"Energy is simply the capacity to do work. Our most fundamental need as human beings is to spend and recover energy." - Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
Elite performers masterfully alternate between activity and rest.
Like a sprinter, they push themselves to their limits and then recover fully before working again. This cycle of spending and recovering energy is the principle of oscillation. When we apply this idea to our lives, we create a rhythm of peak performance and sustainable success.
In this article, we'll explore the power of oscillation—of alternating between periods of activity and rest—and how it'll help you perform at your best.
The Foundation of Peak Performance: Alternating Between Activity and Rest
"We need energy to perform, and recovery is more than the absence of work. It serves not just health and happiness, but also performance." - Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
Energy management is the foundation of peak performance.
Over the years, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz have helped business executives and elite athletes with performance challenges. And at the root of nearly every issue was an imbalance between stress and renewal. As humans, our most fundamental need is to spend and recover energy. Loehr and Schwartz describe this phenomenon as "rhythmic wave oscillation." So to perform at our best professionally, we need to rhythmically alternate between periods of work and rest.
This is easier said than done.
Yet, we're designed for rhythm and oscillation.
Look at nature. The day alternates with the night. Seasons change. The tides ebb and flow. The very heartbeat that keeps us alive is an alternating rhythm of contraction and relaxation.
Life-sustaining rhythms oscillate–they're not linear. Imagine a flat line on an EKG machine... not good.
Yet, in our modern world, we actively avoid oscillation.
We're “on” all the time. We live in a world hostile to rest—always connected, always available, and always working. We don’t know how to slow down. And paradoxically, we're never fully engaged when we're working because we never give ourselves a chance to fully recover.
This is unsustainable and hurts your performance.
The Four Levels of the Performance Pyramid
Effective professionals draw on various energy sources.
Peak performance requires us to sustain healthy oscillatory rhythms at all four levels of, what Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz call, the "performance pyramid." And each level has the ability to grow its capacity by oscillating between energy exertion and recovery.
- Physical capacity
- Emotional energy
- Mental capacity
- Spiritual capacity
When any of these four levels are out of balance, it throws off the entire system and our ability to perform at our best. These imbalances lead to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual exhaustion.
The Consequences of Linearity: Overtraining and Undertraining
The opposite of oscillation is linearity, and it occurs when you're overtraining or undertraining.
You can overtrain or undertrain any energy source—physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Both have consequences on performance. Overtraining is caused by exerting too much energy expenditure without adequate renewal, leading to burnout and breakdown. Undertraining is caused by too much renewal without adequate stress, leading to atrophy and weakness. A simple example is physical exercise: too much exertion leads to injury, while too much recovery leads to muscle atrophy.
Linearity implies that we can expend energy indefinitely in any area. But this isn't true.
Unfortunately, a linear lifestyle can turn ugly.
Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz point out: "override the need for oscillation long enough and the symptoms may extend to headaches, back pain, gastrointestinal disorders, and ultimately to heart attacks and even death." Elite performance, physical health, and mental well-being—all are at risk when we don't skillfully manage our energy.
To combat this, we attempt to resolve our performance challenges with quick-fix solutions.
For instance, we try to mask linearity through artificial means: caffeine, alcohol, or other drugs. They either keep you alert (stimulants) or help you wind down (depressants). These might work in the short-term, but they're not sustainable or healthy in the long run.
The answer is to build healthy oscillatory rhythms into your life.
How to Achieve Peak Performance
"We grow at all levels by expending energy beyond our normal limits, and then recovering." - Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
The secret to peak performance is to push yourself to the limit, followed by adequate recovery.
Imagine a sprinter. Their training involves alternating between all-out sprints and active recovery. As a result of this oscillation, sprinters are able to generate a lot of energy capacity, which is significantly different from the linear nature that endurance runners exhibit.
Here's how you can find the right balance.
1. Push Yourself to the Limit
Acute stress expands energy capacity.
To get stronger—physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually—you must push yourself to your limits. Expose yourself to stress. This means you'll need to endure short-term discomfort in the service of a long-term reward.
Here are a few examples:
- A challenging workout expands your physical capacity.
- Being patient or having a tough conversation expands your emotional capacity.
- Focusing on a single task for a prolonged period of time expands your mental capacity.
- Taking action aligned with your core values expands your spiritual capacity.
However, be careful not to overtrain and overuse your energy. If you push too hard, or too quickly, you'll experience negative consequences.
This leads to the next piece: energy renewal.
2. Maximize Recovery
After you've expended energy, it's crucial that you allow the accompanying energy source to renew itself.
Active recovery is where growth actually occurs. It gives you longevity. Restoration allows you to return working at full capacity so you can continue performing at a high level. And you'll actually increase your energy capacity for the future–more strength, endurance, flexibility, and resiliency.
Here are a few ways you can renew your energy:
- Physical: Sleep, nutrition, and rest.
- Emotional: Positive emotions, connecting with loved ones, and social support.
- Mental: Intermittent breaks, vacations, and creative outlets.
- Spiritual: Meditation, prayer, and time in nature.
Successful professionals don't view renewal as a luxury. It's a necessity.
Oscillation is a natural law. It's the way we're built to function.
In order to perform at our best, we need to find the sweet spot between energy expenditure and recovery. We need to push ourselves to the limit and then maximize our recovery. The goal is to live a life of sustainable excellence—a life in which we can continue to grow and thrive, day in and day out.
Want to learn more about how to be a high performer? Check out our article: 4 Signs You Are a High Performer at Work.