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Right Effort: Balancing Effort, Energy and Relaxation

Who doesn’t want to perform optimally?

Performance is action to accomplish a project, task or function. It may relate to painting, dance, software development, accounting, cooking, or living effectively in a relationship. High functioning people want to optimize their performance to make sure they sustainably meet ever-changing success criteria, like satisfying customers, staying on budget, etc., while adjusting for current conditions and balancing thoroughness and efficiency so as to not overtax the resources at hand.

Performance management gurus agree that the right balance between effort and relaxation is required to optimize performance. Over exertion leads to burnout while under exertion leads nowhere. A Buddhist parable speaks of the need for the player of a stringed instrument to think of his effort in the same way he tunes his instrument so the strings are neither too tight nor too loose. Too tight, the string breaks. Too loose, the sound is muddled. With the right level of tension, there is music.

The building Blocks of Optimal Performance

The building blocks of optimal performance are confidence, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. These are relevant in each performance realm, for example in the arts, crafts, business, personal or spiritual realms. In each realm, specific knowledge and skills are needed, but the effective application of these rests on the five building blocks.

Confidence in one’s approach, technique, knowledge and in the ability to achieve one’s goal, fuels effort. Effort enables mindfulness, concentration and action. Mindfulness makes it possible to objectively observe and assess current circumstances and to concentrate. Concentration enhances the ability to act. These lead to wisdom, evidenced by the ability to apply skills and knowledge to meet the needs of each situation most effectively. Wisdom increases confidence.

Effort and Energy

In projects, effort is the amount of labor applied to a task. If a task requires three people working two hours per day for ten days the effort required for that task is 60 person hours. Effort, in a more general sense, is the use of energy to do something. It is exertion. In physics, effort is force applied against inertia. It is the force required by a machine to accomplish work.

Effort requires energy. Energy is the capacity to do work. Effort is the application of energy. Informally, energy means that hard to define force or quaity that characterizes a person, group or place. For example, you can say that “new members easily picked up on the team’s positive energy, it fueled their performance.” or “that guys negative energy drained everyone he came in contact with.” This energy modifies the raw energy and makes it more or less likely to be transformed into useful effort.

Making the right effort to accomplish what you want to accomplish is a challenge. It is a complex blending of the effective use of energy with a worthy direction or goal.

When we apply this to project work, we decide what we want to accomplish and identify the people with the right knowledge, skills and motivation to get the job done. This is the raw energy. That energy is enhanced by establishing a supportive environment – positive energy created by effective communication, team building, collaboration, effective leadership, and candid, appreciative feedback. The energy is directed into useful effort by identifying and scheduling the tasks required to accomplish objectives. Scheduling is done with recognition that the pace of the work must be set to create the right balance of effort and energy.

Over exertion

With respect to the effective use of energy, one extreme is to go all out, never stop, grit your teeth and go at it until you are done or until you are exhausted. When you are exhausted you fall down and rest until you have enough energy to go at it again and then you work, work, work. In this extreme, if the work takes mental effort, there is a sense of brain fatigue, a tightness in the head and around the eyes. Like your head is in a vice. If the work is more physical, then the muscles are straining and you are pushing with the last drop of your strength.

There is a place for this kind of physical effort, but it can only be sustained for short time, and it can be physically and mentally harmful. As for the mental effort, it seems that the more you push and strain your brain the less you accomplish. A relaxed mind is a productive mind. A relaxed and well tuned body is a body that can operate at peak levels. Up tight is not right.

Over exertion can be caused by fear of failure or retribution, a misplaced sense of urgency or a lack of understanding of the consequences of excessive effort.

Note that there is a significant difference between peak effort and excessive effort. Circumstances often make it necessary to work intensely at peak performance levels. Excessive effort is overdoing it at the expense of your ability to sustain effective effort.

In projects, scheduling that overloads resources and requires them to work excessive overtime under pressure to perform the impossible is counter productive. It saps physical and mental energy which in turn leads to suboptimal performance and loss of the most valuable resources.

Under Exertion

The other extreme is to take it too easy. There is no push; not enough energy. The attitude might be “Maybe the job gets done, maybe not.” The person working at this extreme may lack motivation. Sure there is no strain but there is also no gain. Project schedules may be made with too much “fat”.

Insufficient effort may be the result of chronically having too much to do, having unclear or unstated objectives, working with an approach that doesn’t work, never seeing any fruits from the effort, a poor work ethic or a lack of energy. A low energy environment in which there is little or no accountability influences people to slack off and under perform. Goals that are not aligned with personal values sap energy and lead to insufficient effort. Expectations, in the form of overly expansive schedules and quality criteria, may be set low, creating a situation in which performers are not motivated to work hard and smart.

The Right Balance

Interestingly, under exertion and over exertion have similar effects. They both sap energy and create an environment that perpetuates suboptimal performance. High performers are as likely to leave low energy environments as they are to leave environments that thrive on chronic over exertion.

The right balance of effort, rest and relaxation is dynamic. A continuous monitoring of the needs of the situation and the capacity of the resources enables adjustments to maximize energy and sustain effective effort.

Rest and relaxation must be valued as much as effort in order to motivate people to take the breaks they need to recover from periods of exertion and to absorb the lessons learned. Rest is the absence of effort. Relaxation is the absence of unnecessary tension. Optimal performers are relaxed when they are at rest and when they are at work. To rest while the mind is churning away about how quickly one needs to get back to work is not particularly restful. To perform while uptight about the fear of failure or about the things you do not like about your co-workers is counterproductive. To perform happily, mindfully focused and with only the level of tension required to get the job done leads to optimal performance.

To strike the right balance try the following:

  • Before you begin an effort, make sure you and everyone involved know what you are going to do, why you are going to do it and how you will proceed.
  • Make sure that your goal is realistic so that it can be accomplished under the conditions at hand.
  • Make sure that the goal is aligned with your values.
  • Set things up so that you can see signs of accomplishment.
  • Step back from time to time and see how far you have come, what you have accomplished and what you have left to do.
  • Fine-tune your approach by reflecting on it and seeing how you can improve things going forward.
  • Create a comfortable work environment.
  • Relax both while working and when you are not at it.
  • Have fun. Remember it is all an interesting game.
  • Give it your full attention and effort to enjoy the heartfelt pleasure that comes from being one pointed and in the flow of work or play; not wasting energy.
  • Let the effort be its own reward.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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