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The Energy Thieves

As Featured in Psychologies Magazine, March 2017 issue.

· energy,energy depletion,willpower

By Cheryl Rickman

Watch out, there’s an energy thief about. But the culprit may not be what you think. We blame lack of sleep, insufficient exercise and poor nutrition for our lethargic energy levels and these do sap energetic capacity. But energy depletion isn’t just physical – our mental energy is also drained. So, while napping, exercising and certain foods will raise our physical energy, boosting our mental energy is more about the decision-making process surrounding those choices.

Decisions, Decisions

Making decisions is exhausting. According to numerous studies, our quality of decision making deteriorates over the course of the day, resulting in decision fatigue. From choosing what to wear, buy or say; the constant choices we face depletes our mental energy.

It’s not just deciding what we should do that’s tiring. Deciding what we shouldn’t do is equally debilitating.

Willpower Woes

According to studies by the University of Würzburg, we spend three to four hours per day resisting desires, from checking Facebook when we're meant to be working to eating something we oughtn’t.

Each time we fend off the temptation to scoff a bag of Maltesers, we’re less able to resist further temptations, so our willpower tends to be at its lowest in the evening, (which explains my 9pm fridge visits and inability to resist the lure of Wensleydale-with-cranberries!) Each instance of resistance lessens our willpower. This is known as ego-depletion. As self-control is a finite resource, the more we avoid, the more depleted we feel, making our emotional regulation harder and our cravings stronger. Conversely, the more energy we have, the stronger our self-control will likely be. So prioritising energy-boosting is vital to our vitality.

According to research by Cornell University, 226.7 of our daily decisions are about food. No wonder that, after considering wholemeal vs seeded and price vs taste, by the time we reach the checkout, we have minimal willpower left to resist the cleverly-positioned chocolate bar.

So what's a mentally-depleted-Malteser-avoider to do?

Energy-Boosting Brain-Hacks

To sustain our cognitive resources, we can:

1. Ritualise. Making habits conserves willpower by removing the mental effort involved in decision-making. For example, by arranging to meet a friend or personal trainer on specific days, you’re no longer faced with the decision about whether to drag yourself out of bed to exercise each morning.

As Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives says, “A habit requires no decision from me, because I’ve already decided. Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self control.”

Consequently, habits save our mental energy.

Many a powerful person knows this. Says Barrack Obama, “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinise yourself. You can’t go through the day distracted by trivia.”

So how do we build new habits and rules to live by?

The key is to break habit change into small action steps.

First identify the routine, experiment with rewards and cues, then create a written plan. For example, to replace my habit of snacking in the evening (mmm, Wensleydale) with a healthier habit, I place my favourite mug with a ginger tea-bag inside it next to the fridge. This acts as a cue and reward. I also leave my Insight Timer meditation app open on my phone before going to sleep, next to a postcard that reads ‘calmer’ to cue and reward my (now more habitual) morning meditation practice.

2. Tap into natural rhythms and take regular breaks to boost mental concentration. By taking a structured-approach to how you spend your time and incorporating regular breaks, you can maintain your mental energy levels and stay focused.

The Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, is based on short bursts of focused work, interspersed with five minute breaks. The premise is that taking short, scheduled breaks eliminates burnout from over-working, and improves mental agility.

You choose a project, set the timer for 25 minutes (either a traditional tomato-shaped timer or one of the many pomodoro apps) and immerse yourself in the task until the timer reminds you to take a five minute break. Every four ‘pomodoros’ you take a longer 20-30 minute break.

To manage interruptions, such as a phone call, Facebook message or suddenly remembering to get some (ginger) tea-bags on the way home; you simply log those distractions in priority order and continue with your sprint of work.

If 25 minute sprints don’t seem long enough immersion periods, an ‘ultradian’ sprint of 90 minutes might suit you better? Ultradian rhythms are based on our natural ebb and flow from high to low energy. After 90 minutes; yawns, hunger and a restless lack of concentration signal the need for a recovery period. People often ignore these signs, work through them and burn out.

Both rhythms share the notion that multi-tasking undermines productivity and depletes energy. According to Energy Project founder, Tony Schwartz, ‘switching time’ to deal with distractions can increase how long it takes to complete the primary task by 25 per cent.

By taking a two-pronged approach focusing on rituals and rhythms, we can maintain our mental energy. And, if we build our self-awareness around how we feel throughout the day (depleted or repleted) and take steps to manage that, we can freshen our cognitive resources, have more zest and perform better. Because, it’s sustained action that counts. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”

Harnessing Positive Psychology To Boost Our Mental Energy

  1. Create habits which replete both physical and mental reserves. Habitually taking a daily nap at 2pm, provides the dual benefit of no longer needing to decide about napping, plus the physical restorative benefit of napping. The same goes for taking a ‘glucose’ break to eat healthy complex carbs and protein and counter that 3pm energy-lull, cultivating a daily habit of meditation or scheduling regular comedy club/film nights to benefit from another source of ego repletion, laughter in the company of others.

  2. Frame goals positively to turn ‘avoidance’ into ‘approach’. According to Caroline Adams Miller and Dr Michael B Frisch, authors of Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide; “Avoiding something takes more mental and physical energy than approaching it.” So ‘reframe’ goals in the positive. For example, instead of “I don’t eat chocolate,” say, “I can eat chocolate, but I choose not to.” Or, “If I want chocolate, I’ll drink herbal tea instead.”

  3. Get in tune with your body to refuel your mind. “Regulate energy throughout the day by being mindful and attuned to your body,” suggests Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, founder of The Flourishing Centre and CAPP (Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology). Says Emiliya, “Awareness enables compassion enables care.”

  4. Bolster your awareness by asking questions. Feeling low mid-afternoon? Ask yourself why you feel like a sugar hit? Perhaps it’s thirst and some lemon-water will suffice, rather than a hobnob.

Cheryl Rickman is a Positive Psychology practitioner and author of The Flourish Handbook. Click here to take part in the 30 Day Flourish Challenge.

An edited version of this feature was published in the March issue of Psychologies Magazine. To subscribe to Psychologies Magazine, click here

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