Energy and Pyramidal Thinking

When we put off our work, it’s often because we have too little energy to do what needs to be done. When we experience our work as draining, we’re too tired to focus, we’re easily distracted, and we feel like we can’t accomplish the job we’ve been assigned, what we’re really experiencing is a lack of attention to the underlying energy pyramid that powers us all. 

Endless Energy (get the book or audiobook) by Peter Hollins is a guide to becoming insanely energetic. It addresses what drains you, what energizes you, and everything in between. It goes deep into the psychology and physiology of energy to make sure that symptoms, as well as root causes, are addressed. In the end, you will have all the tools to jumpstart your life in any direction you choose.

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This is a bigger problem than we realize, because even more so than time, energy is a finite resource that we must protect on a daily basis. Nothing else you read in this book will make an iota of difference if you don’t have the energy to pull it off.

Energy drains, and once it does, recharging is necessary. One great tool to understand energy management is the energy pyramid, an idea conceived by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal.

The energy pyramid is a four-tiered pyramid with physical energy at its base, emotional energy above that, mental energy in the next layer, and spiritual energy at the top. Each of these plays an important role in building up or draining our energy, and each tier depends upon the tiers below to sustain itself. Understanding the interconnected nature of what goes into our energy bank allows us to take charge and create more for ourselves. Put another way, if you don’t satisfy these levels of energy and engagement, it’s unlikely you will even be in a position to focus, work, or conquer procrastination.

The energy pyramid sets forth a model of energy management that we will follow for the rest of the book, for the most part.

The pyramid points out that we must first notice and improve our levels of physical energy. Physical energy forms the basis for all the other tiers; it’s the foundation upon which all our energy needs are built. To manage our physical energy, we must mind our physical health. We must eat healthy, get enough sleep, and exercise.

That may sound draining, and sometimes it is. After all, if you’re not used to eating vegetables, indigestion will be the initial response to your newly healthy diet. But with time and persistence, eating well pays off with adjusted gut flora and an excess of energy. Exercise works the same way. At first, exercising feels draining, and we finish our routines exhausted. But after we’ve done it for a week or two, we start to feel energized when we’ve finished. What used to be difficult becomes easy, and when it does, it comes with a burst of fresh energy to apply to the rest of our lives.

Sleep, at least, is an activity that always feels good when we’re doing it. While plenty of us wish we didn’t need to sleep and could keep working without respite, it’s a nonnegotiable fact of life that humans need rest. Without sleep, we yawn, have trouble focusing, and eventually fall asleep amidst our required activities. By contrast, when we put effort into getting enough sleep, we’re energized, ready for our day, able to focus, and unlikely to fall into an ill-timed slumber.

The best part about the physical foundation of the energy pyramid is that it’s not an absolute scale. We don’t have to become as athletic as teenagers, as health-conscious as dieticians, or as well-rested as Winnie the Pooh to benefit from healthy changes. All we have to do is find room for improvement, then improve. The benefits are almost immediate, and noticing and focusing on how much better minding our health makes us feel can motivate us to continue.

Once we start improving our physical health, we’ll have the energy to consider the next level of the pyramid, emotional energy. Tending to our physical needs first is essential because our emotions depend upon our physical health. When we’re too tired or hungry or malnourished to think clearly, we simply can’t focus on emotional pursuits. Emotional energy is simply being in a healthy state of mind, or at least not being bogged down by negative feelings.

Emotions that don’t result directly from our physiological state can help or hinder our ability to work, as well. Positive emotions like joy, anticipation, excitement, or even feeling challenged increase our engagement and our energy. By contrast, negative emotions like anxiety, frustration, sadness, anger, and bitterness crush us like heavy weights.

When we’re overcome by these emotions, it’s difficult to focus on our work and apply ourselves. But emotions aren’t things we consciously choose. Sometimes we’re anxious when we know we’ll be fine, and sometimes we’re angry when we know we have no right to feel mad. Sometimes terrible things happen, and we feel sad or wronged; but even when negative emotions are justified, they don’t help us learn, grow, and add value to the world.

The best weapon against these modern monsters is reframing. When you face a challenge you don’t think you can overcome, don’t lament the inevitably of failure, but think about how much you can learn and grow even if you lose—after all, it’s exactly those sorts of failures that form the foundation of success. No one accomplishes everything on the first attempt; failure is what teaches us what to do differently in the future. A sense of being wronged and a base desire for revenge against the universe is one of the more common negative emotions that can be easily overcome by a shift in focus. The majority of what’s happening to anyone is never bad; it’s neutral, and you can make the internal choice as to its role in your life.

Feeling good is essential to doing good. Focusing on those tiny gifts and cultivating gratitude goes a long way toward making us emotionally healthy. To feel good, we have to be willing to let go of negative emotions and be grateful for the positive aspects of all things. Happiness flows freely when we do our part, and when we’re happy, we’re both more energetic and better at finishing our tasks.

Mental energy is the third tier of the energy pyramid. For us to be mentally energetic, we must first be emotionally and physically energized, otherwise our exhaustion or unhappiness will be too difficult to overcome. Mental energy relates to everything about our conscious thoughts—being able to remain focused and disciplined despite distractions and temptations.

This tier asks us to take control of our thoughts. Instead of passively accepting the first thought that comes to mind, we can assess our thoughts and respond to them in order to consciously choose what we think. Mental energy is about the mental muscles and skills we can exercise in getting things done and achieving goals.

An important part of building mental energy is to enter into tasks with optimism. When we begin with a negative outlook, we presume we will fail. For example, children often won’t try new foods because they “don’t look” tasty. Often, if we can convince kids to try food despite their initial judgment, they won’t like the taste, either. They’d already made up their mind that the food wasn’t good, which is the reason they disliked it. But the opposite is also true: when kids look at food and think they might like it or when they’re convinced to withhold judgment, they often enjoy new foods.

It’s the same with adults and tasks we need to complete. When we go in excited to show what we can do, we often do a superb job; if we go in presuming we’ll fail, it’s hard to produce any work at all. On top of that, we’re drumming up fear from the previous tier while we tell ourselves our efforts aren’t going to work.

Aside from optimism, several tools can get boost our mental energy. Self-talk, where we engage in dialogue with ourselves, can dismiss less helpful thoughts and give us truer narratives to believe.

Visualizing the completed project can give a sense of reality to the finished process, and meditation uses our minds to calm the tension we retain physically and emotionally. Even managing our time better can come into play at this level of the energy pyramid, as our minds are what we use to schedule our time and assess how long tasks could and should take.

When we manage our time, guide our emotions, and make sure our thoughts are helping instead of hindering us, we’ll have more energy and find it easier to face the tasks before us.

After our minds are managed, we face the peak of the pyramid, spiritual energy. This isn’t a religious tier; rather, it encourages us to understand our core values and to align our actions with those values. For example, a person who values helping people might do excellently in healthcare jobs but flounder horribly in sales jobs because their values are met in one career path but not in the other.

The spiritual tier is about finding purpose and passion in what we do, which are the best motivators that exist. They only occur when our actions are aligned with our core values. To capture and increase spiritual energy, we must seek activities that get us closer to our core values and passions, and avoid activities that do the opposite. When we’re doing what we feel is important, there is strong motivation to keep going and to feel proud and validated when we accomplish tasks.

Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy are all part of the first principle of energy management. When we attain everything the pyramid implies, we’re certain to be bursting with energy, but we won’t yet know how to direct and manage that energy effectively. In fact, we may be so enthusiastic about what we’re doing that we risk burnout.

How do we avoid that? With the second principle: every time we use energy, we must also allow for its renewal. No one, no matter how much energy they possess, can keep going at full bore forever. Rest is necessary, not just for our physical bodies, but also for our minds and hearts.

When we don’t take a break from what we do, we eventually become stressed out and frustrated; these negative emotions are often accompanied by negative thoughts. Both will sap energy quickly.

To prevent this, we must disengage regularly so that our minds can heal. Overuse, even overuse of energy, leads to destruction of the resource that’s being overused. Rest is what allows us to heal and grow stronger.

Contrasting with the second principle, the third principle of energy management reminds us that pushing past our limits is necessary for growth. We can’t just sit idly, work repetitively and consistently, and expect to improve. We must regularly challenge ourselves if we want to grow.

Dancers know this very well. Everyone shows up to their first class barely able to point their toes. But pushing allows muscles to grow stronger and the body to take new forms. Sometimes it takes years of persistent effort to reach our true goals, but the way to get there is always by setting up a challenge and getting closer and closer as our bodies, emotions, minds, and spirits allow.

Even nonphysical tasks require us to push ourselves into discomfort, as anyone who’s done a bit of public speaking will know. Most are terrified the first few times, and often that terror is discernible to the audience. Speakers will shake, stutter, and go over sections of their speech multiple times. At first, it feels like it will never get better, but persistence makes the nervous speaker reattempt their task despite the difficulty. Slowly, giving speeches becomes easier. Eventually, the truly persistent will discover that it’s an enjoyable activity. But none of that is possible without feeling spurred on to succeed by the challenge of public speaking. At every level, we benefit from challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves into new and difficult circumstances.

The fourth, and final, principle of energy management states that we must create energy rituals to sustain full engagement. Despite the human ability to think and choose, most of our actions are based on habit. What we do, we usually don’t think about. What we have to think about, we usually don’t do, at least not for very long! That means it’s essential to transform energy-sustaining practices into persistent activities so we don’t have to remember or talk ourselves into helpful habits.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s dieted in their life; generally speaking, any short-term starvation will lead to eating in our habitual way once we shed the weight. What happens next? The weight comes back, and we have to diet again. This pattern is particularly damaging, as each time we fail to make a real and lasting change in our life, the return of the old actions and their consequences feels more and more inevitable. It’s not inevitable, but avoiding the trap involves making real, permanent changes. The new way has to be sustainable; in short, it has to become a habit.

Two months of consistently performing any action will generally turn it into a habit, but until we reach that point, we have to put active effort into creating a new routine. We must make a choice not to eat certain foods, to exercise, or to drink a certain amount of water. But commitment and consistency is only needed at first. Eventually, thinking becomes unnecessary; we will have the rituals in place to be healthy, happy, and effective at our work.

Once we have the habits to maximize our productivity, and once we become used to challenging ourselves and resting to recharge our batteries, it becomes easier to direct our energy in any way we need. When we have enough energy, even the tasks we like to avoid become easy to face.

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