Working Harder Doesn’t Get You Ahead

By Tony Schwartz

Late last week, I had several different challenging projects on my plate, each with fast-approaching deadlines. Feeling the pressure, I awoke earlier than usual in the morning and got to my desk by 7:00 am.

Four hours later, I was still sitting there, barely having budged from my chair. To my surprise and frustration, I still hadn’t finished my project.

At first, I attributed my failure to the difficulty of the task. But the more I thought about it, the less that made sense.

A Faulty Instinct to Work Harder

Suddenly, it dawned on me. Anxious about all the demands on my plate, I’d defaulted into a way of working that doesn’t work.

I hunkered down, powered through, stayed the course. Along the way, something insidious, inevitable, and mostly unconscious happened.

I started reading emails, and responding to them.  I remembered little things from my to-do list, and decided they were actually quite urgent. I made some phone calls. I rewrote my to-do list. Feel familiar?

This isn’t the sort of thing that should happen to me.  I run a company called The Energy Project, and we’re in the business of energizing individuals and organizations to be more productive and higher performing by learning to balance work with strategic periods of renewal.

Alas, I’m also human. I violated the very lessons we teach.

Professionals live today in a world of relentless demand. To meet their obligations, their default instinct – including mine, if the pressure gets high enough – is simply to push harder.

The problem is human beings aren’t meant to operate the way computers do: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. To the contrary, people perform best when they pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy – not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.

Unfortunately, rest and renewal get no respect in the organizational world. Most managers view the need for downtime as weakness.  The problem is that when their employees work without pause, they very quickly get decreasing incremental returns on each hour invested.

Just as I did, you stop thinking as clearly, creatively, and strategically, and you take more time to get less accomplished.

Though you may not realize it, you’re physiologically designed to operate in cycles of approximately 90 minutes, during which you move from higher to lower alertness.  These phases are called “ultradian rhythms.”

Don’t Ignore Your Body’s Signals

When you need a break, your body sends you clear signals, including fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. But if you’re like most people, you override them. Instead, you find artificial ways to pump up your energy: caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and your body’s own stress hormones – adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol.

Relying on these hormones for energy prompts the state we all know as “fight or flight.” It’s great for escaping danger, and terrible for performance. In fight or flight, people become less capable of thinking clearly and reflectively, more emotionally volatile, and  burn down their energy at a rapid rate.

The Value of Working in Spurts

The counterintuitive secret to great, sustainable performance is to live like a sprinter. In practice, that means working with the high intensity, uninterrupted, for periods no longer than 90 minutes, and then taking a break to renew and refuel.

For the first several books I wrote, I typically sat at my desk for 10 or even 12 hours at a time. There was no way to stay fully engaged the whole time, so I found ways to distract myself along the way. Each of the books took me at least a year to write.

For my most recent book, I wrote without interruption for three 90-minute periods in the morning, and then took a break in between each one. I wrote no more than 4 ½ hours a day, and I finished the book in less than six months.

Obviously, it’s not possible for most people in most companies to work in a series of uninterrupted sprints the way I did.  Let me challenge you instead to try a smaller experiment.

For the next week, take on your most challenging task first thing in the morning, for 60 to 90 minutes, uninterrupted.  Then take a break. You’ll get an amazing amount done – and feel better the rest of the day.

Tony Schwartz is president and CEO of The Energy Project, and author, most recently, of Be Excellent At Anything. You can follow him on Twitter at @TonySchwartz and @energy_project.

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image courtesy of flickr user, krispdk

Work like a sprinter. Don’t just sit there hour after hour. This is welcome advise/

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An association must be in the business of providing “just-in-time knowledge” to its members, Carroll says. He defines it as “the right knowledge at the right time for the right purpose for the right strategy, all revolving around the fact that the knowledge is instant, fast and transitory.” –I agree!

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Okay, I get it. I’m jumping in the pool…now!

The perfect quote

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you run across a quote that succinctly states a concept you’ve been mulling over. Here’s mine for today:

Life is happening faster, big shifts are inevitable and change is guaranteed. We believe the Future is demanding more of us than ever: more quality, innovation, well-being, transparency. For less: time, energy, money. As stressful as that combo sounds, it also means the only way to make it across this growing gulf is to look for completely new opportunities. Folks, it’s time for us to take a leap. Create with passion. And simply play bigger than we ever have before!  by Nancy Giordano, Purple Telescope

The Consumer Electronics Show – Insights for SLA

For my first official business trip as the new president of SLA, even before the mid-January board meetings and SLA Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., I flew to Las Vegas and walked the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show. For two days I explored the Show with Bay Area senior member Cindy Hill. We were immersed in new handheld technology, new reading tablets, and new cell phones. A tremendous amount of energy is going into the simple task of getting more, and better, information into the hands of consumers at warp speed.

Trends
There were nearly 2700 exhibitors and I was blown away by the shear volume of new tech toys and applications on display from the hundreds of companies vying to be The Next Big Thing. But frankly, the energy and enthusiasm of the show was even more fascinating to me; there was no shortage of optimism about the future on that floor. Here are few distilled thoughts, stats, and trends from CES:

Stats:

  • 80 new tablet devices were announced, including the new Motorola Xoom
  • 20,00 new consumer electronic products were released
  • 140,000 people attended the show

3D: 3D graphics are being showcased in gaming, sports, and art. The entertainment industry is leading in this space again, but expect to see high-end graphics soon in medical, educational, and other technical applications.

Convergence: Data, because it exists in the cloud, is more and more platform agnostic. Form factors—that is, your data device, whether it is a cell phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, car console, or smart TV—are converging in their functionality.

Social: Consumers are saying ‘I want to share my life as it happens’ and products, telecommunication capacity and  apps are making that possible. Social networking was integrated into games, such as X-Box Kinect, smart TV’s and apps. Copia.com is an interesting app for book club.

Capacity: Capacity is increasing as cell networks transition from 3G to 4G, and there is an increase in computer processing speed as well. Expanding capacity enables complex problem solving, immersive entertainment, and new experiences.

Design: Data devices, or form factors, were very elegant and restrained. It seemed that there was an effort not to overwhelm the consumer with technical options, but to simplify and curate.

Implications

The CES is the leading tradeshow for an $186B industry that is driving economic growth and is an enabler for the new knowledge economy. Consumer electronics are an underpinning of the information industry, regardless of which corner of it you occupy. An interesting factoid is that now 80% of electronics are purchased by consumers, not businesses. It was not long ago that businesses were driving the purchases of electronic goods.

With all these new products and optimistic marketing, our clients—that is people using and consuming information resources—will  even more demanding of content delivered on the form factor that is just right for them. They’ll want information that is curated, edited, and analyzed to fit their needs. And information  that is customized to their locale and time zone.

The consumer electronics industry is moving very, very fast—and will eat our lunch if we are not moving at least at its pace of change. To keep up, we need to adopt a strategy of being flexible, adaptable, and resilient. In short, we need to be Future Ready!

Enchantment

As enchanting as it was to handle all those gadgets, one of the highlight of my visit to CES was listening to, and later engaging in discussion with Guy Kawasaki. Author of The Macintosh Way and Selling the Dream, Kawasaki is the former Apple “wunderkind” who encourages his readers rise above the usual marketing clutter to find emotional levels of attachment to products. He encourages marketers to morph into “evangelists” who create movements, not just spreadsheets. He epitomizes one of the ideas behind my push to make members more Future Ready – he wants us all to Think Big.  

In his book, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy, Kawasaki tossed SLA members a great compliment when he told his readers to “suck up to a research librarian.” I liked the way he put us on a pedestal, because it reminded me that ours is an honorable profession, and we add value. Someone obviously impressed Guy Kawasaki at one time.

After his talk, he and I chatted for a few minutes about his new book Enchantment: The Art of Changing Minds, Hears and Actions. I asked him to consider posting for the Future Ready 365 blog. He seemed delighted to be asked and his thoughts will be posted here, tomorrow, February 22!

Are you feeling future ready yet!?