The way we work just isn't working. Perhaps nobody knows this better than Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project and author of Be Excellent At Anything, who has built his career around transforming the way we live, work and use our energy.
In our "culture of distraction," many of us live and work with divided attention and depleted energy resources, largely thanks to the unrelenting siren song of technology and social media. Here are some sobering statistics: Two-thirds of mobile users check their phone for messages, alerts and calls even when it's not ringing or vibrating, according to Pew research, and the average smartphone user checks their phone every six and a half minutes (that's up to 150 times a day). A 2010 AOL survey even found that 59 percent of mobile users check their email from the bathroom.
According to Schwartz, we've crossed the line of being able to effectively manage all of the information that's coming at us. He likens the brain on digital overload (and working memory in particular) to an overflowing glass of water.
Schwartz explains to The Huffington Post:
"It’s like having water poured into a glass continuously all day long, so whatever was there at the top has to spill out as the new water comes down. We’re constantly losing the information that’s just come in -- we’re constantly replacing it, and there’s no place to hold what you’ve already gotten. It makes for a very superficial experience; you’ve only got whatever’s in your mind at the moment. And it’s hard for people to metabolize and make sense of the information because there’s so much coming at them and they’re so drawn to it. You end up feeling overwhelmed because what you have is an endless amount of facts without a way of connecting them into a meaningful story."
In a recent New York Times op-ed, “Losing Our Way In The World,” Harvard physics professor John Edward Huth argued that the Internet may have a greater effect on our sense of meaning than we realize. He explained that an over-reliance on technology has a tendency to encourage us to isolate pieces of information without fitting them into a broader cognitive schema.
“Sadly, we often atomize knowledge into pieces that don’t have a home in a larger conceptual framework,” Huth wrote. “When this happens, we surrender meaning to guardians of knowledge and it loses its personal value.”
But it's not just our personal use of technology that's contributing to our collective "energy crisis": It's the "more, better, faster" work ethic that demands more of us than our energy can supply. “Volume is God,” as Schwartz puts it, and our physical energy is being undermined. And when you undermine your physical energy, it has an effect on your mental, spiritual and creative energy.
"When demand exceeds what a person is able to deliver, you get sickness, less high-quality thinking, irritability and frustration, people become very survival oriented and much less likely to become reflective and relational and imaginative," says Schwartz. "Speed and demand are probably the biggest cultural factors that have turned the workplace into an untenable place for many people to be."
Schwartz shared five of his most important tools for interacting with technology more productively, and building a work life that supports -- rather than depletes -- your energy.
Build daily rituals.
"For the things that you decide matter … the only way to ensure that things that aren’t urgent but are important happen is to build rituals," Schwartz says. "Build highly specific behaviors that you do at precise times over and over again until you don’t have to use energy to get yourself to do it anymore -- until it becomes as automatic as brushing your teeth at night."
We only have a limited amount of willpower and discipline, so the best way to prioritize what's important to us and make sure we actually do the things we care about is to create highly specific habits (for these successful people, a daily meditation practice keeps them centered and sharp at work).
"Ritualize it, so that when your email is beckoning you in its Pavlovian way and you find yourself moving toward it, you have an alternative behavior to which you’re already committed and used to," says Schwartz. "Then it becomes what you default to instead of your email."
Take a ‘first things first’ approach to your mornings.
"Do the most important thing first every day," says Schwartz. "Ninety-five percent of people have more energy early in the morning than they do as the day wears on, and they also have fewer distractions. So if that’s the case, why wouldn’t you do the most important thing when you have the most energy?"
Many successful leaders and intellectuals are big proponents of the morning ritual, super-charging their early hours with daily rituals that allow them to get the important things done first. But you don't have to be a crack-of-dawn early riser to build a powerful morning routine -- as Schwartz points out, the key is working with your own schedule and making time for what's most important as you're starting your day, whether it's at 5 a.m. or 9:30.
Use devices selectively.
It's no secret that 24/7 connectivity and constant digital distractions are taking a toll on our well-being -- excessive reliance on technology has been shown to have detrimental effects on productivity, focus, sleep quality and mood, among other negative health impacts. So how do we use technology in a way that won't drive us crazy? Schwartz says that taking deliberate breaks from your devices is the only answer.
“These forms of technology are as addictive as crack. Period. If you expose yourself to them continuously, they will pull you in the way a drug would –- continuously, even when you know it’s not serving you well," he says. "If that’s the case, you’ve got to move in and out of exposing yourself to them.”
Keep technological temptations away when you find yourself getting too distracted and constantly drawn in to work emails -- or as Schwartz puts it: “If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t have cupcakes in the fridge."
Make time for renewal.
"We’re trying to keep up with our technology -- the digital flow operates at this very high speed continuously," explains Schwartz. "Whereas we’re designed to operate rhythmically, to move between activity and rest; that’s when we’re at our best. So when you start overloading the brain with information, what’s going to happen is that the system begins to break down. You’re not going to think as well, you’re not going to think as deeply."
Taking breaks throughout the work day isn't just a nice thought: Science supports the idea that relaxation has a positive effect on productivity and vacations improve our sense of well-being, yet more and more Americans work through their lunch breaks, weekends and vacation time. Building time to recharge into our schedules is actually essential to working at the highest possible level.
"Renewal is not for slackers," Schwartz said at The Huffington Post's women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," last month. "Renewal is a way in which to increase your capacity to be more effective."
Be intentional with your energy.
Many of us live our lives in a gray zone -– we’re not fully focused on work when we’re working, and during our leisure time, we’re not fully relaxed. This leaves us feeling distracted and depleted -- not to mention more prone to being dissatisfied with our work and lives. Schwartz’s remedy? Approaching everything we do with a “fierce intentionality.”
"That means that when you're working, you're really working; and when you're renewing and refueling, you're really renewing," Schwartz said at the Third Metric conference.
Spending an hour doing something doesn’t automatically mean that you’ve gotten an hour’s worth of value from doing it, he points out. Applying less than your full focus doesn't just make you less productive; according to Schwartz, distraction keeps you from being fulfilled by and connected to your work.
“Distraction is the enemy to meaning,” he says.
If distraction is the enemy, then mindful awareness is the remedy. Countless studies have linked mindfulness (as cultivated through a meditative practice) with a wealth of cognitive and physical health benefits, including lower stress levels, improved focus and concentration, and greater compassion and self-knowledge.
“Noticing is the first job in life,” says Schwartz, adding that being consciously aware of more, is a sort of “higher consciousness” that we can all tap into.
“It’s about becoming a bigger person,” he says. “The bigger you get, the deeper you get, the wider you get, the richer the life you’re capable of having.”