Energy is the New Time

Today, especially in highly competitive environments, there is often a cultural expectation that we should be available all of the time, either physically or through e-mail and voice mail. Most executives I speak with report that they take their BlackBerry and computer with them on vacation and check in regularly. We seem to believe that working or being available 24/7 makes us more productive.

This belief may be the single biggest drain on productivity in the world of business. Yes, you read it right: drain. It’s as if we assume that we can run an endless business marathon that has no finish line and expect that our performance will not suffer. We understand clearly that we cannot run our bodies without fuel, rest and a disciplined process for increasing capacity (exercise). Why then do we fall into the trap that our hearts and minds will function any differently?

In “The Power of Full Engagement,” authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz make the argument very clearly. Their framework applies the same principles of energy management that we understand about the body to mental, emotional and spiritual domains. Their research makes it clear that rest, vacation, recreation and spiritual refreshment are vital to performance.

It seems odd to argue that we will perform better if we take time off. But in truth, we cannot sustain treating business like an endless marathon. Competitive conditions will not allow most businesses to operate at the pace even of a jog, much less a power walk. That leaves looking at business as series of shorter sprints. Any sprinter will tell you that it is not possible to perform at peak levels if you are tired, distracted or worried in the starting blocks.

Consider the case of Karen G. When Karen joined a high-technology firm as a product management executive, she was impressed with their focus on going public and driving to a billion dollars in revenue. “What I found in my department was a group of people who were tired, cranky and depressed. These were not people ready to grow a company.” It seemed that the culture in the new company called for a minimum 12-hour day. “But it was more than physical exhaustion,” Karen said. “These people were operating in autopilot. There was no imagination in the place, and problems that had been in the way of real growth had simply become embedded.”

The company COO was old-school. He was fond a saying, “We do whatever it takes here.” But Karen had different ideas about what success would require. She instituted a set of rolling vacation days and insisted that reasonable work hours be kept. She arrived at 8 a.m., left at 6 p.m. most days and rarely checked e-mail from home. Karen also reordered priorities in her department, insisting that solving process challenges that had plagued the department for years took priority over individual product development projects.

The pressure to change her ways showed up pretty quickly in the form of missed deadlines in product development. Eventually, she made it an ultimatum with the CEO. That bought her six months, which gave the changed atmosphere time to take root. Her department’s attitude toward the company began to shift when workers saw that Karen was not fired for her courage.

At the end of six months, the unit was capable of making core product changes in 30 percent less time than before and was able to add new product line engineering with 15 percent less staffing load. “It is not that we never work late. My team and I are happy to put in the extra hours when it is crunch time — or when it helps us solve a tough issue. But you cannot run a marathon with your shoes untied.”

Karen should know. In her off time she runs marathons.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, July 31, 2006.