The laptop screen flickers on, as it does early every morning. While it warms up, a quick scan of the mobile phone shows three incoming texts. Two are quickly dispensed with, one needs further work. Email opens on the laptop, reshaping the day ahead. A few things from earlier in the week blew up or fell through and need attention. A glance at the calendar shows three hours of back-to-back online meetings starting in 30 minutes. Good thing the kids are in school today. One meeting runs over into the next, as pop-up notifications bring more news and needs. Over a quickly grabbed lunch, eyes scan the newly arriving messages, spying a Slack channel conversation with teammates that was awaiting an answer two hours ago. Answer the team, go back to the morning text that needed further work, respond to the newly arriving messages; the day is disappearing—does this stream never end? Join a Zoom webinar that once seemed important, but now is vying for precious time, yet keep it open in one window while half-tending to a work project that’s due tomorrow in another. Light faded, the laptop is finally powered down, seemingly as exhausted as the person behind it. Tomorrow, repeat.
If more than a few parts of this sound familiar, read on, for you’re about to be reminded that there is a better way and you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to live into it. Even if we’re fortunate enough to be spared the life-and-death struggles of Covid-19, the relentless pinging, non-stop screen-time and insidious sameness of days like the above are bad for your well-being and bad for your leadership. They dull our senses and drain our energy. The one job we cannot delegate as a leader is how we manage our energy. The confines of Covid-19 present new challenges in this regard. Much more work has moved online. Many more people are working from home. With no commute, no travel, not much need to move around or get outside, and more of our workday coming through screens, much of the rhythm and variety in our day is gone. We need to be intentional about adding it back in if we want to live and lead at full charge.
We can look to the nervous system for clues as to why relentless stimulation and sameness dull and drain us. Just as a nerve cell, repeatedly stimulated, habituates to the signal and responds less over time, so do we lose our sensitivity to repeated stimulation. Just as our nervous system pays little attention to what’s expected, saving its juice for what’s unexpected, so do we start paying less attention to days that feel very much like the day before. Our neural pathways get reinforced through oft-repeated behaviors making them more likely to be enacted again. As we keep up with an endless stream of messages, we’re reinforcing a reactive, piecemeal mindset, which is a very different mindset from, say, thinking outside the box or taking better care of people. Add to this, when our nervous system hasn’t quite come to closure on one thing before moving onto the next, like an unresolved chord or unsolved puzzle, a little loop keeps churning to resolve it, siphoning off energy and dispersing our attention. All of these contribute to incoherence in our resonance, making us less sensitive, less impactful and less resilient.
So, how can we reverse these effects and return vitality to our day and leadership? Follow these three principles and you’ll be on the right track:
Put rhythm into your day and week: Break up the day with a rhythm that shifts distinctly from focus to relaxation, from challenge to renewal. In their book on managing energy, The Power of Full Engagement, Loehr and Schwartz emphasize the importance of mini breaks every 90 minutes and a longer break for exercise at least once per day. Stretch and recharge. Just like a heart beating or a piston moving up and down, energy develops in the contrast between two states.
Likewise put rhythm into your week so every day doesn’t feel the same. Beyond the distinction between weekend and weekdays, create distinct shifts, for example, between people and tasks, indoors and outdoors, work and play, attending to details and thinking big picture. If you throw all those together without contrast, they become like a grayed-out, indistinct picture, which is pretty much how the nervous system registers them. Instead, it’s better to dial up the contrast to keep the nervous system sharp and fresh. For example:
- Do some work standing up, some sitting down; you might shift where you work when you shift what you’re working on.
- Take breaks every 90 minutes; breathing exercises, shaking out hands and feet, getting your body moving. Give your day breathing room—time to play!
- Block off times of the day for different kinds of work, for people, for planning or reflection, for creative work, and for messaging. Don’t let instant notifications interrupt everything.
- Get a feel for the rhythm of the day; if it were a piece of music, what would be its beat? See if you can sense and pace yourself to this rhythm for a more resonant, resilient way of working.
Focus and Finish: Do exactly one thing at a time and bring it to some closure before going onto the next. Truthfully, we’re always doing one thing at a time, but we have the illusion of being able to multi-task. What we’re really doing is time-slicing a stream of consciousness into multiple directions, resulting in eddies of unresolve, lost energy due to rapid back-and-forth transitions, less sensitivity and less impact. Here are some focus and finish tips:
- Schedule nominally 1-hour meetings for 45-50 minutes, allowing for a break before another meeting starts. Avoid meetings running together whenever possible.
- Sort incoming messages into 3 categories: no response needed, touch once and touch twice. Be discerning about what needs no response. Dispense with touch-once messages as soon as you read them and don’t read them when you have no time to act. When you read a message and you’re not ready to respond, make it a touch-twice message, and keep this category as small as possible. Make note of what you need to do to finish off a touch-twice message (so you don’t need to burn mental cycles trying to remember) and come back to it when you’re ready.
- When you feel your focus fading, take a break.
Use Breath, Body, and Nature to Recharge: Just as a laptop recharges its batteries by plugging into a larger grid, so we can recharge ourselves by using our breath and body to plug into the energy around us. We take in more energy as our body relaxes and our senses open, so optimal activities are those that promote relaxation and awareness at the same time, which is a characteristic of Zen and other forms of meditation, energy cultivation techniques, yoga, or doing something outdoors that you love to do. Here are some ways to use breath body and nature to recharge:
- Insert recharging breaks into every day and create a recharging rhythm during the week. Do something each week to delight the senses—wake them up! Get outside for a break, ideally in nature. Open your senses and listen.
- Breathe deeply in and out using muscles in the lower abdomen (hara) to slow down the breath. Especially lengthen the exhale or let out long sighs of relief.
- During your breaks, feel in the body where tension has accumulated. Are your shoulders tight? Is your neck stiff? Is your brow furrowed? Shake out, stretch out and/or gently massage out tight spots. If you’ve put in a lot of screen time, cool water on the eyes, or gently massaging them helps relieve eye tension.
Managing your own energy well is good not only for your own performance and well-being, but also for those who look to you for leadership. When your energy is clear, strong and coherent, so is the field you emanate, so is the effect you have on others, and so is the difference you make in the world. Work through your own pandemic fatigue and you’ll be lighting the way for others.
*originally appreared on Forbes.com, February 20, 2021