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Sustainable You

Time for a personal energy audit

human fuel tank

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California opened for business again last month. If we’re vaccinated, state leaders told us, it’s safe to re-engage with the world — to dine in restaurants, return to the office, do all the things we’ve been missing since March 2020.

My spirit was delighted that the pandemic seemed to be subsiding. But my body, somehow, didn’t receive the message. Dread feels lodged in my physiology.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we were taught to fear other humans. We absorbed the warnings that proximity carried mortal risk — to ourselves and our loved ones.

Now, although I’m vaccinated, I notice subtle contractions in my body when I’m near others. As I hug family and friends for the first time in months, arrange in-person meetings with people I’ve known only through Zoom, or shop for groceries beside maskless strangers, my chest and stomach tighten. My breathing grows shallower. My shoulders lift. I feel wiped out quickly.

Learning how to be together once again is exhausting.

The recent surge of the Delta variant has made it even worse — interactions more stressful, social norms even less clear.

Leaders in businesses and nonprofits tell me they are similarly vexed: They’re eager to engage with the world again but surprised at how tired they are. They want to do good work, but they’re unsure how to bring their colleagues together properly.

Learning how to be together once again is exhausting.

So perhaps now, as we seem to be emerging from the collective trauma of the pandemic, is a perfect time to examine how we manage our personal energy.

Our packed calendars often fool us into believing that time is our most valuable resource — that controlling our minutes and hours leads to success.

In fact, it’s how we manage our energy that matters most. The energy that fuels our minds, our bodies and our spirits.

Tony Schwartz is best known for ghostwriting “The Art of the Deal” with Donald Trump (a collaboration Schwartz says he regrets). But one of his lesser-known books, written with performance psychologist Jim Loehr, contains beautiful lessons to guide us out of these long days of sheltering in place.

In “The Power of Full Engagement,” Loehr and Schwartz argue that performance — whether in business or athletics, creative pursuits or family life — is grounded in the skillful management of energy.

Loehr and Schwartz debunk the popular notion that life is a marathon. It’s not. Life is a series of sprints. Our bodies are designed to work hard, on one thing, for 90 to 120 minutes. Then we need to disengage, the authors say, and replenish four key types of personal energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

Oscillating between hard work and rest, not just when we sleep but throughout the day, allows us to keep performing well. We are all subject to the same natural rhythms as the tides, the moon phases, the meridian transit of the sun, the birth and death of all things.

We pretend that this isn’t true — that, somehow, we are separate from nature.

We feel deep in our bones that we need a break but don’t take it.

We know we should focus but keep saying yes to new things.

We invest in activities and relationships that drain us.

We allow our energy to be sapped by other people’s priorities, demands and dramas.

We neglect rejuvenating practices like sleep, nutrition, exercise and leisure.

We assign our suffering colleagues even more work in service of constant growth.

I know, the ability to push ourselves hard to achieve something great is an essential part of being human. And the glaring urgency of the climate emergency, among other crises, can drive us to sacrifice ourselves.

Stewards of organizational energy

But staying in action mode all the time robs us of creativity, patience and stamina. To solve the world’s challenges, we need to be at our best, not harried and exhausted.

Sustainability professionals are obsessed with energy efficiency, when it comes to buildings and equipment. Reciting the mantra, “The cleanest energy is the energy you never use,” my former Apple colleagues would remove every kilowatt of electrical load from their facilities they could find.

Yet why aren’t we so rigorous about preserving our own, human energy? Why don’t we do energy audits on our own lives so we can prioritize tasks and relationships that fill us up rather than drain us?

Loehr and Schwartz argue that the best leaders manage energy expertly — not just their own, but that of their organizations.

“Great leaders are stewards of organizational energy,” they write. “They begin by effectively managing their own energy. As leaders, they must mobilize, focus, invest, channel, renew and expand the energy of others.”

Leaders are stewards of energy! I love this idea: As leaders, we must strive to be at our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual best — and actively create the conditions for our colleagues to do the same.

To replenish ourselves, we might rely on regular meditation, exercise, walks in nature, deep conversations, listening to music — any form of active or passive rest that fills our reservoirs. For me these days, it’s swimming, reading and taking a morning walk to a small stand of redwoods in my neighborhood. Sitting beside them reminds me of my inner stillness.

Replenishing organizational energy, of course, is more complex. It requires deep attunement and adaptability: inviting vulnerable sharing of challenges and struggles, paying close attention to what is needed, and modulating workplace demands to reflect the cycles of the organization’s collective energy.

I picture organizational leaders as orchestral conductors: noticing how the music is affecting themselves, even as they listen deeply to each musicians’ performance and provide instruction (strings come forward, brass drop back) that brings the ensemble into balanced harmony.

So, as we emerge from this pandemic together and work on behalf of the natural world, I encourage you to pay attention to your energy. Actively find ways to replenish it and eliminate or reduce things that drain it. Honor your body’s natural rhythms.

On the wall of my home office, I keep a framed drawing. I bought it in an art shop and don’t know its origins, but it appears to be a page from an old textbook or almanac. In white ovals and letters on a black background, it shows the interplay between the moon and the tides, the balance between full and new moon, between high and low tide.

I keep it there to remind me that nature relies on cycles. Sometimes the tide comes in, sometimes the tide goes out. Rather than fight the cycles of our own energy, we can embrace them and come out of the pandemic refreshed and ready to continue this work to protect our natural world.

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