Corporate America does lend itself to a workday that includes 90-minute intervals of intense work and then periods of deep recharging. It’s certainly not the image conjured; it’s the dedicated employee who works late, comes in early and eats lunch at his/her desk.

That person is “productive.”

But according to one expert, that image is the exact opposite of productive.

“The person who stays the longest, who sacrifices sleep, who never goes to lunch, is treated as the hero. But they’re setting themselves up for breakdown and burnout,” said Tony Swartz, CEO of The Energy Project, a company that works with the likes of Google, Sony and Time Warner to help employers boost productivity through energizing employees. “Capacity is the fuel in your tank; it’s what allows you and the people you oversee to bring skill and talent to life.”

Swartz, in a webcast yesterday, said that capacity can’t be built upon being constantly “plugged in.” Instead, he proposed that employees be able to unplug from email once a day, especially when working on a challenging project.

“You don’t have to choose sides by letting email run your life or turning it off altogether,” he said. “We need to find times during the day where we can, when we’re working on something that advances the ball, we can shut it off. When people set their boundaries, they rarely do get interrupted.”

Swartz pointed to the advent of Blackberries and 24/7 connectedness that has led to an increasingly burnt-out workforce. Workers have had to do more with less, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a productive employee.

“Suddenly you’ve got an issue:  time reaches a limitation. You’re never going to have one more minute, no Congressional legislation is going to change that, yet you need to be able to do more,” he said. “The more traditional companies have realized that these issues are real.”

The solution? He says there are more effective ways of managing energy.

“There are three qualities that make it valuable: we’re capable of expanding it; it can renewed; and you can be more efficient about the energy you use,” he says, mentioning exercise and sleep as fundamental in renewing energy. “Capacity is fundamental to a sustainable, high-performance culture.”

He used the analogy of a frog thrown into a pot of boiling water as an example for how people adapt to challenging environments. A frog jumps into a pot; it jumps back in and can live because it’s adapted, but “it’s not healthy. That’s what people do.”

 

He went over a few myths:

Myth: We’re meant to run like computers at high speeds and continually for long periods of time.

“We weren’t designed to run like computers. We’re oscillating beings, going back between spending and renewing energy.”

 

Myth: It’s the number of tasks we’re capable of juggling simultaneously that determines how productive we are.

“There is something called switching time, the time it takes you moving from one activity to another that makes you less productive. It will increase the amount of time you spend on the first activity by 25% if you switch from one thing to another.”

 

Myth: It’s your job to do the work of your employees.

“Your job is to enable their work and how you manage your energy affects their energy.”

 

Myth: The way you renew doesn’t matter, like drinking coffee or alcohol.

“You’ve got to renew energy when you’re spending it all the time, but we use our stress hormones to fuel us in an intentional way when we’re not doing it in a hormonal way.”

And the key to implementing such change at the workplace? His organization is one answer, but the simple act of becoming more aware of your own energy can affect workers around you.

“The pulse of great performance is not continuous work, but a paradigm shift of periods of intense effort offset by short periods of deep recovery. Help the people that you have the potential to influence.”

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