We've all heard the expression "working smarter".Dr Peter Dingle shows how we can improve our energyand productivity - and still have an early night!
AsEinstein famously put it, E=MC2. An extension of thisis that all matter is made up of energy. Human beings,too, are made up of energy - there is an immense amountof energy in every atom of our bodies. Max Planck, whowon a Nobel Prize for his work on the atom, and whois considered the greatest scientific mind of his time,said, "There is no matter as such, all matter originatesand exists only by virtue of a force which brings theparticles of an atom to vibration and holds this mostminute solar system of the atom together..."
It is energy that is at the core of our ability todo work. Learning to manage energy can have dramatictransformational effects for both individuals and organisations.A critical step in this transformation is to stop wastingone's time by learning to manage energy. We spend timeon technical and tactical skills including time management,but too often ignore energy. Without energy, it is notpossible to do the things we need to do, no matter howwell we manage our time. Time is our most precious resourcebecause we can never get it back; we need to value itand add value to it by managing our energy.
Our brain uses up to 25 per cent of our body's energy.If that energy is low for one reason or another, ourthinking becomes poor and we have to work harder andlonger to get the same output as we can achieve duringa higher energy cycle. Our energy level is not justa matter of fuel in, energy out. It is a complex systemof biological cycles, fuel and nutrients, negative andpositive stress, recovery and our thoughts. To understandhow our energy can change, think of the last time anegative thought drew energy away from you, leavingyou feeling tired and demotivated. A positive thought,on the other hand, can energise you and increase motivation.
Natural energy cycles
Energy management is about understanding your naturalenergy cycles and maximising your productivity by matchingyour task with your energy. You can match high energytasks with high energy periods. Doing this requiresthat you find a dynamic balance between energy expenditurein the form of stress and energy renewal for recovery.
To understand the body's energy cycles, it is best tolook at the impact on infants and young children. Theyseem to have boundless energy until they hit an energylow, then collapse, get upset and angry, and cry. Everyparent knows this scenario. The infant, if he can getover his irritability and tap into his energy cycle,then quickly drops off to sleep. Otherwise, he getsmore irritated. Does this sound like any adult you know?
It is important to understand that current work cycles,as well as eating times, are based on the economic modeldeveloped during the Industrial Revolution. These workingand eating patterns and times were developed to getthe maximum amount of physical, and largely repetitive,work out of people. Even the lunch break and tea breakswere designed for the factory line worker and are notas appropriate for the thinking office worker of the21st century. We have lost touch with our natural energycycles and related biorhythms which are found for virtuallyevery biological function - including heart rate, respiration,blood sugar levels and adrenalin.
Most people are familiar with their own "bodyclocks." Bodily functions such as heart rate, metabolicrate, breathing rate and body temperature are affectedby circadian rhythms. Although we have natural cycles,they can be disrupted by repeatedly breaking the cyclethrough the process called habituation, or through othermeans such as alcohol and drugs.
Ultradian rhythms are the bodily rhythms of less than24 hours in duration. These rhythms - particularly thoseof 90-120 minutes - have been observed in sleepiness,vigilance, heart readings, daydreaming, as well as eatingand drinking and urine excretion. Heart rate, hormonalactivity, brainwave activity and muscle tension allincrease during the first part of the cycle then, afteran hour or so, they begin to decline. After 90 minutes,the body needs rest and recuperation. The recovery periodis signalled by hunger, fatigue, poor concentration,lack of focus and making mistakes. So we are betteroff doing short bursts like a middle distance runnerthan doing a marathon of work and trying to sit at adesk for hours. Our concentration span is relativelyshort and if we accept that and understand it we willbe able to be more productive. Even working for a fewhours straight on a project can become a waste of timeif we don't pay attention to our body rhythms. Our braincan literally become exhausted after a short periodof time and factors like low nutrients and poor bloodcirculation can exacerbate the problem.
To get back in touch with our energy patterns we haveto be conscious of how we are feeling. Very simply,there are four arousal states - calm energy, calm tiredness,tense energy and tense tiredness
Many negative psychological reactions can occur duringnaturally low energy periods, particularly if thereare chronic stresses or problems. Without stress, alow energy may produce a state of calm tiredness, amore pleasant and relaxed state. But during periodsof stress, low energy can result in low self esteem,unrealistic concerns about personal problems, feelingsof depression and other negative reactions. Understandingthese states of energy and calm, along with being awareof our body's biological clock and natural rhythms,can dramatically improve our productivity and health.
Matching our energy levels
Understanding our energy levels during the cyclesof the day, we can make assessments about which tasksare best performed at which times and for how long.High energy and physical tasks are perhaps best performedwhen the body requires a boost of energy. Calm relaxedtasks such as creative thinking, reading and writingare perhaps best performed early in the morning whenthe body has energy but is still calm. Our activitiescan be juggled to fit our own energy cycles and patterns.
We need to learn to match our behaviour with our characteristicenergy cycle. Matching tasks to the energy level alsoreduces tension and improves one's overall mood. Inan experiment conducted over a 10 day period in whichsubjects were asked to rate a particular condition thatwas annoying them and causing them grievance, the levelof expressed grievance was more serious in the afternoon.Regardless of the time of day, the problem was alwaysrated as more serious if the person was in a tense,tired mood and less serious if in a calm, energeticmood. In studies where students have kept diaries, theresults indicate gradually increasing levels of depressionas the day wears on with the highest depression levelsin the afternoon and evening. Pushing through to meeta deadline, we may eventually succumb to particularfatigue and low energy at some later time - perhapsresulting in even more tension and some drama with otherindividuals. These subtle, negative mood states canhave a substantial effect on behaviour if they persist.With this in mind, it is important then to manage problems,along with understanding and managing our energy levels.
In the morning when we first wake, we are at a verylow energy level and a high state of calm. This is arelaxed state that slowly increases over the morningand prepares us for our day. With the first signs oflight, somewhere between 4 am and 7 am (depending onthe time of year), our bodies start producing adrenalinand noradrenalin to stimulate the brain to a state ofwakefulness. At this time, our melatonin, our sleepchemical, is at its lowest. This time is low energyand a calm state and is the most creative and wakefultime when we can do your best work and a time to writearticles like this one. I find this is the time forinspiration. The mind is alert, but the body has notyet fully taken over. Naturally, this state lasts foran hour or so as our energy slowly increases and preparesus for the day ahead.
Our real, internal clock tells us to get up just beforesunrise and go to sleep just after sunset. Many of theancient texts and all cultures have their parables aboutthe benefits of getting up early. You have no doubtheard that "the early bird gets the worm."My favourite is "la mattina e la signora dei lavori"or translated, "the morning is the mistress ofwork." Calm and low energy in the morning or eveningis a good time to concentrate and focus. This is whymany cultures have some form of meditation at this time.Many of the world's geniuses have also used this timeto tap into the deeper recesses of their imaginations.
By not matching time to energy cycles, people losea huge amount of productivity. Distractions can takeup your whole day if you let them and this adds to thestress as it prevents you from getting the big projectsdone. To get around this, many people work late in thenight and through to the early morning. While your bodycan adapt to this, it is not healthy in the long term.You will notice as you age that you are able to do thisless and less and you will slowly revert to early morningsand early nights. This is not old age! It is your bodyclock telling you to get back to normal because theother routine creates negative stress. Staying awaketo the early hours after midnight can only be done onadrenaline overload. Not good. In addition, the mostproductive mental time, early in the morning (aftera good night's sleep), is lost.
The other benefit of understanding your biologicalclock and energy levels is that you can reduce stressand work better with people. High energy tasks or confrontationduring low energy periods can be damaging. It is bestto program deep and meaningful discussions when youare in a high energy period with mental alertness, suchas late morning. These tasks during a low energy periodcan be soul destroying and end up in conflict. The worsttime to raise a particular concern is straight afterlunch or late evening. These times increase the chancesthat an issue will be blown out of proportion and thata discussion will escalate into a serious argument.
Some of the quick-fix mechanisms busy people use toalter their moods include: overeating, excessive drinking,smoking, illegal drug use, too much television viewing,self isolation and other poor, dysfunctional routines.Don't let yourself get caught up in these time - andenergy - wasting habits. The best way to identify yourown biorhythms is to keep a diary for about a week,including the weekend. Record your energy levels andyour moods. Then plan your days. There are times whendemanding intellectual work should be done, such asduring calm energy, and times when poor intellectualperformance can be expected during tense tiredness.
I wish you good luck and lots of energy.
Peter Dingle is Associate Professor in Health andthe Environment at Murdoch University, Perth, WesternAustralia