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Where Is Your Energy Going?

The spring semester is almost over, so this month I want us to focus on resetting for the summer and fall. To do that, I have a few questions I really want you to think about as you finish up the spring semester. My question for you this week is, “Where is your energy going?” We tend to think of our days in terms of time, but it’s our energy that gets us through the day – good or bad. Are you constantly running around going and doing to the point of exhaustion? Or at the end of the day, do you find it hard to pinpoint what you accomplished? Then stay tuned.

Here's the thing, energy is your most valuable resource. You might be thinking, sure energy is important but what I really need it more time. It’s easy to think that, because many of the things we have to do will absolutely take time. But our focus on time really stems from chronic stress. When you are stressed, your body goes into fight or flight - or more comprehensively, fight, flight, freeze, or appease. We’re going to talk more about stress in the third week of May, but for our purposes today what I want you to understand is that during fight or flight, the hormones in your body make you hyperfocus on time. That response make you feel like time is more important than energy, but it’s not.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, Alicia had a baby. As you can imagine, she took off several weeks afterward for maternity leave. That meant she didn’t have to go to work or do any work-work for six – eight weeks. Sure, she had to tend to a tiny new human, but I mean mostly all he did was eat, poop, and sleep. Compared to her normal schedule, this should have left Alicia with plenty of time to get things done. She didn’t have work to do, but all those projects around the house could finally get done, right? Huzzah! What really happened is she got very little got done other than keeping said human alive. Why? Because she had no energy. She was recovering from birth, feeding said baby very frequently, trying to decide if this crying was related to eating, pooping, or sleeping. Her sleep schedule was way out of whack. Even when there was “nothing to do for the baby” she was too exhausted to do anything. If you’ve experienced this or known someone who has you know what I mean.

But let’s do another example that all of us can relate to. Way back in April of 2020, Jeremy Haynes tweeted, “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either: 1.) a new skill 2.) starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business 3.) more knowledge You didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.” Now there have been plenty of people who have ripped him a new one over it, but why was he wrong? I mean suddenly people had more time. Folks didn’t have to commute. More things got delivered to the house. Suddenly all those social and business get togethers were gone. He was wrong because it isn’t about time! The quarantine came with a host of new stressors that left everyone constantly pivoting and exhausting themselves. Low energy = low productivity. Or I should clarify, all that energy was being used for other things, leaving little left for what we typically think of as being productive.

All that to say, you could have all the time in the world, but if you don’t have enough energy nothing will get done. Or at least nothing will get done well.

So back to my question, where is your energy going? In a nutshell, your energy goes where your attention goes. If that’s the case, let’s tweak the question to, “Where is your attention going?” If you’re like most folks in higher ed, it’s ping-ponging all over the place all day. You came in this morning and what happened? Maybe on the drive in, you had a very carefully thought-out agenda for your day. And then you got to campus and faced dozens of emails, the stack of projects on your desk, repeated interruptions from students and staff members, and so on and so on.

And those were just the external things. What was happening INSIDE your head? When you read that first email, were you able to quickly respond and move on, or did you get caught up overthinking your reply? When you saw all those unfinished projects on your desk, what reaction did you have? Did you spend the next few minutes going over and over in your head how you’re failing at your job or on how you’ll ever get all that done in time? When Brenda stopped by to ask you about a problem she was having, did you quickly coach her and empower her to figure out a solution; or did you take that problem on as your own?

Let’s just say all of that happened in the first hour you were in the office. Now the rest of your day is likely you trying to refocus on the things you told yourself needed to get done today, while juggling meetings, thinking about those earlier issues, and more interruptions. That’s your energy spilling out all over the place, all while picking up even more for your to do list along the way.

I did some gardening over the weekend and after I planted everything, I got out the hose and used the spray nozzle setting to water them. Did the plants get watered? Yes, but I noticed a lot of the water wasn’t actually hitting the plants or their containers. Much of it was lost on the grass, concrete, and even swept away with the wind. If I heard someone calling my name or a dog barking, I’d turn and end up watering all sorts of things that weren’t my plants. It took me way more time to get my plants sufficiently watered. Plus, I wasted a lot of water as it sprayed all over the place.

Our energy often looks like the spray nozzle setting. It’s kind of aimed where we think it needs to go, but it shoots out all over the place. Sometimes it does go where we want. But your lingering thoughts that pop up as you’re trying to get something done are like the over spray that missed my pots. The constant interruptions you face are like when I’d turn because someone called my name. All of your energy is suddenly going somewhere else, leaving less available for where you really need it.

I live in a place that doesn’t have drought conditions, so theoretically I had an endless supply of water that could replace the stuff I wasted. But your energy is limited. When you waste it, that means you have less energy to use for other, possibly more important things that day. There are things you can do to replenish your energy, but that involves your daily self-care routine. We’ll talk more about this in the third week of May, but if you don’t have one, then indeed that energy is just gone for the day.

To use your energy efficiently, you need to be focused on your objective. That could be a student, a project, or a meeting with your staff. A University of California study found that it takes on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus after an interruption. How many times do you get interrupted each day? If it’s twice an hour, that means you’re never really focusing on anything. And that’s a big problem. Why? Because it means your energy is never focused on the things you need to get done. Even when you have the time, your brain is spraying energy all over the place. That means it’s taking you more time and you’re wasting valuable energy as you do it.

Had I used a drip irrigation system or a different nozzle setting, all of my water could have been focused on where I wanted it to go. That would have meant less wasted water and less wasted time.

There is a better system for your energy. One that allows you focus on your priorities and cut down on unnecessary interruptions. The first step in this process, is understanding where your energy is going now. What are all those things you’re doing every day that leave you feeling exhausted? Where are your energy vampires – whether they be other people or your own thoughts? What’s hitting your plants and what’s being wasted?

Even though it does mean one more thing to do, the way to start this process is simply by logging or noting what you’re doing, what external interruptions happen, and even the rogue thoughts that show up and interrupt your focus. You also want to note how those different activities impact your energy. Some things and people may make you feel more energized – like when you’re doing things in your Strengths Zone. Other activities and people can drain your energy.

This may seem like a tedious process, but if you want to reclaim your energy so you can use it effectively you need to understand why it’s not effective now. And if you think, “sounds great but I literally don’t have the time.” The reason you don’t have the time – and more importantly the energy, is exactly because of this. You can either keep spraying your energy all over exhausting yourself, or you can start to pay attention to where it’s being wasted, so you can reclaim it.

Now that’s step one. As I mentioned in previous episodes, we’re currently enrolling in the summer session of the Supervisor Strengths Institute. One of the things we talk about how to better use your energy. That includes what we just talked about, as well as how your talents impact your energy. In fact, I often tell folks that at its core, the Institute is really about how to better manage your energy. That means being more productive at work and still having energy for you to use when you’re not at work. Start noticing where your energy is going now, but join us this summer to put systems into place to help you maximize your energy.

Start tracking that energy so you stop wasting it. And until next time, stay strong.

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