One thing you can control in 2017: your personal energy levels

Away from the macro-political upheavals, economic challenges and technological innovations that form the basis of most turn-of-the-year musings, here’s a thought that is as micro as it gets: you can make yourself happier and better at your job by paying attention to your energy levels and actively managing them.

Obvious though it may sound, not many of us do this currently. We manage time, of course, with all our to-do lists and prioritisation sheets. But energy itself is little understood and very rarely calibrated in the modern workplace.

I’ve just conducted some research into this for my masters dissertation in behavioural science at the LSE. Over 150 people responded to a survey I conducted with fellow student and RSA researcher, Ian Burbidge. Around a third of our respondents worked in media and advertising, with the other 100 drawn from a variety of industries including financial services, healthcare, IT and the charitable sector. Thanks if you were one of them, by the way! Here are some of the topline results.

Less than a fifth say they organise their day to take advantage of natural highs and lows in their energy levels. Still fewer have made a habit of taking short breaks in the working day to recover. At the same time, over 80% say they feel overwhelmed at work, at least some of the time; 75% say they are interrupted frequently, or all of the time; and 70% say they regularly check email from home for their own peace of mind.

In a sense, these figures tell us what most of us already know: that there is no natural downtime anymore, but - at the same time - it’s hard to find the space to actually focus on our work. It’s little wonder people feel overwhelmed.

So why are so few businesses doing anything about this? Initiatives to block email outside of office hours and limit the hours in which meetings can be scheduled at Daimler, Huffington Post and Wieden & Kennedy are exceptions to a pretty strict rule. This rule says that productivity and profit are functions of hard work and that ambitious people with a will to succeed put in long hours – while demanding the same of everyone else. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that long hours don’t add up to better productivity – quite the reverse. But our innate competitiveness, at both an individual and corporate level, makes it hard to pause, reflect and find a smarter strategy.

Of course, not all the solutions to this are entirely micro. Unless business leaders take the initiative, it is actually pretty hard for ordinary employees to do much on their own. Social norms have a powerful influence on behaviour and, if in doubt, we tend to follow the herd. This is also evident from our study: a surprisingly modest 30% of respondents think their boss expects them to check email out of office hours, but only 11% say they are explicitly discouraged from doing so. In such ambiguous circumstances, we go with the flow and do what everyone else does: we check our email. So addressing workplace culture is a massive need – and opportunity – for business leaders. And, by the way, that’s something I can help with.

Nonetheless, there are things individuals can do: small things that hardly anyone will even notice. Like taking just a few minutes in every hour to look away from your screens and stop thinking about work.

Don’t try to do too much during these breaks. Unless you’re an extrovert, social interactions might deplete you further. So don’t be afraid to take yourself off for some quiet time. Listen to a bit of music as you walk round the block. Or just look out of the window, especially if there are some trees or a park in view. Even just sitting at your desk and thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner might be enough to let your mental resources recover, such that when you return your focus to your work task, you suddenly feel that much more energised.

Unless you’re actually in between tasks, you won’t want to break for too long. Too much time away can result in a degree of psychological detachment which makes it stressful to re-engage. Just a couple of minutes might be enough.

But, if you’ve completed one thing and are able to take a little bit of time before starting the next, another good ploy is to use that time – 5, 10, or 15 minutes, say – to help a colleague. Whether this is with a work task that you know they’re struggling with and that you find relatively straightforward, or whether it’s just offering to make them a cup of tea, the evidence is that making a colleague happy can regenerate your own energy levels.

All of the above is based on academic studies, not just common sense. If you’re interested to know more about the research, I’ll happily point you in the right direction. The best exploration, though, is to try it out: in 2017, make taking breaks a salient goal in your working day. It will cost you nothing and I would expect that for most of you, it will make a bigger difference than you might think.