"We live in a gray zone, constantly juggling activities but rarely fully engaging in any of them….The consequence is that we settle for a pale version of the possible."
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Without even citing the litany of studies and piles of data that prove it, I think we can all agree that today’s workplaces and work culture don’t set anyone up to thrive and be at their best. How many people do you know (including yourself) who “never get anything done” at the office, who are on their handheld device 24/7, who live in fear of “missing something” and who constantly feel run down, tired, stressed and lacking any kind of energy (creative, intellectual, emotional, physical)? But if we all agree that something – everything – needs to change, how can that change happen?
A basic principle of leadership is, in my view, the idea that “leadership of self” must come before “leadership of others” is possible. And that ”culture” is everyone, not just the person at the top (although their influence is critical). So what if there was a system, a collection of ideas, a “how-to” that could guide individuals towards healthier, more sustainable high performance behaviours and that could be extended into the organizations in which they work and lead, such that those same transformations occur broadly?
Enter Tony Schwartz.
I first encountered Tony’s work through The Power of Full Engagement, where he and co-author Jim Loehr transform Einstein’s energy equation into a formula for professional and personal sustainability by showing us how to convert energy into productive activity. Mr. Schwartz has continued to do research into sustainable high performance and offers Be Excellent at Anything as his road map for individuals and organizations seeking true competitive advantage.
Mr. Schwartz and his team have studied a variety of arenas including the arts, business, health care and law enforcement across many different cultures in numerous countries. Be Excellent at Anything posits that there are four keys to transforming the way we work and live that emerge consistently across all of those arenas and cultures – four energy needs that must be met in order for high performance to be possible – and outlines a detailed process for understanding and addressing those needs, both for individuals and for organizations.
The Big Idea
Find the Pulse and Ride the Wave
"The higher the demand, the greater and more frequent the need for renewal."
If you connect with one concept in the book, if you adopt just one new practice in hopes of impacting your ability to perform, the idea of “sprints” and “waves” of work and renewal is the biggie. Rooted in the understanding that our physiology operates on rhythms and pulses, the idea is that our bodies AND our minds are designed not for the marathons we tend to attempt every day, but rather for a regular “pulsing” between expenditure and renewal of energy. Based on meeting the need for physical energy (“sustainability”), Schwartz and his team have identified 90 minutes as the optimum amount of time we should work before taking a renewal break. Specific recommendations include mid-afternoon naps (!), exercising in the middle of a workday (rather than early morning or end of day), frequent healthy snacks to stabilize blood sugar, going to bed early to ensure sufficient (7 – 8 hours) sleep and taking regular vacations. Worthy of note is the idea that the key to effective renewal is not how long we do it but how well we do it – like anything else, we get better at it if we practice systematically. I personally am very much in favour of practicing sleep and vacationing until I’m really good at both.
For leaders, the adoption of the “pulse” idea organizationally includes potentially huge culture shifts such as no longer evaluating contribution based on time spent, scheduling shorter meetings, creating space for lunch and mid-day breaks, and actually encouraging people to go on vacation (without staying connected to the office, because if they’re still on email they’re not on vacation).
"…the feeling of being personally criticized… appears to take the greatest toll on our bodies and on our ability to think clearly."
Based on research into the human response to negativity, disrespect and exclusion, Schwartz and his team identified the second need – emotional energy, or “security” – and the suggested practices for both individuals and organizations that can help ensure that need gets met. Awareness is the first step – noticing the triggers that cause physical responses to negativity such as rapid heartbeat, queasiness or muscular tightness. From there he suggests analyzing the difference between the facts of a situation and the “story” we tell ourselves about it, in order to discover what’s real about the threat and what we’ve fabricated. Extrapolate those practices into organizations and consider the impact of criticism, crisis thinking, territory battles and gossip on productivity and performance.
Schwartz encourages direct and timely handling of difficult situations so the effect of stress is minimized – a practice rarely well-developed in organization, in my experience. Beyond that, Schwartz cites the practice of appreciation as being one of the key behaviour changes he encourages when working with executives. Connecting with our own sense of gratitude has inward benefits, and communicating that gratitude benefits others, making the practice incredibly powerful. What if you were to adopt the practice of making a gratitude list at the end of every day? Or sending a thank you note at least once a week? Schwartz suggests that these small, simple practices can be transformative.
Use Your Whole Brain
"…no factor influences productivity more directly than people’s capacity for absorbed attention."
How often is your automatic response “busy” when you’re asked how you’re doing? If we’re constantly reacting to urgencies and stimuli, what are the chances we’re bringing our best intellectual and creative capabilities to bear? The third need that we have to meet in order to be fully energized, according to Schwartz, is the need for mental energy – “self-expression”. The route to getting that need met involves turning off email for focus periods, understanding and creating circumstances where we can work in “flow,” getting clear on priorities and cultivating higher quality attention. Developing a reflective or meditative practice can be part of increasing your ability to focus, as can working on your listening skills and doing creative exercises to work the less-used right side of your brain.
The fourth energy need is the hardest to meet, particularly in business. Spiritual energy, or “significance” requires paying mindful attention to your values and working in alignment with those values as much as possible. Being part of a community helps, as does the knowledge that you’re working on something beyond your own self-interest. At minimum, committing to doing the “right” thing rather than the “expedient” or “easy” thing can support getting this critical and tough to meet need handled.
It would have been easy to write this summary with a dozen or more “Insights” – there are that many big ideas and actionable recommendations in the book. That said, so much of what Schwartz outlines seems so obvious and so necessary, it seems illogical that so many find it so difficult to live and work the way he suggests. So what really is in the way? And how risky would it be to change some of our habits towards those that have been deeply researched and proven to just make more sense for anyone who wants to live and work at their peak?