How to maintain your energy levels

10 Mar 14
When work/life balance is upset by longer working hours, snatched breaks and increased stress, your energy reserves can drain over the working day. Angela Muir offers advice on how to replenish your batteries and get back on top of the job

By Angela Muir | 10 March 2014 

When work/life balance is upset by longer working hours, snatched breaks and increased stress, your energy reserves can drain over the working day. Angela Muir offers advice on how to replenish your batteries and get back on top of the job


A plethora of management books remind us that managing ourselves effectively, maintaining personal motivation, making good decisions and working well with others are crucial to both career and organisational success. While many public bodies are signed up to the principles of work/life balance, with the end of the financial year approaching, finance teams are bracing themselves for a period of longer working hours, fewer breaks and increased stress levels. 

In a climate of ever-decreasing resources and soaring delivery targets, the realities of public sector overstretch can all too easily undermine the environment needed for individuals and organisations to perform at their best. 

Furthermore, these negative working practices have been found to drain a limited energy reserve situated in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The result is a bit like power steadily draining from a battery over the course of a day. When depleted – as well as causing fatigue and diminishing capacity for willpower – it can have serious implications not only for an individual’s immediate performance and engagement, but also for their long-term health and wellbeing. 

The good news, however, is that by adopting a series of simple strategies this ‘mental battery’ can be programmed to receive regular boosts of energy, diminishing or even reversing the negative effects. 

Here are some practical tips designed to help managers and teams operate more effectively day-to-day as well as increasing their engagement, motivation, performance and resilience over time.

1 Remember why you do what you do

Ultimately, what is it that drives and motivates you to do your job? What makes it worth it, even when the pressure is on? Are you clear about the medium- or longer-term pay-offs in your career and/or home life? Taking time out to remind ourselves of our sense of purpose can help to regain perspective and motivation in the face of short-term stresses. Physical cues in the workplace – for example a picture, artefact or piece of music – can help to further anchor this.

2 Know your triggers

Emotional intelligence can provide a distinct advantage in the battle to preserve energy. The ability to accurately identify situations and people that cause your stress levels to escalate or your enthusiasm to plummet allows you to plan at least some of your interactions at times when you’re feeling more resilient. 

3 Train your feedback muscle

Feedback is a known, invaluable tool in personal and team development and can provide a huge uplift in confidence and morale, particularly during times of stress. Giving and receiving regular, timely, behaviour-based feedback (both appreciative and developmental) has been found to increase perceived self-esteem which, in turn, reduces perceived fatigue thus allowing you to feel more inclined to tackle obstacles and/or remain motivated for longer.

4 Be clear and specific with your goals

Some personality types are more likely to derive comfort from lists, linear structure and specific goal-setting than others. While it is usually advisable to play to your signature strengths wherever possible, from an energy perspective make time to set out and review specific goals and objectives on a regular basis. This allows you to deploy your mental and physical energies in the most effective way, rather than needlessly exhausting precious reserves by way of unnecessary tasks, indecision or avoidable uncertainty.


5 Focus Your To-Do List

Deciding precisely how, when and where you will complete a task or activity can double or triple your chances of actually doing it, and doing it well. Establishing a specific plan in advance ensures you stay on track even when you’re juggling multiple priorities. Plus, by deciding what you need to achieve you are much more likely to do it without having to consciously think about it at the time, therefore expending less ‘battery power’.

6 Tackle tough stuff first

Whether at work or home, it’s all too easy to put off the tough tasks or difficult conversations till later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you at least make a start on these while you have most energy ‘in the tank’, you are more likely to complete them quickly and with a satisfactory outcome. If you leave the tough stuff until late in the day when your ‘battery’ is depleted, you are more likely to give up more quickly, say something you later regret or give in to another’s demands.

7 Avoid making decisions on an empty stomach

Glucose is the brain’s source of fuel, therefore we are more likely to make better decisions and avoid acquiescence when we are well nourished. This doesn’t need to be by way of a big meal, in fact small, regular snacks tend to work best (though eating approximately one hour before a planned energy-depleting activity is believed to deliver maximum impact). Additionally, drinking about two to three litres of water throughout the day will keep your brain hydrated, helping to sustain those energy levels.

For those moments when you need an extra boost ahead of an unexpected meeting or particularly challenging task, something sweet – for example a mouthful of fruit juice, some dark chocolate, or a few grapes – will increase energy levels approximately 10 minutes after consumption. Proof that the occasional ‘little bit of what you fancy’ can indeed do you good.

8 Take more breaks

We all know that working for sustained periods without the necessary rest can be a recipe for disaster for both you and your team, yet few of us regularly secure the amount of rest or sleep we need, particularly during busy periods. When time is short we often curtail or eradicate breaks in the belief that we’ll get more done as a result. This is usually counterproductive. Taking several short ‘fresh air’ breaks of five to 20 minutes throughout the day, to escape from the smartphone and the hustle and bustle, has been proven to quieten the mind and thus maximise cognitive resources including memory retention, creativity and decision-making. 

9 Stay connected and don’t forget to have fun

The most important time to stay connected to the outside world is when we are at our busiest or most stressed. Fiercely protect some of your time to actively maintain connections with others. Whether meeting a mentor to test out ideas or with colleagues on an informal basis, this social support is essential to let off steam and regain perspective. 

Laughter in particular remains one of the quickest and most effective energy injections available.

10 Reinforce positive events daily

A recent study found that ending the day with a brief positive reflection about even small successes resulted in individuals experiencing significantly less stress the same evening and subsequently feeling more refreshed and energised the following day. Doing this in a team ensures that, however stressful it is, the working day ends on a more positive note. 

Ultimately, the brain is like a muscle. The best way to train it for peak performance is to seek out opportunities to step out of your comfort zone, challenge your assumptions and employ new or different ways of doing things. It will almost certainly deplete your energy a little in the short term but will result in a stronger, more flexible and better stocked psychological ‘muscle memory’ for the future.

Angela Muir is an organisational psychologist and head of the Leadership and People Practice at Ashridge Business School

This feature was first published in the March edition of Public Finance magazine


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