Three Types of Energy

Let’s talk about energy. Since I’m a big fan of the number three, I’ll say there are three types we can spend at work. This isn’t new, but it’s worth being reminded about. It’s also not something I’d normally write, but I’ve had to talk about it a couple times this month, which is my hint that it might be worth sharing.

Physical energy is the fun stuff, the heavy lifting, the landscaping, the walking around, and the hammer-and-nail of it all. It’s based on body and health, and I love it. Keep me hydrated and well fed, and I’ll expend physical energy until I can’t. The human body is an amazing thing, and there’s almost no limit to what physical energy focused on the right tasks can accomplish.

Mental energy is the next type. It’s the editing, proofreading, planning, crunching numbers, and understanding reports. Give me good light and an ergonomically correct setting, and I’ll read and edit the day away. For some, this is as good as it gets. Just like the body, the human mind is amazing.

I have to admit I like doing one until I can’t, then switching to the other. I’m lucky I have a job that lets me do a bit of both. If I get too much of one, finding balance with a hobby to even things out isn’t too hard either. Ending a day both mentally and physically tired is its own reward, if you ask me.

Given the right conditions, most of us can spend one type of energy or the other all darn day to accomplish great things. With breaks, snacks, and an unreasonable amount of coffee, well, it can make for good fun. But, even though we can go all day long with either or both, there’s the third type of energy I like to talk about. This is emotional energy.

This is the hard stuff. Teaching, creative arts, public speaking, and engaged leadership all require emotional energy. The good or bad discussions of things we’re passionate about, the hard conversations with people who need real guidance, and the struggle to do right when no one else can or the organization doesn’t want to. Emotional energy is something we invest into only the most important things, which is usually the people, for better or for worse. Discipline takes a lot of emotional energy, just like making a plan so we can share bad news. Amazingly, even our biggest successes can be emotionally exhausting. As rewarding as it can be to come home mentally and physically tired, coming home emotionally worn out is not so fun.

Even though we can do the physical and mental stuff all day, the emotional stuff drains us quickly, sometimes after just one hard hour. When that emotional energy is spent, we’re done for the day. No matter how much of the other energies you had, when you run out of emotional energy, more often than not, you lose the other two as well, which can make it hard to keep a positive attitude. I think we at least need to recognize that this third type of energy is important and realize there’s not always a lot of it.

When the day starts with drama and you expend all your emotional energy before 9 AM, not everyone can just call it a day and go get some rest. Instead, trying to muscle through to quitting time is rough. Worse, there are sometimes stretches in our career that seem to be just one long emotional withdrawal with no chance to recharge our batteries. When this happens, make sure to ask for help if you can’t seem to get a break.

It’s beyond the scope here to write about how to recharge when you’re out of energy, but I can tell you that no amount of coffee really works. Trust me, I’ve tried. I can say, though, that most tasks in your workday require only one type of energy at a time. Check your schedule, but not in terms of minutes and hours, lunch and smoke breaks. Look at what you have coming and categorize the energy you’ll have to expend to get through the day. Can you balance things out, and can you at least plan some of the emotionally draining stuff for after you’ve accomplished some of the mental stuff?

I used to envy those who worked in jobs I thought had zero emotional load. I wanted a job like that so I could save my energy for writing. Now, I know that kind of job probably doesn’t exist. More importantly, I understand how lucky I am to have the profession I do. Even if it wears me out every single day, I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I’m lucky, I can see my schedule far enough in advance to balance out the types of energy I expend so I can make it home.

Another thing I can write about is how to use the energy you have a little more effectively, but that will have to wait for next week.

– What routine tasks take up too much emotional energy?

– Which conversations or people, good or bad, will probably use this emotional energy?

– Which type of energy do you want to use first in your day?

– If you have a way to recharge your batteries, is that routine scheduled at the right time to get you through the day or from one to the next?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.