Be sure to renew your energy banks to keep creativity flowing

How is 2008 going? Are you fit and ready for anything, or have you just noticed that:

  • Your clothes haven’t shrunk: you are a lard bucket.
  • Your alcohol-free lifestyle has fallen apart by Wednesday.
  • Those cheeky ‘social’ cigarettes are a daily occurrence.
  • Credit cards truly are the spawn of Satan.
  • Your boss is a moron and you hate your job.

Worry not. Even if all of these apply, I have the answer. I’d had a year of excessive hours, challenges, travelling and daily juggling of life/work/the universe stuff (all to be expected with a new job in a new agency). I crawled towards the year end with my sense of humour absent, my usual potty mouth worse than ever, and my only consolation was that my colleagues looked as rough as me.

During a zen-like break in Vietnam, I considered how much productive time we squander through our bad habits at work and at home, particularly when we are under pressure.

Inspiration

A brave soul who clearly noticed how rubbish I had become at balance in so many areas left a book on my desk. It’s called On Form, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. I groaned as I read “an application of the athletic metaphor to high-performing people and organisations”. My idea of athletics is a dash round Harvey Nics in very high heels. However, dear reader, by chapter one, I was hooked.

I can’t get on with the patronising approaches to work-life balance we are often subjected to. They ignore the passion we feel for our work, and instead cajole us to do fewer hours, avoid stress and manage our time better. As if we hadn’t figured that out.

What this approach offers is a focus on energy. There is recognition that for full engagement in work and life we must be physically energised, emotionally connected, mentally focused and spiritually aligned. I was a bit worried about the last one as I don’t have time to hug trees on a daily basis, but luckily, that was not required.

The assertion is that we have much more control over our energy than we realise. In our organisations, the ideal is to have our people wake up feeling eager to get to work, equally happy to go home in the evenings, and capable of setting clear boundaries between the two.

A Gallup survey identified 55% of workers as “not engaged”, and 19% as “actively disengaged”, which means that those feelings get shared, with colleagues and often customers. And we all know the cost of disengaged workforces runs into billions.

The mistake we make is to operate as if we are running marathons, endlessly expending energy until we flatline. A more productive option is a series of sprints – fully engaging for periods of time, and then fully disengaging and seeking renewal before jumping back into the race to face our challenges.

Stress

Stress is not the enemy in our lives – paradoxically, it is the key to growth and optimum performance, but only if we build in recovery rather than push on and on. As Nietzsche said: “What does not kill us makes us stronger”.

So what does ‘recovery’ look like? More balanced peers have routines they stick to that give them space to ‘be’ rather than to ‘do’. These might include:

  • Meticulous schedule management to reduce distractions.
  • Booking weekends away every six weeks rather than twice-a-year holidays.
  • Taking regular time out to talk to people in the office.
  • Banning attention to e-mails other than for two tightly defined periods of the day.

It is clear to all of us that we need to be sensible about factors such as food, smoking, alcohol and exercise. There are no easy ways to find balance.

But recognition that we might be addicted to stress through the seductive rush of adrenaline and cortisol is a starting point.

The other powerful learning point for me was that time taken to think where there is nothing else to disturb the flow is not being lazy and should not induce guilt, but should instead be seen as an opportunity to renew the energy that has been expended. Most of our best ideas develop when we are in the bath, taking a walk or listening to music.

We are too distracted in the workplace by the immediate to develop really creative ideas. So the next time you see me staring into space looking blank, I’m not wasting time I’m renewing my energy banks.

Angela O’Connor, chief people officer, National Policing Improvement Agency

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