The Power of Full Engagement [Book Review]

Oct 3, 2014
Joe Buhlig
~8 mins

There’s a lot of advice on the web about managing your time. Everyone seems to have the golden ticket that will pull time out of thin air. But what if time isn’t the key to being fully engaged?

We all have the same number of hours and minutes in a day. And yet there are folks who seem to accomplish a lot more than I do. Why is that? Why do some people have the uncanny ability to achieve like crazy when others struggle to keep up with day-to-day responsibilities?

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz wrote The Power of Full Engagement to answer this question. The tagline is: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. The premise is that we need to balance our energy levels in order to be fully engaged with our work and relationships that surround us.

Four Layers of Energy

The book describes four layers of energy which build on each other in the form of a pyramid. As the book says:

To be fully engaged, we must be physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused, and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest.

It’s important to note how the layers stack on top of each other. You can do nothing if you haven’t slept or eaten in two days. You need to start with the physical layer and then work your way up.

The goal for each energy level is to increase your capacity by seeking stress and then recovering. It’s similar to training for a marathon — you don’t go out and run 10 miles on day one. If you attempt this you will most likely come away injured and in pain. Instead, you start off walking. After walking each day, you run a 1/4 mile. After running 1/4 mile each day, you increase slightly until you’re running a mile. You continue this process of incremental increases until you’re running miles per day and able to take on a marathon. You stress your body and then recover in order to build your capacity for running.

Each of these energy levels is the same. We need to learn how to spend energy in each area and then recover. We need to take on the mentality of a training athlete to develop each area.

We, too, must learn to live our own lives as a series of sprints — fully engaging for periods of time, and then fully disengaging and seeking renewal before jumping back into the fray to face whatever challenges confront us.”

Let’s take a look at each of the four layers and how we can work to increase our capacity for each.

Physical Energy

Without physical energy we cannot accomplish anything. We need sleep to rejuvenate our bodies. We also need to exercise in order to gain overall health and build our physical energy capacity. We have to find a balance between physical expenditures and breaks. Without one, we atrophy and start to lose our fitness level. Without the other, we may die of exhaustion.

The other side of physical energy involves the food that we eat. As someone who works in agriculture, I have a vested interest in our food system. There are a lot of diets, mindsets, activists, and just plain bad science out there. And there is no shortage of tactics used to get you on the road they’ve paved. No matter the path you choose, eat healthy. Without good food coming in, your body can’t give you the energy you need to be effective.

Emotional Energy

If you’re experiencing a lot of stress and negativity, you’ll never be fully engaged. You need to find things to do that bring you joy and help you recover from bad experiences. Again, endure stress and recover.

A good example of this would be a meeting that has gone badly. In order to build your capacity to handle these situations, you need to find things that help you re-energize after the meeting. Go for a walk outside or find someone to enjoy a cup of coffee with. Whatever it is, you need to find activities that bring you enjoyment and do them when you find negative emotions overwhelming you.

Mental Energy

Focus and concentration. Visualizing positive experiences and avoiding negative self-talk. These are key to fully engaging with your mental energy. It’s hard to deliver a great result when you don’t have faith in yourself. Taking time to visualize a positive outcome on a project can help you focus on creating a stellar product.

To build your capacity for mental energy and focus, you need to engage in mentally challenging tasks. The book suggests that meditation is the best method for learning to work with a focused mind.

Mental acuity diminishes in the absence of ongoing intellectual challenge.

Spiritual Energy

Don’t confuse this with religion. That’s not the point the book is trying to make. They’re referring to the purpose or drive behind you. You have to have a reason to work. Without it you are simply going through motions and maintaining the status quo.

You need to determine what your drive is. What makes you do what you do? Once you’ve determined that, you need to review it regularly. You can’t let it slip your mind or you’ll be right back to being disengaged with your purpose.

Spiritual energy provides the force for action in all dimensions of our lives. It fuels passion, perseverance and commitment.

The Power of Rituals

The book doesn’t just give you the concepts, but also helps you find ways to put them into practice. The key is to adopt rituals or routines. Rituals are something you do at the same time and place, in the same way, and in the same order.

Positive energy rituals — highly specific routines for managing energy — are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance.

The point behind rituals is to create a structure in which we can thrive. If we have a routine that helps us push ourselves and then recover, we have an automatic way of being fully engaged in any circumstance.

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 energy available to us in creative, enriching ways.

Here are some examples of rituals that I’ve put in place:

1. Morning routine

I’ve created a ritual that starts the moment I wake up. I quickly dress and grab breakfast. I spend some time reading my Bible and then head to the woodshop for a bit. Then I write for an hour and about the time I’m finished Cutie decides it’s time to tackle the day. If she’s still sleeping, I start in on my 3 most important tasks for the day. When she wakes up, I change a diaper, get breakfast ready for her, and get second breakfast (plus coffee) for myself.

I do my best writing first thing in the morning. If I don’t spend time in the woodshop in the morning, I won’t make time for it elsewhere. If I do these two energizing rituals in the morning, I’ve got a great feeling about the day already and I’m ready to be super productive.

2. Email

I’ve written about my escape from the corporate email habit before. The book goes into email quite a bit and I’ve read numerous articles about the dangers of checking email constantly. Yes, there are jobs that require you to be on email all day, but I don’t have one of those. I typically check email twice a day — 9am and 3pm. Email can easily derail my day and drastically cut the amount of work I can complete. It’s an energy drain for me. So I limit the energy I spend on it by putting these timed rituals in place.

3. Personal/Work Transitions

This one has always been hard for me and I don’t expect it to get much easier. The “going to work” and “coming home” transitions create problems for most. You have to switch your brain from thinking about work to thinking about personal or vice versa. I’ve found that if I do something unrelated to either and do it consistently, my brain knows what comes next. This makes the transition easier. I also know that I place a high value in learning. So I watch a TED talk between my work day and the time when I “head home” — or go upstairs. It makes a great separation point that is consistent and I can count on.

4. Cycling

I’ve taken on cycling as a mode of exercise. It’s something that I enjoy, but haven’t spent a lot of time with. I now try to get on the bike at least three times a week. I usually take Cutie with me in a pull-behind cart. It adds a little resistance for a great workout and it gives Becky some time to herself as well.

Next Actions

This is one of those books that can be life changing. I discovered it when reading an article from the guys at Asian Efficiency.

I discovered what my values are and wrote a mission statement for myself. But those are only good if I review them often, so I look them over every morning. I keep an eye on my energy in each of the four areas and make sure that I’m renewing myself as often as I need. If I find that I’m falling into a rut, I look for a ritual that I can use to help me regain energy regularly. So far it’s been a journey I’ve really enjoyed.