Cultivating personal energy

Humans thrive in communities, and wither alone. Although our bodies are dispersed, we are fortunate that our technology enables our minds to be engaged in lively collaboration. However, the way we use our tools may present some challenges.

Reflecting on the habits of work under COVID-19 Level 4 lockdown in New Zealand, I’ve noticed that many of us near exhaustion at the end of a day spent in video conferences. The current rate of energy drain does not feel sustainable.

Working less hours might be tempting. Yet I suspect we’ll rapidly need to work more intensely and cleverly in the near future to rebuild and reinvent economies across the globe.

Also, I don’t quite see how humans will revert to life with no lockdown levels at all. I get the feeling we’ll have to get good at shifting smoothly between lockdown levels and adapt to various degrees of social distancing.

So, if we keep roughly the same 8-hour work day, how might we cultivate our personal energy? What might we try? And what should we avoid?

Try… the pomodoro technique

A "pomodoro" kitchen timer shaped like a tomato sliced in half horizontally
A “pomodoro” timer

Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato”. The concept comes from the kitchen timers shaped as a tomato, as you see in the attached image.

The idea is to structure work in chunks of 25 minutes of uninterrupted activity followed by a pause of 5 minutes (25/5), or 48/12. This gives our minds a far better chance to operate in peak form and keep focus.

So, rather than booking video meetings for 30 minutes or 1 hour, try booking sessions for 25 or 48 minutes, and stick to those durations. Or simply just stop at those time intervals regardless of what the booking says. Standing up, stretching, engaging for a few moments in some short dynamic practice like suburi, using an exercise ball or some light free weights, refreshing a drink, or having a short bio-break in the 5 or 12 minutes break could make a significant difference between becoming refreshed or exhausted.

Try… breathing and breath holding

Techniques originating in yoga and the martial arts like box breathing and breath holding are widely used by emergency services, elite military units and other pursuits in which cultivating creativity and claiming calm under intense stress are vital.

Box breathing (also sometimes referred to as breathing on the square) is the habit of breathing mindfully on a steady rhythm, with pauses between inhales and exhales. The idea is to focus on four phases of breathing, transition smoothly between them, and keep them of equal duration. For example, you might start by breathing in over 3 seconds (or beats of rhythm), pause for 3 seconds, breathe out over 3 seconds, then pause again for 3 seconds. In this way, a full breath takes 12 seconds, or 5 breaths a minute. Most of us typically have a much more rapid pace of breathing while sitting down in front of a screen, somewhere between 10-20 breaths a minute.

Box breathing has profound effects on our personal energy balance. By holding the breath between inhale and exhale we give our blood much more time to exchange gases in the lungs. The net result is we get more oxygen in our bloodstream and clear more carbon dioxide, and our cells get more readily accessible energy. Our focus, alertness and creativity get a boost. Our mental anguish and distractions dissolve.

Over time, we can also expand our box breathing skills by increasing the number of beats for each breathing phase. We might push ourselves to 4 beats, 5 beats, 6 beats. Eventually, the body will struggle – usually on the pause after exhalation. When that happens, drop down a beat or two and keep practicing at that rhythm. As our body gets accustomed to that rhythm, and it starts to feel easy and comfortable, push back up one beat and keep breathing. See Michael J. Gelb‘s Creativity on Demand for even more intriguing suggestions.

Free diver Stig Severinsen shares insights about the practice of breath holding

Breath holding is a related skill, and it triggers amazing reactions in our bodies – see Stig Severinsen’s story in the video above. Claiming calm on command is an excellent tool to have in your personal kit.

We have to breathe no matter what. So we can practice breathing and breath holding smoothly during video meetings with no-one the wiser, except when people start to notice that we seem more alert, creative and insightful than we used to be. And look, somehow we’re less drained than we used to be at the end of the day.

Avoid… fighting your exhaustion with high energy treats

You may find that if you’ve looked after yourself with better spacing of breaks and a good activity balance, and have nurtured your energy balance with mindful breathing, your body won’t crave anywhere near as much intake of high energy, high glycemic index drinks or snacks. And that may well do wonders for our long-term health in this brave new world of work we’re creating.

Try… celebrating the end of the day

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow introduces the interesting observation that our “remembering self” seems to create memories by integrating a peak-end pair of perceptions. So when our days close on a pleasant note, we are more likely to remember them more fondly. This can help strengthen our social bonds and improve mutual trust, which in turn would improve our sustainable performance and resilience.

So, to wrap up, consider setting aside time and structuring sessions to close the work day on a joyful note, no matter the chaos and struggle that we faced during the work day. Organisations that nurture a good positivity ratio will thrive.

Be safe, be curious, be creative, be kind.

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