“Be Excellent at Everything” – Tony Schwartz

Tony Schwartz

For Day 2 of the Biennial Teachers Conference was started out with Tony Schwartz, author of the book Be Excellent at Anything and CEO and Chair of the Energy Project. His talk is summarized as follows:

Demand in our lives is increasing relentlessly. Our capacity isn’t keeping pace. The way we’re working isn’t working. Far too many schools expect their employees to operate in the same way that computers do: continuously at high speeds, for long periods of time, running multiple programs at the same time. It’s a prescription for failure.

Human beings are designed to pulse. We’re at our best when we move between periods of expending energy and intermittently renewing our needs across four dimensions: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The better this needs are met, the more value we’re capable of creating. Time is finite, but we can expand and renew our energy across all four dimensions of our lives.

Rather than trying to get more out of their faculty, schools are better served by meeting people’s multi-dimensional needs, so they’re freed, fueled, and motivated to bring the best of themselves to work every day.

His talk focused on time organization and management – who do we manage it, organize it, and use it the most effectively? Even more importunity, how to we keep our energy at peak? Energy is more crucial than time, he argues. Those of us who have worked through an after lunch class or fought for some energy during an early morning class can readily agree with him on that.

We tend to think of energy as ‘one-dimensional,’ e.g. charging your cell phone or filling your gas tank. However, human beings need four sources of energy (each critical and non singularly sufficient):

  • Physical Energy – the core, foundation of our energy, Fitness, Nutritious, Rest/Renewal (“x-factor” in sustainable high performance)
  • Emotional Energy – key in leadership positions (happiness, safety, relaxation, etc), high positive energy is necessary to perform at our best; systematically cultivate what we need to be our best (influence your own mood)
  • Mental Energy – the focus of your energy; do one thing at a time, in an absorbed way, for an extended period of time.
  • Spiritual Energy – purpose in life (not a religious element), energy from a clear sense of purpose beyond self interest; when something matters to you, you bring more energy to it.

He then had us exercise an energy audit – on a piece of paper, you wrote down all of the energy categories. He then gave us a list of statements and told us if the statement was true, we check ‘yes’

  • I don’t regularly get at least 7-8 hours of sleep and wake up feeling tired
  • I frequently skip breakfast
  • I don’t do cardiovascular training at least 3 times a week and strength/weight training at least 2 times a week
  • I don’t take regular breaks during the day to renew and recharge
  • I often eat lunch at my desk if I eat lunch at all
  • I frequently find myself feeling irritable or anxious at work
  • I don’t have enough time with my family and loved ones and when I’m with them, I’m not always “with” them
  • I take too little time for the activities I most deeply enjoy
  • I rarely stop to express my appreciation to others or to savor and celebrate my accomplishments and my blessings
  • I often feel my life is a relentless set of demands I’m expected to meet and tasks I have to complete
  • I have difficulty focusing on one thing at a time and I’m easily distracted.
  • I spend much of my time reacting to immediate demands
  • I don’t take enough time for reflection
  • I rarely have any time when my mind is quiet and free of thoughts
  • I often work in the evenings and the weekends and I rarely/never take an email free vacation
  • I don’t feel passionately committed to what I do
    I spend too little time at work doing what I do best and enjoy most
  • There are significant gaps between what I says is important and how I live my life
  • My decisions at work are more often influenced by external demands than my own clear sense of purpose
  • I don’t invest enough time and energy in making a positive difference to others and/or the world

For every one that you checked ‘yes’ you got a point. Most of us in the room didn’t score as well as we would have liked – there is a great deal of imbalance in the lives of teacher (and probably all professions). So why do we do this?

This is what he calls a “personal energy crisis.” We are not managing ourselves as skillfully as we should. He uses the boiling frog anecdote to highlight why we do this – the stress (heat) is slowly increased to the point that the frog (we) die (get overly stressed). We become numb to the consequences of our choices. By the time we notice, it’s too late.

We need to change our behavior to accommodate our energy needs. He argues that our devices are making us slaves – to work at their rhythms, not our own.

Schwartz argues that human beings are not designed to work continuously at high speeds for long periods of times, but rather to work at pulses and rhythmically.

“It would be reasonable to say that everything in our bodies is rhythmic unit proved otherwise.” – Josephine Arendt

He used the heart, lungs, and muscles as an example of the needs our bodies have –  pulsing to meet demands and relaxing to replenish. So how do we bring that into the management of our lives? He argued that stress is not our enemy – it’s how we expand our capacity. The enemy is the absence of intermittent recovery. This is the rational solution to the demand-capacity crisis that we are experiencing. We don’t need to maximize energy all of the time – but the right amount during the needed time.

He argued that we need to take a one minute breathing break to reenergize and focus ourselves and our students – one minute of renewal at the start of class. The greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal.

He also put forth the argument that multi-tasking is a myth – that we’re not efficient unless we’re absorbed in a single task. I don’t know if I agree with that personally. While multitasking is challenging, I believe that it can be learned. However, it depends on the needs of what we’re doing. Some work requires greater focus and concentration than others.

“Training can help you overcome some of the inefficiencies of multitasking by giving you more optimal strategies, but you can train until you’re blue in the face and you’ll never be as good as if you just focused on one thing at a time. Period. That’s the bottom line.” – David Meyer

He argues that kids should be engaged in a task wholly for 30-45 minutes in a task (adults 60-90) and then you take a small break. When you move from being focused and more absorbed, it can be immensely satisfying.

He finished by arguing that we need to stop thinking of ourselves as marathoners but rather as sprinters – small bouts of intense activity followed by short amounts of rest. We need to see the finish line/boundary/stopping point. Technology has removed our boundaries and stopping points – so we need to intentionally build back int our lives a pulsing rhythm. When we’re engaged, we need to be fully engaged. When you’re disengaged, be truly refueling, recovering, and not semi-engaged.

What we need to do is stop living in the gray zone! Take back your life!

6 thoughts on ““Be Excellent at Everything” – Tony Schwartz

    1. Jennifer Lockett

      You are too kind. I’m just trying to absorb it all and record some good notes. Interestingly, this particular speaker was arguing the my goal was unaccomplishable and even dangerous! So now I feel uncertain of my skills and learning at the conference! What dilemma!

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