Enhance Your Energy

Finding Balance

Americans are working longer hours than they were 30 years ago. Americans are also sleeping less. The average length of time spent sleeping has dropped from roughly nine hours a night in 1910 to about seven and a half hours today. During the 1990s, people added an average of 36 hours, or nearly a full week, to their work year. 27% of Americans report being overwhelmed by work load (Families and Work Institute). Overwork isn’t limited to the time spent working and commuting. There is also the “second shift” of domestic responsibilities. 70% of children reside in households where all adults are in the labor force, which means these parents will be juggling work and family (WorkLifeLaw). Small wonder that an APA Stress in America Survey found that over one half of American workers report fatigue, irritability, sleeplessness and headaches. What can we do? We can develop positive coping strategies to manage life’s demands, and garner greater resilience and well-being over the long term.

Understanding Energy

Energy, according to physics, is defined as the capacity to work. The absence of energy is fatigue. In today’s 24/7 multitasking society, fatigue is conquered, avoided or denied. Yet fatigue did not always carry a negative connotation. In medieval writings, for example, fatigue is a positive sign that a person has reached his or her limit and it’s time to rest. By the mid-19th century, with the advent of industrialization, the notion of fatigue emerged as an unwelcome condition. While the word “energy” can mean various things, a general theory of energy posits that it comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: body, emotions, mind, and spirit.

What Depletes Energy?

Research reveals a host of energy drainers:  overwork, alcohol misuse, depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, insufficient nutrition, inactivity, care giving, and inadequate social support. In short, stress. Fatigue is a symptom of numerous illnesses. The most common cause of lack of energy is stress and the emotional response to it. According to Schwartz and McCarthy (Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time, Harvard Business Review) energy is renewable. Energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals or behaviors. One key is to find our motivation to be able to bring more of ourselves to our lives every day. Recognizing the costs of energy-depleting behaviors can lead to changing them, regardless of circumstances.

Renewing Personal Energy

  • Physical (Body)
    Enhance sleep by setting an earlier bedtime and reducing alcohol use; engage in cardiovascular activity at least three times a week; eat small meals every three hours; learn to notice signs of imminent energy flagging (restlessness, yawning, hunger, difficulty concentrating); take brief but regular breaks away, at 90- to 120-minute intervals throughout the day.
  • Emotional (Emotions)
    Defuse negative emotions — irritability, impatience, anxiety, insecurity — through deep abdominal breathing; fuel positive emotions by expressing appreciation to others; look at upsetting situations from different perspectives:  (1) Reverse lens: “what would the other person in this conflict say and how might s/he be right?” (2) Long lens: “how will I likely view this situation in six months?” (3) Wide lens: “how can I grow and learn from this?”
  • Mental (Mind)
    Reduce interruptions by performing high-concentration tasks away from phones and e-mail; respond to voice- and e-mails at designated times during the day; every night, identify the most important challenge for the next day and make it your first priority when you arrive at work in the morning.
  • Spiritual (Spirit)
    Identify your “sweet spot” activities — those that give you feelings of effectiveness, absorption and fulfillment and do more of these; allocate time and energy to what you consider most important in your life; live your core values.

Sweet Spot

To live and work from our “sweet spot,” Christine Carter (The Sweet Spot) recommends:

Single Task
Our brains are not computers. When we are multitasking, we are switching back and forth, we lose efficiency and consequently, our error rates increase. If we reduce distractions and allow ourselves to focus, we achieve the highest quality work with the greatest ease.

Less is More
Our society holds the collective myth that more is better. Research indicates the contrary, that less is actually more. If we find the minimum effective dose, we can satisfy our goals and accomplish more with effortless power.

We tend to view “doing nothing” as a “waste of time.” Yet, there is much creativity that occurs when we stare into space and allow our minds to wander, to daydream. If we pay attention to how we feel and notice our emotions and thoughts with curiosity and acceptance, we can tap into our creative process, allowing our creative powers to flow and generativity to blossom.

Believe You Can and You’re Halfway There

Certain life-style changes, outlined in the seven-step plan below, can go a long way toward improving mood, energy, and overall health. These changes may seem difficult when life’s demands leave you feeling overburdened and strapped for time. The irony is that if you invest some time into adopting these strategies, you will likely wind up with more energy — a return that enables you to accomplish more in your day. Research shows that the following steps lead to improved energy:

Set Goals
Consider the reasons why you want to have more energy. Motivation is an important aspect of energy. Reaching goals is enormously satisfying and the greater your sense of well-being, the higher your energy level. Jot down the things in your life that have most inspired you. Are there ways to combine the things you love with goals you can accomplish? By focusing on your priorities you can channel your energy into the activities that truly matter to you.

Be Stress Resilient
Keep stress in check:  (a) Discuss your feelings with others. Talking about your emotions — fear, anxiety and other stress-related feelings — with another person can reduce them far more effectively than suppressing them or maintaining an upbeat façade; (b) Write about your stress. Writing about stressful experiences can reduce stress-related symptoms; (c) Use relaxation techniques, including meditation, prayer, yoga, walking, listening to music, aromatherapy, and massage. Adopting the practices of progressive muscle relaxation (e.g., methodically tightening and releasing sets of muscle, beginning with your toes and progressing upward) and mindfulness meditation provide simple stress relief. Growing the inner strengths of grit, gratitude, and compassion are the keys to resilience and to lasting well-being in a changing world (Resilient, Hanson).

Lighten Your Load
Overwork, a common cause of persistent lack of energy, can include professional, family and social obligations. A good first step toward relieving overwork is to streamline your list of “must do” activities. Learn to say “no.” Set your priorities in terms of the most important tasks. Pare down those that are less important. If you work in a profession where very long days are the norm, it may not be easy. Learn efficiency techniques that let you meet your work goals without working harder or longer than necessary.

Exercise Regularly
In addition to boosting brainpower, exercise may fend off and alleviate cognitive ills, including depression, ADHD, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Cardiovascular exercise helps prevent — and may reverse — cognitive deficits by improving overall brain health, stimulating the birth and growth of new neurons and neural connections. 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week significantly improves cognitive health as well as learning and memory (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). Regular exercise is medicine:  it almost guarantees sound sleep, increases the body’s fuel-making capacity and reduces fatigue.

Get a Better Night’s Rest
Deep sleep restores energy. The World Health Organization and the National Sleep Foundation stipulate an average of eight hours of sleep per night for adults. Insufficient sleep has been found to increase the risk of premature death. Those who sleep less than six hours per night were 12% more likely to die early (Sleep Journal). There are ways to relax your mind and muscles, allowing you to slip into slumber:  (a) Get comfortable; (b) Relax; (c) Mentally scan your body; (d) Breath in and breath out; (e) Let distracting thoughts pass. Better sleep entails attending to a sleep routine, including:  avoiding late-evening digital entertainment, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, being outdoors while it is light out for 30 minutes a day, limiting caffeine, alcohol and large meals, and keeping the bedroom cool, dark and quiet (Why We Sleep, Walker). Professional consultation can help.

Eat for Energy
Healthful eating includes:  (a) Small, frequent meals because your brain, which has very few energy reserves of its own, needs a steady supply of nutrients. It doesn’t take much to feed your brain, a piece of fruit or a few nuts is adequate; (b) Avoid crash diets; (c) Use caffeine judiciously; (d) Limit alcohol; (e) Drink water. If your body is short on fluids, one of the first signs is a feeling of fatigue; (f) Watch your glycemic (foods with sugars) intake to prevent sudden shift in blood sugar level. Some research has found that probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function and lower stress and anxiety. Research shows that the gut and the brain are connected, linked through biochemical signaling between the nervous system in the digestive track, via the vagus nerve, a partnership called the gut-brain axis. The gut has been called a “second brain” because it produces many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain does, like serotonin and dopamine, which play a key role in regulating mood. Probiotics may not only support a healthier gut, but a a healthier brain, too (Harvard Medical School, Healthbeat).

Connect with Nature
Nature can have therapeutic and restorative effects on body and soul. Evolution may indeed have hard-wired us to prefer natural places. Whether gardening, hiking or walking along the beach, humans have an innate connection to the natural world and to other living things. Contact with nature can benefit our health. As John Muir reflected, “between every two pine trees is a doorway leading to a new way of life.” Spending time among the trees, (Shinrin-Yoku or Forest Bathing) ― the medicine of being in the forest ― is associated with reduced stress, increased flow of energy, and boosted immune system functioning (Your Guide to Forest Bathing, Clifford).