, though there is no rule about this. I would also say eyes closed preferable to eyes open. But listen, if you are able to be absorbed with your eyes open, it’s fine. What you’re trying to do is prompt a physiological shift. Whatever works for you, God bless.
Okay, very nice. Very nice. Well, Tony, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to highlight before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?
I want to reconnect you to what I started with, which was to talk about the idea that The Energy Project’s work is about the invisible human factors that are standing in the way of great performance. I have walked you through now some description of the factors related to energy: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. But those are not the only factors that stand in the way of great performance.
One of the big insights for us was that the same understanding we came to about this simple concept of energy expenditure by itself is not the ideal way to get things done, but rather
Energy expenditure balanced with energy renewal is a much more effective and efficient way to get work done.
Likewise, no quality, no strength by itself is a virtue. Honesty, as appealing and impressive as it is as a virtue, when it gets overused becomes cruelty. Balancing opposite to ensure that honesty doesn’t become cruelty is compassion.
A person who wants to operate with the greatest amount of flexibility and effectiveness is someone who can move gracefully between honesty and compassion just as they can move between energy expenditure and energy renewal or between confidence and humility or between courage and prudence.
A lot of our work now is focusing on helping people to recognize the ways in which they choose up sides on behalf of one quality at the relative expense of the other and that expense to their own full humanity and maximum effectiveness.
There’s a very close tie between what we understood in our energy work and what we now understand in what we would think of as our human or adult development work.
I like that. It feels very Aristotelian if that’s the word.
It is Aristotelian. There is an Aristotelian notion that we have adapted.
There’s nothing new under the sun, as you know. I think our contribution in the world is not so much that we’re offering wholly original ideas because almost no one is, but rather that we’re creating a language and a framework in which people can make use of what in some cases are ideas that have been around for thousands of years.
Awesome. Well now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Yeah, I’m going to give you a shortened version of my favorite quote, which comes from the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, no longer with us but a wonderful thinker. There’s some Zen practitioners who’ve created various versions of this I think, which is “We have to accept ourselves exactly as we are and never stop trying to grow and change.”
That captures that paradox that I think is so important, which is that there is no single answer. There are no absolutes at this stage in our complex world. The notion that you can accept yourself exactly as you are, frees you to invest your energy in becoming better. But neither by itself is sufficient.
Thank you. How about a favorite tool?
Well, I have to say that my PowerBook is my favorite tool still to this day even more so than some of the other modern technologies because I’m a writer.
I’m a writer who actually has a notebook that I have probably several hundred of them that I keep my ongoing reflections in by hand. I still value a pen as a tool as well. But I write my books and I write my articles on a PowerBook. I’ve always used a Mac and I don’t want to advertise for Apple, but that I would say is the most important tool in my life, the most important technology tool.
Is there a particular nugget that you share-
By the way, one other.
An old-fashioned juice press because I’m a margarita lover and part of the key to great margaritas is fresh lime so that’s a very important tool in my life too.
It sounds critical.
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Info@TheEnergyProject.com. Of course, if you just want to read more about what we do it is TheEnergyProject.com. My blogs are plentifully on our website. The book that I would recommend to people until my new one comes out next year is called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. That’s the one I’d send people in the direction of.
Perfect. Do you have a final challenge or call to action that you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Beautiful. Well, Tony, this has been so much fun at long last to meet the man behind one of my favorite books. Thank you and keep doing all the great work that you’re doing.
All right, thanks very much.