Energy for work and life: To light a fire, strike a match

A map will guide you where you want to go and signs will point the way. Like maps, plans and to-do lists help you focus, but you need a means of travel. Along with reminders of what to do, you require a steady supply of fuel that enables you to do it.

What is this fuel?

“Motivation” comes readily to mind, but that’s not it. I am motivated, in that my intentions are good, I believe in what I’m doing, and I have a plan. For focusing on priorities, my spirit is willing – but some days the flesh is weak.

“Drive” is good, but a little dramatic. Do I want to be driven? I am reminded of an expression of my late grandfather’s: Go at your work with an all-day stroke. I prefer, like he did, a controlled slow burn for the long haul.

“Inspiration?” Also good, but fleeting. Inspiration comes and goes; it has an accidental quality.

I have settled on a term that is ordinary but apt: “energy.” It is energy that powers concentration and focus, energy that overcomes procrastination and distraction. Energy gets me started; energy keeps me going.

Energy can be fleeting, too, right? Sometimes it seems as inconstant as inspiration. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed and you have a crappy day. We would like energy to be more reliable.

Fortunately, we do have some control over it.

Over time, I’ve made some discoveries about energy that at first surprised me. I had assumed the most important thing was to take breaks and get rest. The best way to have energy for work, I thought, was to conserve it. That’s not wrong, but I noticed that certain activities both used energy and generated it as well.

Remember your grade school chemistry: To start a reaction, you need to add energy. You might desire the heat and light of a campfire, but nothing will happen until you apply a lit match.

I settled on twelve behaviours or habits that energize me, and I keep this list handy. Any are a good substitute for what drains me of energy: social media, television, etc. The behaviours are specific and tailored to my own interests, but they relate to these themes:

  • engaging in creative activities outside work
  • reading (real books)
  • organization and planning (eg. bullet journaling)
  • exercise and movement
  • meal planning and diet
  • quiet reflection
  • paying attention to the needs of others (a.k.a. acts of kindness)

These themes are conventional. My steady-as-she-goes grandfather could have come up with them. It’s not hard to imagine others: Socializing, family, travel, sports … What I like is the radical notion that the energy source fuelling life and work is something each of us can create.

Focus on what matters: Pour your attention into buckets

Some days it’s one interruption after another. Your interruptions are interrupted. And some days you let it happen: Everyone gets a hearing, and email is your to-do list. You guard your purse, but you squander what’s really precious: your energy and attention.

I’m guilty. I think we all are, at times. It’s hard to keep the main thing the main thing.

I once received advice on focus from someone who is very good at focus. Think of the most important activities you engage in, he said, and create a mental bucket for each. Each bucket is a non-urgent but important arena of activity that creates value and contributes to success in the long run. There might be three buckets on your list, or four, or five. Probably not more than five.

Now picture pouring your energy and attention into those buckets, he said. Keep that list in front of you as a daily guide. The list will not banish the fog of the urgent, but its light will sometimes cut through.

My list has four buckets which have remained stable for two years now. The buckets are People, Process, Leadership, and Strategy. Within each bucket, I have one to three focus areas. In the People bucket, for example, I have “grow the team”, “develop talent”, and “build relationships.”

Within each focus area, I have one to four activities. Here I get more specific about what I mean by “grow the team,” and so on. These activities change – I revise the list every few months to keep it current.

The particulars of my list are not important; you’ll have your own buckets, areas of focus, and activities.

Your buckets and areas of focus do not replace documented strategies and plans. Buckets are more personal; they embrace these externalities and relate them to how you spend your personal resources. Your focus areas will also include matters of ongoing importance that tend to be absent from timebound, project-oriented plans.

The list will seem obvious when you create it, but even the obvious becomes obscured when fatigue lures you toward distraction or when people are trying to interest you in minor fires here and there.  Fatigue and fires are real and unavoidable. But when you have energy on tap, fill the important buckets first.

Forget about time – energy and attention are your true resources

A few years ago, my wife and I took a ride in a hot-air balloon over the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. I was amazed by the experience. I expected it to feel blustery up there, a thousand feet up, looking down on the terrain from a little wicker basket. Instead, despite our rapid movement, it was perfectly serene. When you’re blown by the wind, you don’t feel the wind – because you are the wind.

Your to-do list for today likely has at least one urgent thing, or several. On days chock full of urgent tasks, it’s clear where you must devote your energies. In our complex work environments, urgency provides momentary clarity. Urgency liberates us: It absolves us from having to plan or decide.

Urgency is like riding in a balloon – it hypnotizes. You’re moving quickly, things are getting done. You’re keeping everyone more or less happy. The days fly by.

You have no direction in a balloon. The wind sends you here and the wind sends you there. You may have left from a predetermined Point A, but Point B might be anywhere.

Extended indefinitely, urgency leads us astray.

Unrelenting urgency is stressful, and who wants to be stressed out? And yet, we are addicted to urgent tasks. We will gladly check email for the one hundredth time on the off chance something’s exploding. And if there’s nothing exploding, we’ll just take the first task off the pile.

Your brain expends energy when it has to decide what’s most important. The brain is lazy. It’s easier to let someone else decide for us.

This is a special challenge for Operations staff or anyone in a support role. They are supposed to be responsive — but they are also professionals who enjoy a good deal of autonomy over how to structure their time and tasks. In a mature team, everyone knows what the goals are and is able to use discretion when prioritizing one thing over another. Advancement is complex work – pushing decision-making deeper into the organization works better than trying to manage order-takers ticking things off a list.

In a modern office, then, fewer people are handed a list of predefined tasks when they clock in. But what happens then? Too often, the absent assigned list is replaced by the inbox. I’m not immune, and neither are you. We all have days when we just want to be told what to do.

You can’t ignore the inbox. You must respond. But being ruled by the inbox is even worse than being told what to do, because it’s more random and disconnected from a sense of priority. It’s not responsive – it’s reactive.

In roles that call for judgment, there must be time for judgment.

It’s up to the individual employee to make time for judgment. This is especially true for leaders and managers, but not just for them. Turning a request around quickly will get you thanks today; the fundamental change or new approach you fashion during the quiet hour will get you promoted tomorrow.

Your destination, Point B, is defined by strategy and unit plans and performance plans. But an X on a map is of no use if you’re in a hot-air balloon. You need to feel a steering wheel in your hands. That steering wheel is any tool that helps you control where you direct your focus.

Time management is out; you can’t conserve time. Time is what marches on while you answer emails. Energy and attention are your true resources. Harness those.

Office Golden Rules

One year when I was a student in journalism school, it was announced that my class would be visited by one of the country’s most prominent journalists. Days before her arrival, the visit was cancelled. No reason was given, and our professors were tight-lipped. And then one day in early spring, news came that she had died of an illness she’d lived with for years and kept secret.

I remember a quote attributed to her: We must be kind, because we don’t know what other people are carrying around inside them.

Ask the hard questions, yes, as the journalist did. Have difficult conversations, because you care. But recognize the human in the being across from you.

I am a flawed human being, but I happen to like myself. Or at least tolerate myself. I expect people to cut me slack.

As you see yourself, I will try to see you.

I believe I am motivated by the best of intentions. I will assume you are, too, unless you prove otherwise. For proof I will set the bar high. If you go over it, you’re done. But I’ve never seen anyone go over that bar.

I detect you have some blind spots. It frustrates me that you can’t see them. Oh, that’s why they’re called blind spots. I acknowledge I must have them, too. If there’s a malady without a self-cure, it’s obliviousness. I promise to pause and consider what I’m not seeing, and ask questions, and listen to the answers. Well, I’ll try.

My head is full of thoughts and I am always in the grip of some emotion. I imagine the same is true of every person I meet on the street, every person on the bus, every person whose image greets me on Microsoft Teams. I will assume you have the same rich inner life I do, and that there’s plenty going on behind your neutral expression.

I might ask after the health of your cat. I might remember the names of your kids. I might ask about your cold. I don’t score high on the empathy scale; it’s something I have to work at. For me empathy is not a personality trait but a practice. It’s not what I am, it’s what I do. Empathy is being mindful.

I will try to be mindful.

Beware this work-from-home truism that isn’t true

You may have heard this one. “Working from home is bad for extroverts, great for introverts.” This was never true, and as time goes on its untruth becomes ever clearer.

All people need and desire connection with others, including introverts. All people need quiet time to process their encounters, including extroverts (although they might not enjoy it as much).

When the workforce emerges from this pandemic, organizations will face a new expectation that work arrangements be flexible. Whatever the pros and cons, we should not fear that our teams will split into in-office extroverts and stay-at-home introverts. That’s not how it works.

Different people at different times manage their energy differently. That’s all. It has little to do with desiring either stimulation or isolation as a default mode. Beyond figuring out how to work well together, the introvert-extrovert scale is a red herring that doesn’t have much bearing on anything essential.

For my early morning walk before work, I often choose the same wooded path. I sometimes meet a man and his dog who share my routine. The man is middle-aged and bald, and his dog is a poodle, I think, with fur of light maple. The dog’s name is Sadie. I know this only because this morning she chose to hate me, and the man had to restrain her on a short leash. We exchanged curt greetings and moved on.

None of us were pleased to meet on the path. That’s fine. There are plenty of other paths in the neighbourhood. We can each choose a way that suits our mood.

Employee engagement across all sectors is low, we’re told. What would be the result if we gave everyone the freedom to choose?

Adapting the Bullet Journal, for managers and leaders

Information, ideas, and tasks fly at us continuously. They flow out of meetings and out of our own heads. Capturing the flow with the help of paper-based or electronic tools helps us externalize information, which unburdens the memory of clutter and frees the mind for focused thinking.

Notebooks, paper files, electronic files, email – I’ve used them all, and they all share the same drawback: Retrieval. Record as much as you like, the exercise is pointless if you can’t put your hands on information when you need it.

Since last year I’ve been using the Bullet Journal method. I had been aware of bullet journaling for years, but it always seemed faddish, too fussy, too neat-freaky. A colleague’s example convinced me to read a book about it and adopt it wholesale; now I find it a natural extension of the notetaking methods I’ve always used, and a mindful way to manage the flow.

The essentials of the method can be described in ten minutes. I won’t go into them here; there are plenty of videos, a website, and the book. (1) I only want to talk about the power of easy retrieval. I have improvised on the basic idea to suit the reality of a manager or leader facing a different conversation, a different issue, every few minutes.

A bullet journal requires an index and page numbers. The index is no more than a list of topics and the page numbers you’ll find them on, but it’s the key to retrieval. The topics are the tasks, ideas, and other notes recorded in bullet form – an accumulation of the flow that washes over us every day.

The original bullet journal method relies heavily on the idea of Collections. A Collection is a page, or a pair of facing pages, dedicated to a single topic – think of a large project that generates a lot of tasks and notes that are more convenient to keep together.

I have mostly dispensed with Collections, because they were page hogs. New projects would turn out to generate fewer notes than I anticipated, and I would use up notebooks too quickly, forcing more frequent and time-consuming migrations. (Again, I leave it to you to know what is meant by “migration,” another powerful central concept. In a nutshell, migration refers to transferring relevant or unfinished business from a full notebook to a blank new one, a useful process of review and winnowing.)

In place of Collections, I note down everything as it comes, without trying to gather related notes together. Instead I rely on two specialized indexes, one called People and one called Subjects.

Without a doubt the biggest generator of information, ideas, and next actions is meetings. Whatever your capture method, at the head of your notes from any meeting are three critical pieces of information: When you met, who you met with, and what you talked about. Date, people, subject.

In a bullet journal, the date is taken care of because the flow is (more or less) captured in sequence. In my modified method, People and Subject each get their own index. I set aside two facing pages for each index. An entry in the People Index might look like this:

Paul: 10, 12, 28-9, (3:36), 58, 42

A page number in parentheses indicates a reference to a previous notebook (each notebook is numbered), should I need to go back that far. There’s no need for the page references to be in order.

A sample entry in the Subject Index looks the same:

Online giving: 22, 16, 80

The People Index is most useful when you’ve met with one person to talk about multiple things – check-ins with direct reports or other regular one-on-ones. The Subjects Index is most useful when you’ve met with multiple people at once about a single thing. The same meeting can be noted in both indexes, for example when you’ve met about online giving as a group, and later discuss online giving during a one-on-one.

I try not to write too much. I take rough notes during meetings and then transfer to the bullet journal only concise highlights, key things to remember, and next actions. If I wrote directly into the journal I’d end up with a mess and use up too many pages. I can fit a month or two into a single notebook of about 100 pages.

For this to work, you have to keep the indexes up to date. I will either index as I go, or I’ll let a few days go by and then catch up. When I’m done indexing a page for people and subjects, I write “P/S” at the inner top of the page, near the gutter, so I know where to continue from. I mark the outer ear of the index pages themselves with a colour Sharpie, red for People and blue for Subjects, so I can quickly flip to either one.

If this seems too fussy or too much work, then compare with keeping it all in files or, worse, in your head. In my current notebook I’ve got entries for about 20 people and more than 50 subjects. Either index is expandable and flexible. The Subjects list fits on two facing pages, and although it’s not in alphabetical order, it’s not hard to quickly find what I’m looking for on a quick scan. True, relevant bits of a project will end up scattered here and there throughout my notebooks, but the index keeps them more readily accessible than having them stuck unseen in a paper file in a drawer, or an elusive Word document hidden somewhere in the folder tree on the shared network drive.

A notebook won’t completely eliminate the need for files containing more detail (although it comes remarkably close). Nor will a notebook direct how you spend your most precious resources: energy and attention. You need other tools for that. But it does feel liberating to carry around your entire current work world in a notebook or two. Give it a try.

1. “The Bullet Journal Method,” by Ryder Carroll. See

When to stop procrastinating

Some time ago, after a lot of dithering, I decided to participate in a leadership development program. I had delayed and delayed before finally committing. I was on unfamiliar ground; all I knew I was looking for something personally challenging, immersive, and experiential. I wanted to come out changed.

The stakes seemed high. I would not sign up for anything until I knew exactly what I was getting out of it.

Then I read this quote from Meno: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

The quote was in a piece by Rebecca Solnit. “The things we want are transformative,” she writes, “and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”

From time to time, I make a list of things I’m avoiding, and why. Sometimes there are good reasons for procrastinating; sometimes I just need to get my shit together. Other times, I see I’m waiting for knowledge of the unknowable future, a future that could in fact be changed in unpredictable ways by what I’m thinking of doing. Then I have to picture myself in a year or three, and ask if that future self would regret not having acted, even if things didn’t turn out as I’d hoped. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to go in blind.

Willingly going in blind is like being lost and feeling okay with it. When you are lost, Solnit writes, “the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.” However it feels, sometimes we need to start there.

Mind like water

Every morning, in place of my commute, I go for a long walk. I call it my sanity walk. My way takes me by a small lake. One day, the lake was a perfect mirror, reproducing perfect copies of trees, houses, a dock, and the cloudless sky of thousand-piece-puzzle blue. I took pictures with my phone.

I’ve been around the lake enough times to know that this beautiful stillness is very rare.

My mind, like the lake, is rarely still. Near constant wind disturbs the surface, and my anxious thoughts cloud my brain in a fog of useless, directionless energy like static. Walking allows me to disengage my mind from its thoughts.

Letting go of thoughts is something I feel physically in my head, like a fist relaxing its grip. Then I realize where I am, like a driver on a boring highway emerging from a reverie. My eyes and ears open. I notice the street ahead, and the houses. I notice the rooftops covered with white squares, each shingle outlined with a dusting of snow. I hear a distant garbage truck, starting and stopping. I hear a scratching nearby, a bird rummaging in the dead leaves under some trees. I notice the children’s playground equipment wound with yellow caution tape.

I notice a Nova Scotia flag hung from the railing of someone’s front step. Across the street, I see a length of Nova Scotia tartan hanging from the branch of a tree in a front yard. And there’s another flag, pinned to the wall of a house, encircled by a string of Christmas lights in the shape of a heart.

This is Nova Scotia, a small province where nearly everyone can trace a connection to a victim. Confined to our houses, we are denied the ability to gather as we normally would, and our sadness knows no bounds.

April in Nova Scotia can be pleasant but is just as likely to be windy, wet, and cold. We are serious about insulating our houses. Tiny leaks around windows and doors add up. Someone once told me the total area of dozens of small leaks could be the size of a basketball.

Imagine a hole that big in the wall of your house. You wouldn’t put up with that for long in a cold climate.

The wind that disturbs our minds sneaks in via many little holes: CNN, CBC, Facebook, Twitter. Words have power. A steady drumbeat of certain words – kill, gun, shooter – exhausts and confuses us.

We should feel sad. We should also stay informed. But be careful how you take in the noise of the world. It should be in ways and at times of your choosing, not via alerts and notifications and buzzes and ringtones.

The surface of the water will calm if it’s not disturbed. We can’t always keep the wind out, but we can at least stop inviting it in.

Our resilience in this moment is not a product of sudden changes in routine we adopt now, but of habits of mind we have acquired over years. But now is as good a time as any to re-examine what we let into our skulls.

From the lake, I return to my desk better able to lead and to serve. I do not have a still mind, and I never will. My brain hums with anxiety at the best of times. A calm mind is not a goal to achieve, but a lifetime habit, a gentle discipline that never ends. It enables me, us, to stand and face the wind.

So your horoscope says you’re an introvert

Have you ever been made to take a personality test as part of a job application? I have. And I learned a lot from it – although not about me.

The test was administered and interpreted by an associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology, consulting for the recruiting firm contracted to help fill the position. I was not surprised by my test results – introvert, detail-oriented, compromise-seeking – but I found the professor’s interpretive report a little on the negative side.

I got the job. I was offered the opportunity to meet with the professor. I showed up at his office keen to learn how I might compensate for deficiencies in my psychological makeup that would hold me back as a leader if left unaddressed.

You see, years of exposure to conventional wisdom about personality types had conditioned me to suspect that introverts don’t belong in leadership roles or collaborative work environments. Or maybe they can be admitted as long as they undergo the personality equivalent of conversion therapy.

For example, I once attended a team meeting on talent development in which one of the participants presented resource materials that essentially stated that introverts are best suited to working alone doing repetitive tasks. I should have objected but I said nothing.

(Introverts are well represented on my team. I can attest that no one in Advancement works in isolation doing solely repetitive tasks. No one.)

But I have an open mind, and I listened to what the professor had to say. Which wasn’t much. He seemed evasive, and I left with an empty notebook.

A few weeks later, I read a story in the local paper based on an interview with this same associate professor. He had co-authored a study on people who lie during job interviews. He said he had found a link between personality and deceptive interview answers.

Introverts, he found, tend to be less confident, and use deception to cope with the perceived difficulty of the interview, while extroverts tend to be more honest.

“What we found is individuals who are more extroverted, that are more conscientious and are more experienced and have better prepared for an interview (tend to) use more of the honest strategies,” he said. “While those who are more introverted, less conscientious, less prepared, and maybe less experienced, they go in the interview and apparently they tend to be less confident. They perceive the interview to be more difficult for them and then they use the deceptive strategy as a way to kind of cope with the anxiety that can arise because of the situation.”

I have not read the study, and the reporter may have mangled the message; the quote suggests the study included multiple variables. But it made me angry. I’ve kept the newspaper clipping for years, intending to write about it, but my anger has prevented me.

I’m still angry, but I write now because I fear that some hiring managers might actually believe this.

Personality testing has validity, and can be used for self-reflection and for helping diverse personalities work together. But barring people from higher levels of employment based on dubious interpretations of ambiguous data is wrong and harmful.

It is harmful to individuals, to teams, to organizations. We deny opportunities to talented people, or those talented people self-select out of the running. The psychological diversity of our teams that encourages good decision-making is impaired.

Personality is not irrelevant in assessing fitness for a role. But I know many extroverts – either I work with them or love them – and believe me, extroverts (as a group) are no better equipped to handle life and the world and leadership than introverts are. (And in some cases, I see people judged unfairly based on their extroversion — it can cut both ways.)

Personality testing is interesting the same way the starry sky is interesting: full of real and complex phenomenon. But if you’re a hiring manager or a potential job candidate, please don’t be swayed by astrology.

Figure out what you want to do, versus what you want to be

What is a “job”? It seems a very solid thing. Often it isn’t. There’s a job description, some records in the HR database, a payroll arrangement, a title on a business card, a set of performance objectives, a workspace, and a lot of assumptions and expectations spoken and unspoken.

As a container, a job is less like a box with hard sides and more like an elastic bag. It changes. It can shrink in places, stretch in others.

Late last year, President Obama came to town. In his wake, a remark he’d made about advice to young people became widely quoted. He said, “Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.”

This advice translates to the workplace. Ambition expressed as a desired job title or income level is uninspiring and empty. Better to study how your organization’s strategic goals align with what gives you meaning, and think how your role could evolve to serve that alignment.

Your supervisor might not be asking you what you would like to accomplish, what gives you joy, or what purpose you want to pursue via work. But you should certainly ask those questions of yourself.