The next step is to identify rituals for building and renewing physical energy. When Gary Faro, a vice-president at Wachovia, began the programme, he was significantly overweight, ate poorly, lacked a regular exercise routine, worked long hours, and typically slept no more than five or six hours a night. That is not an unusual profile among the leaders and managers we see.

Over the course of the programme, Faro began regular cardiovascular and strength training. He started going to bed at a designated time and sleeping longer. He changed his eating habits from two big meals to smaller meals and light snacks every three hours.

The aim was to help him stabilise his glucose levels over the course of the day, avoiding peaks and valleys. He lost 50 pounds in the process, and his energy levels soared. “I used to schedule tough projects for the morning, when I knew that I would be more focused,” Faro says. “I don’t have to do that anymore because I find that I’m just as focused now at 5 p.m. as I am at 8 a.m.”

Need for breaks

Intermittent breaks for renewal, we have found, result in higher and more sustainable performance. The length of renewal is less important than the quality. It is possible to get a great deal of recovery in a short time as little as several minutes if it involves a ritual that allows you to disengage from work and truly change channels.

That could range from getting up to talk to a colleague about something other than work, to listening to music on an iPod, to walking up and down stairs in an office building. While breaks are countercultural in most organisations and counterintuitive for many high achievers, their value is multifaceted.

The emotions: Quality of energy

When people are able to take more control of their emotions, they can improve the quality of their energy, regardless of the external pressures they are facing. To do this, they first must become more aware of how they feel at various points during the workday and of the impact these emotions have on their effectiveness.

Most people realise that they tend to perform best when they are feeling positive energy. What they find surprising is that they are not able to perform well or to lead effectively when they are feeling any other way.

Unfortunately, without intermittent recovery, we are not physiologically capable of sustaining highly positive emotions for long periods. Confronted with relentless demands and unexpected challenges, people tend to slip into negative emotions—the fight-or-flight mode—often multiple times in a day.

They become irritable and impatient, or anxious and insecure. Such states of mind drain people’s energy and cause friction in their relationships. Fight-or-flight emotions also make it impossible to think clearly, logically and reflectively. When executives learn to recognise what kinds of events trigger their negative emotions, they gain greater capacity to take control of their reactions.

One simple but powerful ritual for defusing negative emotions is what we call “buying time.” Deep abdominal breathing is one way to do that. Exhaling slowly for five or six seconds induces relaxation and recovery, and turns off the fight-or-flight response.

People can cultivate positive emotions by learning to change the stories they tell themselves about the events in their lives. Often, people in conflict cast themselves in the role of victim, blaming others or external circumstances for their problems.

Becoming aware of the difference between the facts in a given situation and the way we interpret those facts can be powerful in itself. It’s been a revelation for many of the people we work with to discover they have a choice about how to view a given event and to recognise how powerfully the story they tell influences the emotions they feel. We teach them to tell the most hopeful and personally empowering story possible in any given situation, without denying or minimising the facts.

People can cultivate positive energy by learning to change the stories they tell themselves about the events in their lives. We teach them to tell the most hopeful stories possible.

Read also: Manage your energy, not your time (I)

The mind: Focus of energy

Many executives view multitasking as a necessity in the face of all the demands they juggle, but it actually undermines productivity. Distractions are costly: a temporary shift in attention from one task to another stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance, increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25 per cent, a phenomenon known as “switching time.”

It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity. We refer to these work periods as “ultradian sprints.”

Once people see how much they struggle to concentrate, they can create rituals to reduce the relentless interruptions that technology has introduced in their lives.

We start out with an exercise that forces them to face the impact of daily distractions. They attempt to complete a complex task and are regularly interrupted, an experience that, people report, ends up feeling much like everyday life.

Source: HBR