The Power of Full Engagement by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr (Book Summary + PDF)
Do you want to perform at a higher level?
Do you want to get more done? In less time?
Do you want to have more energy? Better health? More happiness?
Then you’ll love The Power of Full Engagement by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr.
The premise is simple:
Performance, health, and happiness are grounded in the skillful management of energy.
I’ve personally gotten a LOT out of this book and it’s been a true game-changer for me in terms of how I structure my days and optimize my productivity.
In this article, I’ll reveal the 12 key lessons I’ve learned from this book.
1. Energy, Not Time, Is The Fundamental Currency Of High Performance
“Performance, health and happiness are grounded in the skillful management of energy. The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not. It is our most precious resource. The more we take responsibility for the energy we bring to the world, the more empowered and productive we become.”
This is the basic premise of the book.
If we want to perform at our best, we must first and foremost manage our energy, not our time.
This is in stark contrast to our society’s belief of “more is better”.
When something’s not working properly in our 24/7 world, the standard advice is to double down on the time you invest in it.
- Work project not moving forward? Work more and work harder.
- Want to have better relationships with your family? Spend more time with them.
- Want to get healthier? Spend more time in the kitchen and exercise more often.
- Feeling burnt out? Take more days off.
See the problem?
It’s impossible to do more of everything… we all just have 24 hours in a day… sooner or later we run out of time.
Also, it’s not just about the quantity of time you invest in something, but it’s about the quality of energy you bring to the table.
If you’ve got a 3 hour meeting, but can barely concentrate or stay awake after the first hour, that’s not going to help you perform at your best.
If you get home from work and want to spend quality time with your family, but you’re dead tired and agitated from work, then that’s not helping you perform at your best.
If you’re working 5 hours straight on a work project, but already lose concentration and focus after 2 hours, then that’s not going to help you perform at your best.
Optimizing our performance, health, or happiness is not about the quantity of time, but about the quality of energy.
The bottom line is:
The key to living life at your best is to optimize your energy, not your time.
2. The Best Way To Optimize Your Energy
We are human beings, NOT super computers.
We are not meant to run at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.
Instead we are performing at our best when we move between expending energy and intermittently renewing energy.
We live in a so-called oscillatory universe that is characterized by rhythmic, wavelike movement between activity and rest.
“Nature itself has a pulse, a rhythmic, wavelike movement between activity and rest. Think about the ebb and flow of the tides, the movement between seasons, and the daily rising and setting of the sun. Likewise, all organisms follow life-sustaining rhythms—birds migrating, bears hibernating, squirrels gathering nuts, and fish spawning, all of them at predictable intervals. So, too, human beings are guided by rhythms.”
We are guided by rhythms.
The most famous rhythm which we adhere to is the circadian rhythm. We live our lives in 24 hour periods. We’re on and awake for 16-18 hours (spending energy) and then we’re off and asleep for 7-9 hours (renewing energy).
A period of activity is followed by a period of rest.
A period of energy expenditure (activity) is followed by a period of energy renewal (rest).
Our energy resources aren’t endless. We can’t sprint 100% for more than 10-20 seconds. We can’t concentrate for hours and hours on end. We can’t stay awake for much more than 18-20 hours before our performance plummets.
Sooner or later we need to refuel our energy.
If we want to be at our best, we need to live a rhythmic life with periods of intense activity followed by periods of intense rest. We need to live life as a series of sprints, not a never-ending marathon.
We need to either fully engage, or strategically disengage…
3. You Either Fully Engage Or Strategically Disengage
“The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal. Instead, many of us live our lives as if we are running in an endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion.”
Imagine for a second the look of a typical long-distance runner: skinny, sallow, gaunt, unhealthy, and not very energetic.
Now imagine a sprinter such as Usain Bolt: powerful, healthy, strong, bursting with energy, and determined.
The sprinter looks much better.
Because he’s oscillating. He’s on and then he’s off. He fully exerts himself and then follows that by a period of rest. He’s either fully engaged or strategically disengaged. He adheres to nature’s rhythms.
Like the sprinter, we want to live our lives as a series of sprints, oscillating between periods of intense engagement and equally intense renewal.
Makes total sense, right?
It is, however, not how most of us live.
Instead, most of us are in a state of constant energy preservation.
We’re never fully and never fully off. Never fully engaged and never fully disengaged.
Instead of living oscillatory lives, we live linear lives (which is the complete opposite).
Think about a typical work day for example. `
Do you ever completely relax? Do you ever fully disengage from what you’re doing during the day? Do you take frequent breaks? Do you ever fully concentrate and give 100% of all you’ve got to a given task?
Chances are you do none of these things.
For example, most of us view breaks as a sign of weakness and instead work in a state of constant energy preservation for hours and hours on end. Even if we’re tired and can barely concentrate anymore, we just keep going and going…
…until eventually the clock hits 5pm and we get to go home (where we watch TV until the rest of the day is over).
(Watching TV by the way doesn’t count as either full engagement or full disengagement. It’s just a state of low, “blah”-type of energy.)
This is neither our natural nor our optimal way of living.
You’re much better off when you’re oscillating between activity and recovery than when you’re living in a linear fashion with your brakes on all the time.
You want to be either fully engaged or strategically disengaged.
(We’ll see ways to do that later in this article…)
4. Tennis Players & The Power of Rest
“To live like a sprinter is to break life down into a series of manageable intervals consistent with our own physiological needs and with the periodic rhythms of nature. This insight first crystallized for Jim when he was working with world-class tennis players. As a performance psychologist, his goal was to understand the factors that set apart the greatest competitors in the world from the rest of the pack. Jim spent hundreds of hours watching top players and studying tapes of their matches. To his growing frustration, he could detect almost no significant differences in their competitive habits during points. It was only when he began to notice what they did between points that he suddenly saw a difference. While most of them were not aware of it, the best players had each built almost exactly the same set of routines between points. These included the way they walked back to the baseline after a point; how they held their heads and shoulders; where they focused their eyes; the pattern of their breathing; and even the way they talked to themselves.”
Want to know the difference between top tennis players and average tennis players?
Well, one difference is that the top players are oscillating.
They optimize the rest between each point. Tony Schwartz and Tim Loehr have found that the top players are able to lower their heart rates between points by up to twenty beats per minute. The average player’s heart rate stays the same, because he hasn’t optimized his recovery/rest period.
If a match goes into the 4th or 5th set, guess who’s going to have more energy left?
Yep, it’s the top player who’s been oscillating and recovering some of his energy all game long.
That’s the power of balancing energy expenditure and energy renewal.
And it’s one of the key differences between high performance and average performance.
5. The Ultradian Rhythm
“These ultradian rhythms help to account for the ebb and flow of our energy throughout the day. Physiological measures such as heart rate, hormonal levels, muscle tension and brain-wave activity all increase during the first part of the cycle - and so does alertness. After an hour or so, these measures start to decline. Somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, the body begins to crave a period of rest and recovery. Signals include a desire to yawn and stretch, hunger pangs, increased tension, difficulty concentrating, an inclination to procrastinate or fantasize, and a higher incidence of mistakes.”
The ultradian rhythm is a cycle that repeats itself countless times during the day.
For about 90 minutes you are in high performance mode. Your alertness, concentration, creativity, emotional resilience, and mental stamina are all at the top of their game.
Then, for a period of about 20 minutes, your body needs time to rest and renew its energy stores.
Again, this is just one of many different rhythms your body follows during a regular day, but according to Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, it’s an important one.
Their advice is clear:
To get the most out of your working day, go full out for 90-120 minutes* (fully engage) and then take a 15-20 minute break (strategically disengage).
(*Taking 2-3 short 1-5 minute breaks during your 90-120 minute work sprint is fine and even a smart idea.)
(Note: We are able to override these natural cycles by summoning the fight-or-flight response and flooding our bodies with stress hormones that are designed to help us handle emergencies. Over the long-run, however, that’s a terrible idea. Toxins and stress hormones will build up in our system and over time take a toll on our bodies.
Over relying on caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamines is NOT a long-term solution.)
OK, so when we have to take a break every 90 minutes or so, what exactly should we do during that time?
Replenish our energy (duh!).
OK, but how?
The authors suggest energy rituals:
6. Use Energy Rituals to Replenish Your Tank
So you work for 90-120 minutes and then you need to take a break.
The point of these breaks is to renew your energy.
Potential energy-renewing activities are going for a walk, having a conversation with a work buddy, doing a quick workout, meditate, do some breathing exercises, take a nap, or whatever.
All of these renew your energy and optimize your performance for the next 90-120 minute work or full performance section.
Now here’s the key with those energy-renewing activities:
You want to turn them into rituals…
“We use the word ‘ritual’ purposefully to emphasize the notion of a carefully defined, highly structured behavior. In contrast to will and discipline, which require pushing yourself to a particular behavior, a ritual pulls at you. Think of something as simple as brushing your teeth. It is not something that you ordinarily have to remind yourself to do. Brushing your teeth is something to which you feel consistently drawn, compelled by its clear health value. You do it largely on automatic pilot, without much conscious effort or intention. The power of rituals is that they insure that we use as little conscious energy as possible where it is not absolutely necessary, leaving us free to strategically focus the energy available to us in creative, enriching ways.”
The point is this:
When you perform an energy-renewing activity, you usually need to use some willpower and ironically some thinking energy to perform that activity. (You may have to “force” yourself to meditate or go for a walk).
On the other hand, when you perform an energy ritual, you don’t need any conscious energy or willpower whatsoever.
That’s the beauty of rituals:
- They happen automatically
- They don’t use up willpower
- They don’t use up conscious energy
Since we’re trying to optimize our energy throughout the day, preserving energy by using rituals is a great idea.
Energy rituals then have kind of two benefits. They (1) replenish your energy without (2) using up any energy or willpower.
Rituals are POWERFUL.
Use them to your advantage.
(Note: You can also create weekly (not just daily) energy rituals such as going out for dinner with your spouse every Thursday. Or play some tennis against your work buddy every Monday morning.)
Let’s see how a typical day of adhering to these principles might look like:
- 07:00 – 08:30: Work Sprint (Full Engagement)
- 08:30 – 08:50: Energy Ritual (Strategic Disengagement)
- 08:50 – 10:30: Work Sprint (Full Engagement)
- 10:30 – 11:00: Energy Ritual (Strategic Disengagement)
- 11:00 – 12:30: Work Sprint (Full Engagement)
- 12:30 – 13:00: Lunch
- 13:00 – 13:30: Nap (also an energy ritual and strategic disengagement)
- 13:30 – 15:00: Work Sprint (Full Engagement)
- 15:00 – 15:15: Energy Ritual (Strategic Disengagement)
- 15:15 – 17:00: Work Sprint (Full Engagement)
(It's a constant on and off. A full sprint followed by a break. A period of full engagement followed by a period of strategic disengagement. A period of energy expenditure is followed by a period of energy renewal. That's oscillation. And that's how we optimize our energy throughout our days and lives.)
Yes, this may look like you’re working less than you usually do.
But according to research from the book (and my own experience) you will get a lot more done by working this way than by working in a more old-school, linear type of manner.
Remember that in this scenario, when you’re actually working (I call this being in a work sprint), you’re going all out. You completely exhaust yourself and work as hard as you probably never work in a regular energy preservation mode.
These work sprints will allow you to get a LOT more done.
So how do we know what to do during these energy rituals?
That depends on your personal needs.
Let me explain…
7. The 4 Sources Of Energy
“Full engagement requires drawing on four separate but related sources of energy: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.”
“To be fully engaged, we must be physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest.”
We’ve established that we want to intermittently renew our energy throughout our days and throughout our entire lives.
Our fuel tank, so to speak, consists of 4 different sources of energy that help us fuel performance:
- Physical: How’s your body doing? How’s your muscle to fat ratio? How does your nutrition look like? Are you getting enough quality sleep? Are you exercising regularly?
- Emotional: How’s your emotional life doing? Do you feel positive emotions on a regular basis? Are you emotionally resilient? Or are your negative emotions running the show?
- Mental: How’s your brain doing? Are you able to focus and concentrate for sustained periods of times? Or are you quickly losing focus and get distracted?
- Spiritual: How’s your motivation doing? Do you have a purpose in life? And a clear set of values that drive your actions?
If you want to perform at your highest level, you have to optimize each of these 4 sources of energy.
Depending on your personal strengths and weaknesses you will want to focus on optimizing different energy sources.
If your physical energy is low, then you’ll want to work on your nutrition, sleep, and exercise.
If your emotional energy is low, then you’ll want to work on that.
You’ll learn how to optimize each of the 4 different energy sources in the next 4 key ideas.
For now, also understand that all 4 sources of energy feed upon one another.
When, for example, your physical energy is low and you’re tired all the time, then your mental energy in the form of concentration will suffer too.
That’s why high performance, health, and happiness are only possible if you optimize all 4 of your energy sources.
Let’s examine them one by one.
8. Physical Energy
“Physical energy is the fundamental source of fuel, even if our work is almost completely sedentary. It not only lies at the heart of alertness and vitality but also affects our ability to manage our emotions, sustain concentration, think creatively, and even maintain our commitment to whatever mission we are on.”
Physical energy is what we usually understand as energy.
If you’re tired often, then you are lacking in physical energy.
As the authors say, it’s not only important if you’re working a physical job, but it’s equally important if you’re working with your mind most of the time.
How do we optimize our physical energy?
By optimizing our nutrition, sleep, and exercise.
The better your nutrition, sleep, and exercise are, the more physical energy you’ll have.
For specific tips on how to optimize your nutrition and sleep (not much about exercise yet), check out our blog.
Potential energy rituals to replenish your physical energy:
- Going for a daily walk/jog (maybe in your first work break)
- Scheduling a weekly tennis session
- Working out regularly (strength training or interval training)
- Deep breathing (maybe in your second work break)
- Yoga (maybe once a week or during your afternoon work break)
- Daily Sleep rituals to fall asleep faster and stay asleep all night
- Eating healthy all day long
- Just generally moving your body as much as possible
9. Emotional Energy
“In order to perform at our best we must access pleasant and positive emotions: enjoyment, challenge, adventure and opportunity. Emotions that arise out of threat or deficit- fear, frustration, anger, sadness- have a decidedly toxic feel to them and are associated with the release of specific stress hormones, most notably cortisol.”
Positive emotions fuel performance.
Negative emotions harm performance.
I like to remind myself of this truth:
Happiness creates success (not only the other way round).
The more positive emotions you’re feeling on a regular basis, the more emotional energy you have and the higher your performance will be.
So what if you don’t have access to sufficient positive emotions?
Then you have to ask yourself if you are devoting enough hours a week to activities purely for the pleasure and renewal they provide.
If that’s not the case, install energy rituals that refuel your emotional energy tank.
Potential energy rituals to replenish your emotional energy:
- Dance/yoga/cooking lessons once a week
- Dinner with your spouse once a week
- Meditation first thing in the morning (or during an ultradian rhythm break)
- Dinner with your family at least 3x a week
- Watching a football game with friends
- Read a book on communication (to decrease the amount of arguments you have)
10. Mental Energy
“Nothing so interferes with performance and engagement as the inability to concentrate on the task at hand. To perform at our best we must be able to sustain concentration, and to move flexibly between broad and narrow, as well as internal and external focus.”
Your mental energy is mainly your attention - your ability to focus on what you want, when you want, and for however long you want.
It’s HUGELY important.
If you have too short an attention span or simply just can’t concentrate very well, then you need to install energy rituals that improve your mental energy.
Potential energy rituals to replenish your mental energy:
11. Spiritual Energy
“The quantity of energy we have to spend at any given moment is a reflection of our physical capacity. Our motivation to spend what we have is largely a spiritual issue. Fundamentally, spiritual energy is a unique force for action in all dimensions of our lives. It is the most powerful source of our motivation, perseverance and direction. We define “spiritual” not in the religious sense, but rather in more simple and elemental terms: the connection to a deeply held set of values and to a purpose beyond our self-interest.”
Spiritual energy gives us the motivation to act.
We could have all the energy in the world (physically), but without “a reason why” we wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Think about it:
You could have the perfect nutrition, perfect exercise regimen, and perfectly optimized sleep… you’d be SOARING with energy…
However, would that magically make you motivated?
No, it wouldn’t.
When you don’t know what you’re standing for as a person and don’t have any goals you’re working towards, then you don’t feel as motivated as possible. If you don’t have any goals in life, why should you get up in the morning anyway? You might as well stay in bed…
When, on the other hand, you know what kind of person you want to be, what you stand for, and what your purpose is, then all of a sudden you’ll have a reason to take action and a reason to make something happen. THAT’s when you’ll feel properly motivated.
And that’s where spiritual energy comes in.
Spiritual is defined by the authors as:
- a set of values
- a purpose beyond our self-interest
So to optimize our spiritual energy, we need to have a set of strong values and a purpose for why we do what we do.
How do we find out what our purpose and values are?
That’s of course a toughie and may take us years to truly find out.
Fortunately, Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr offer us a simple exercise to get to the bottom of it:
“Across cultures, religions and time itself, people have admired and aspired to the same universal values—among them integrity, generosity, courage, humility, compassion, loyalty, perseverance—while rejecting their opposites—deceit, greed, cowardice, arrogance, callousness, disloyalty and sloth. To begin to explore more deeply the values that are most compelling to you, we suggest that you set aside uninterrupted time to respond to the following questions: Jump ahead to the end of your life. What are the three most important lessons you have learned and why are they so critical? Think of someone that you deeply respect. Describe three qualities in this person that you most admire. Who are you at your best? What one-sentence inscription would you like to see on your tombstone that would capture who you really were in your life?”
This exercise may sound silly…
But research is actually backing this up. When you have a clear set of values and so-called “bigger-than-self-goals”, you feel better about yourself and are more motivated, confident, productive etc..
(Google it if you don’t believe me.)
So, do the exercise above. It unleashes magical motivation powers in you.
Potential energy rituals to replenish your spiritual energy:
- a walk in nature
- reading an inspirational book
- listening to an inspirational teacher
- reconnect with your purpose and values
12. How To Install Energy Rituals In Your Life
To perform at your best, you need to skillfully manage your energy.
And to manage your energy as skillfully as possible, you must rely on positive energy rituals that happen automatically without the use of any willpower on your part.
So the final question is…
How do you install those energy rituals into your life?
Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr give us a few tools to help with that.
My favorite idea is something they call precision and specificity:
“A broad and persuasive array of studies confirms that specificity of timing and precision of behavior dramatically increase the likelihood of success. The explanation lies once again in the fact that our conscious capacity for self-control is limited and easily depleted. By determining when, where and how a behavior will occur, we no longer have to think much about getting it done. A series of experiments have confirmed this pattern…
In perhaps the most dramatic experiment of all, a group of drug addicts were studied during withdrawal—a time when the energy required to control the urge to take drugs severely compromises their ability to undertake nearly any other task. As part of the effort to help them find employment post-rehabilitation, one group was asked to commit to writing a short résumé before 5:00 P.M. on a particular day. Not a single one succeeded. A second group was asked to complete the same task, but also to say exactly when and where they would write the résumé. Eighty percent of that group succeeded.”
That last study is awesome.
Simply setting an exact time and exact place for when you’ll do something dramatically increases your chances of actually doing it.
Let’s say you want to install the energy ritual of meditating when you get home from work.
In that instance you would simply define:
“When I arrive at home from work, then I immediately go to my bedroom and meditate.”
That commitment alone would massively increase your chances of following through with your energy ritual.
(NOTE: Installing new rituals (or habits) in your life is a big topic in and of itself. The best way I’ve found to establish new rituals, is by using implementation intentions and a mental tool called WOOP. You can check out those articles if you’ve got trouble installing your energy rituals.)
Performance, health, and happiness are first and foremost grounded in the skillful management of energy, not time.
Since we are no high-speed computers, we can’t fully engage at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.
Instead we are performing at our best when we move between expending energy and intermittently renewing energy.
In other words:
We are oscillatory human beings who should live their lives as a series of sprints, not one never-ending marathon.
We should either fully engage, or strategically disengage. We should be on or off. We should go all out or take a break.
A period of energy expenditure (activity) is followed by a period of energy renewal (rest).
To optimize our energy throughout the day, we should follow the ultradian rhythm and take a 15-20 minute break every 90-120 minutes.
We can get the maximum out of our breaks by using energy rituals that replenish either our physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual energy.
Installing energy rituals is the holy grail of optimizing your energy and performance. (Because they renew energy without using up energy or willpower themselves.)
Think about what kind of energy rituals you could install in your own life.
Howbout daily exercise? Or daily meditation? Or a daily walk in the park? Or a nap after lunch? Or dinner with your family?
P.S. What's Your Reading Game?
Want to know one habit highly successful people have in common?
They read. A lot.
Warren Buffett was once asked about the key to success. He pointed to a stack of nearby books and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”
In his recent HBO documentary, Becoming Warren Buffett, he says, "I still probably spend five or six hours a day reading."
His business partner and fellow billionaire, Charlie Munger, shares that passion and commitment to reading. He once said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”
And these two are not alone. Here are just a few more ultra-successful people who make reading a major part of their days:
- Mark Zuckerberg aims at reading a book every two weeks
- Bill Gates reads one book per week or about 50 books per year
- Elon Musk is another voracious reader and when asked how he learned to build rockets, he simply said, “I read books.”
- Mark Cuban writes on his blog that he reads more than 3 hours every day
- Oprah Winfrey is famous for her book club and is well-known for being an avid reader
Reading is a big deal.
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