Beyond the Coffee Crutch: The Secret to Vitality at Work

iStock_000002195003XSmallWhat’s the number one reason for procrastinating? Survey says: low energy. Tackling tasks or chores when we are already tired is a surefire recipe for putting stuff off. Don’t we deserve to rest our feet, to have moments to recuperate after a long day? No argument here; that’s what I want too. The only problem is that we are probably going to be equally tired the next day and yet the task still remains, perhaps made even worse by the wait. Since chores rarely do themselves, we often have to find a new way to eke a little more energy from ourselves each day.

Promising to help us out with this is the recent research by Charlotte Fritz, Chak Fu Lam, and Gretchen Spreitzer, titled “It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge worker’s energy management.” Science to the rescue once again.

Surveying 200 plus working professionals, the research team assessed the workers’ levels of both vitality and fatigue along with strategies that people use to up their energy. What they found wasn’t exactly what you would expect. These techniques were the ones that those with high vitality used:

  1. Learn something new
  2. Focus on what gives me joy in work
  3. Set a new goal
  4. Do something that will make a colleague happy
  5. Make time to show gratitude to someone I work with
  6. Seek feedback
  7. Reflect on how I make a difference at work
  8. Reflect on the meaning of my work

These techniques are value seeking and value creating activities, looking for what is enjoyable in your job or trying to frame the work in a way that creates value. On the other hand, the list below details the activities that are connected to workers with lower vitality and higher levels of fatigue.

  1. Drink a caffeinated beverage
  2. Talk to someone about common interests (e.g., sports)
  3. Listen to music
  4. Surf the web
  5. Check and send personal email or text messages
  6. Make plans for the evening or weekend
  7. Day dream
  8. Shop

Which of these lists do you belong to? If you are doing more of the latter, it likely means that you are chronically tired or fatigued. You need to tend to your energy levels. You have options, including getting more sleep, eating better, exercising, all the stuff you already know. But in addition to that, there is all the tactics from the vitality list. Value and energy are closely related as we always seem to have the energy to do what we like. How often did you not have the energy to write for work but were capable of novella long email messages to friends? Is shopping really less energy intensive than what you are avoiding? No, it is just more enjoyable.  Here’s a supporting excerpt from Chapter Eight of my book, The Procrastination Equation:

Whoever we are, we are likely to put off doing whatever we find excruciatingly dull. Boredom signals that what we are doing is irrelevant, and so the mind slides off the task. It makes sense, then, that procrastinators are much more likely than non-procrastinators to perceive life’s daily tasks as drudgery. Of all the boring tasks that fill the world, the one that tops most people’s hate list is routine paperwork. The busywork— filling in timesheets, submitting expense reports, and supplying the data that companies and governments endlessly require—seems pointless, even when it isn’t. Fortunately, however, boredom isn’t inherently part of any job—anything can be made more interesting simply by the way we treat it.

It seems pretty simple, “reflect on the meaning of my work” or “do something that will make a colleague happy,” but simple doesn’t mean ineffective. You might get an energetic boost by reflecting on how others depend on you, by being a hero to your boss, or honing a new skill that advances your career.  Of course, there are other techniques for increasing the value of your work and I cover a few more in Chapter Eight of my book, like “Games and Goals” and “Double or Nothing,” but that’s enough for now. Take another look at that vitality list and decide to do one thing. And in the spirit of seeking feedback myself, tell me how it worked for you. I’ll bet you it does better than that second cup of coffee you were thinking of getting.

Fritz, C., Lam, C. F., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2011). It’s the little things that matter: An examination of knowledge workers’ energy management. Academy of Management Perspective25(3), 28-39.


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About pierssteel

Piers Steel is a professor in the human resources and organizational dynamics area and is the Distinguished Research Chair in Advanced Business Leadership at the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business. He is a recognized authority on the science of motivation and is known internationally for his procrastination research, receiving widespread media coverage.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the Coffee Crutch: The Secret to Vitality at Work

    1. I don’t agree with the notion that money decreases performance. Actually, I have conducted a series of experiments and I found that money can improve both motivation and performance. It is not actually the money that demotivates, it is the way it is provided that may result in a decrement in performance. For example, if the money is given to people in a highly salient way (so that it distracts them from the main task) or if the environment is highly controlling people’s behavior, that decreases their motivation and performance. But, money itself is highly motivating and can imrpove performance.

      1. Yes, but it depends highly on the task given which leads to the results you see. In creative tasks, you cannot simply increase your productivity like you can in laborious tasks (like working harder). In these tasks, motivation is intrinsic and money cannot increase the performance beyond that which is capable by the person. It is not that money simply decreases motivation, it is that it cannot motivate them past a certain limit – in the problem described in my post, this limit was to think of a problem faster.

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