I’ll freely admit that, until a few years ago, when it came to my own wellbeing, I was a straight up workaholic. When my family was young I was driven by a powerful sense of responsibility to provide, a feeling that conveniently also fed my achievement orientation, one that kept me anchored to the office working insanely long hours, often missing out on many precious never-to-be-repeated moments in our daughters’ early lives.
And as I grew older, I didn’t really get any wiser, as a sense of responsibility at home was oftentimes eclipsed by a love of what I was doing at work. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; in his book ‘Drive’, author Dan Pink highlights the importance of purpose in our work as a core motivating theme of the human experience. We also know that meaningful work is an essential building block in building positive organizational culture.
Working in several tech rocket ships in my career was a massive, underestimated commitment. Exhilarating and fun, distracting and absorbing. I look back on those years with a sense of pride for what I achieved, but also torn by the nagging feeling that things at home just didn’t feel even. And still I knew that I hadn’t had enough precious time with my young family before I had to face the fact that one day they’d fly the nest.
My typical means of coping with the crazy demands of work were predictable. I’d work through lunch, I’d skip dinner invitations with friends, I’d work on a Sunday, and worst of all, I’d check email from the beach while on family vacation. Did I have no shame?. In small imperceptible steps, the daily blur of rushing in an overwhelmed, distracted manner settled over me like a cloying blanket, leaving me with a sense that I was slipping further and further behind. Time (or lack of it) was my enemy.
The routine and structures that have governed life in the American workplace have changed tremendously over the last 40 years, and today we’re working longer, harder and faster than ever before. Our parents’ weekends were about recreation, while today, ours are about recovery, and we self-medicate with a concoction of unhealthy practices. We cut back on sleep, falling victim to the belief that we can still perform when chronically under-rested, even though only 2.5% of us can actually get by on 5-6 hours sleep a night. We drink copious amounts of caffeine, all the while denying ourselves enough precious water to fuel our cells. We boastfully wear the number of unused vacation time we’ve accumulated like a badge of honor. But maybe our biggest crime, is that we allow ourselves to be drawn into an imbalance of spending less time with the ones we love, or doing the things that we really want to do with our lives, as we drown in a sea of distraction, partially paying attention to everything, scanning the horizon for the next dopamine fueled online titbit, while paying attention in an absorbed way to very little.
Don’t get me wrong – if you love what you do and are proud of where you work, that is awesome: in part it busts the myth of the illusive work/life balance, because the quest for balance can miss the point that for many of us, great and fulfilling work can’t also be part of how we think of the ‘life’ side of the equation.
Rather, my point is that this is not ‘either-or’. No, we have to take care of our whole selves; both the outer landscape of our bodies, and the inner landscape of our minds, if we’re going to maintain great performance over the long arc of our working lives. We’re living through an epidemic of poor diet, lack of exercise, chronic sleep deprivation and a gazillion distracting practices that get in the way of our ability to thrive – to feel strong, to be focused, to feel positive and fully engaged with life!.
I’ve seen a fascinating psychological phenomenon play out so many times through my career with so many great hardworking women and men, which is that their desire to have impact at work often trumps the need to also take care of themselves. The problem with this strategy is simple: if you’re running on an empty tank, then still expecting performance is a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide – you’ll eventually get overrun and drown.
And that’s because time is a really bad way of managing our whole selves. Cutting corners on vacation, skipping the softball game your kid is at so you can take a call, working your weekends while loved ones play, feels like the intuitive solve. But unless you’ve found a way to bend the laws of physics, there’s little extra any of us can squeeze out of each 24 hours. Sure, you can get better at personal organization and planning, but it’s not enough if like me, you just have too much stuff going on. It’s also bad, because it misses the point that we’re just not built to run like a computer – always on, 24×7. The damage we cause to our bodies when we push ourselves to these limits doesn’t just hurt us in the moment. Stanford sleep researchers have recently discovered that chronic lack of sleep interrupts the most basic regenerative processes that occur in every cell of our body when we sleep each night.
But the worst reason why time is a really bad solve, is that it denies us the space to live a life that encompasses all the elements needed to help us actually flourish. For we are human beings, not human doings. As positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligmanargues, the pursuit of a good life, where we can thrive is one of the greatest gifts we give to ourselves, and to society, and should be a worthy pursuit that sits alongside the drive of ambition and the desire to achieve. It is central to what he describes as ‘optimal human functioning’. So how do we get there?.
In his book ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working’, author Tony Schwartz argues that energy, if properly harnessed, provides us with a viable alternative. Because unlike time, energy can be expanded if you understand it, and invest in the renewal process needed to ensure it constantly feeds you and helps you tackle more with the limited reservoir available.
Schwartz argues that we experience energy in four different ways – each feeding a different aspect of our whole self. Physical energy is the quantity of our energy, and is the foundation on which everything is built – sleep, rest, nutrition and exercise are all essential elements of this. Emotional energy, which is the quality of our energy speaks to the health of our inner state and how we can harness the empowering feeling of being positive (not necessarily ‘happy’ because you can experience positive emotions such as hope or gratitude, without necessarily self-identifying as happy in ways others might).
The third source of energy is mental energy, which is our ability to focus. This is one of the greatest challenges the valley tech community faces, as we drown in a sea of distraction and are wedded to beliefs about mental strength that aren’t always true. Here’s a couple of them: that we can be effective through multi-tasking (when we know that the brain instead burns valuable energy switching gears rather like a shift stick car), or that our most focused or creative work comes in the small hours of a long night of study (when in fact, our cognitive function is likely at its most depleted).
The fourth source of energy is reflected in our common humanity. What I love about this one, is the paradox that in order to feel it, you have to give it away. In other words, when you do something in service of something bigger than yourself, you experience the rush of fulfillment as your spiritual batteries are zapped!. This may explain in part, the growing interest in the field of pro-social giving as a way to help leaders recharge and gain a new perspective on the communities they serve.
On this last point, my worries about the lack of evenness in my life led me to conclude that I simply wasn’t doing enough to feed my soul, to build a bank of spiritual energy. I’d worked so hard and had my head down for so long, that I just felt that I hadn’t done enough to give back. So I sought out new experiences that would help address this feeling, beginning with a field trip to Southern India with my daughter Lydia, to treat sufferers of leprosy.
It was an experience like no other: we laughed and we cried together on that journey. But most importantly, it fed our souls in unexpectedly powerful ways. Not just during those two weeks, but honestly, for several months beyond. I was stunned that this recharge of my spiritual energy banks could positively affect my stamina, judgment, connectedness and performance at work. I also realized that doing it with Lydia, was a double positive, as I also benefitted from the secondary, but equally powerful effect of precious time spent with her.
From my observations with leaders and teams in the Silicon Valley, I see a dearth of awareness and application that can help them think about performance through this simple lens. Because let me be absolutely clear – in the context of stress management and self-care techniques, all of this is a nice-to-have as far as business is concerned. Rather, this must be about applying practical, sensible techniques to manage and expand our energy, so that we can maintain high performance. I bet there isn’t a CEO in the valley that wouldn’t want to find a way to embrace this as a valuable and virtuous means of harnessing performance.
My goal and hope is that we can start to shift the narrative in our organizations, and perhaps the very basis for how we think about the psychological contract between employee and employer: that your impact here is in great part a factor of how well you are flourishing and energized to meet the demands that work, this company, and this life places upon you.
There are lots of things companies can do to promote and encourage this, including training programs, shifts in policy and positive role modeling amongst leaders. But honestly, I believe this is Accountability 101 for every one of us. Start by asking yourself where you think you’re experiencing an important energy deficit and start modestly by tackling just one thing. You can’t boil the ocean, so don’t even try – fixing one thing gives you a basis to tackle the next. And enlist a friend for mutual support.
And know that a chronic lack of energy in one of these areas can spill out into another: if you’re chronically tired, you’re much more likely to struggle to maintain emotional self-control, or be mentally strong enough to maintain focus. So too can the virtuous effects of getting it right, because people with a positive orientation to life experience lower instances of stress related problems such as heart disease; people with a deep level of spiritual self-awareness tend to eat in healthier ways: physical exercise can dramatically improve our ability to mentally focus or get a breakthrough idea. And all of these things play directly into the person that walks through your doors to work every day, and the performance they’re willing or able to give.
I believe the time has come for a completely new conversation about performance in organizations, that provides a credible alternative to the intense lives we live today. One that enables companies to avoid the huge costs and pain of employee burnout. This is also a powerful new opportunity for HR leaders to lead a positive, lasting pivot in their culture: one that demonstrates that employee wellbeing and performance are not mutually exclusive – that you can have both, and in so doing, strengthen the psychological contract and the feeling that that relationship is even.