Doing better, feeling better

Be Excellent at Anything

Do you have more and more work to do, with less and less available time? Does your performance suffer as you struggle to fit everything into a day? Then you need to read Be Excellent at Anything. But be warned. At first cut, you may find Tony Schwartz's solutions a little hard to accept—or a little hard for your boss to accept: for example, work shorter hours and take naps at work.

More work, less time

In many professions and businesses, managers score points by clocking up long hours and being available at any time—day or night, even weekends—to respond to the organisation's needs. But many features of the working environment conspire to steal more and more time from managers, particularly the way an avalanche of email demands immediate attention, fragmenting the time that can be spent on other often more substantial tasks. Managers are left with an impossible assignment: do more in less time. No wonder managers now work longer hours and have less time for the tasks of daily living (like eating properly) let alone for spending time with the family or engaging in exercise and recreation.

However, Schwartz tells us that the harder we push ourselves the worse we will perform and the sooner we will be burnt out. There's a better way to live and work and it's all about the way we interlace activity and rest—performance and renewal—in our daily lives. Schwartz admits that setting up good patterns in daily living is hard: the way we behave is deeply ingrained and almost impossible to change, even when the change is for the better. (Mark Twain said "To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I've done it a thousand times.") So Schwartz and his colleagues work with individuals in their workplaces, and beyond, in building new rituals that help them achieve more of what they want in their work and personal lives.

Working with energy

Doing better, feeling better

Schwartz examines four dimensions of energy in our lives: the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. He unpacks each dimension against two axes. The vertical axis in each case represents the spectrum from more active to more passive engagement; the horizontal represents a "good-to-bad" axis. For example, if we consider the physical dimension of our lives, we have times through a day when we may be extremely active and energised and other times when we may be meditative, napping or sleeping. Or consider out mental states: we may be task-oriented and engaged in analytical thinking or, at the other extreme, we may be thinking in more open-ended or imaginative ways.

However, these cycles of daily living can express themselves in unhelpful ways: caffeine induced highs and alcohol assisted lows, or short-sighted, impulsive thinking followed by a sense of being overwhelmed with life. Schwartz's advice for moving to more helpful—and productive—patterns of living include developing awareness of our current patterns; then planning, building and embedding alternative rituals that nourish us physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

The rhythm of life is a powerful thing

According to Lao Tzu, it is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know one's self. Use this book as a tool for applying self-knowledge in a practical way to daily work. Schwartz covers a lot of ground: from diet, eating habits and exercise to emotional intelligence, from handling email to finding meaning in life. Of course, actually changing what we do is the hard part. The Action Steps sections at the end of each of the 20 chapters have lots of ideas for getting started; and there's a helpful chapter-by-chapter summary at the back as a means of re-locating topics of interest.

At the heart of Schwartz's approach is recognising and working with the rhythms of a day rather than attempting to push through to exhaustion. He recommends more sleep and exercise, more breaks, snacking and napping—all the kinds of things that are likely to bang up against normal corporate expectations. So before you try lying down on the office floor for a nap in the early afternoon to boost your effectiveness, mitigate the risks: give your boss a copy of Be Excellent at Anything.