How to Restore Your Mental Energy

(Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Emma Seppala’s “The Happiness Track” from the Fall 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoyed this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

Remaining calm will help you manage your energy so that it does not drain as quickly. However, there will be times when you are drained and need to restore mental energy levels. Managing mental energy means knowing when you need to replenish yourself (without caffeine or high-intensity emotions). Here are some empirically validated ways to restore energy when it is deplete.

Do Something That Makes You Feel Positive:

In one study, participants who were shown a funny film clip or were given a surprise gift did not display fatigue after exerting self-control. Another study demonstrated that, for religious individuals, prayer helped buffer against depletion. Research aside, you know best the kinds of activities that you find up- lifting. Create a list and keep it handy, so you don’t have to figure out what to do when you feel mentally exhausted. For example, if you’re at work, replenishing your energy might mean going for a walk, taking a break, watching a funny You- Tube video, looking at pictures of your loved ones, meditating, or engaging in a random act of kindness for a colleague.

Turn What You’re Doing Into Something You Want To Be Doing:

There are lots of activities that involve effort but don’t tire you. Why? Because you love them! Elliot Berkman reminds us, “If you feel tired but something re- ally fun comes along, you all of a sudden have a second wind.” Berkman, who admits to having a sweet tooth, told me that sometimes he gets home after a long day feeling exhausted and craving ice cream. If there is no ice cream in the freezer, he still is able to muster the energy to go buy it — even when it involves putting on a winter jacket and snow boots, shoveling the drive- way, and warming up the car to drive to a store that is twenty minutes away. People have plenty of energy for the things they want to do.

There is truth to this saying, attributed to Confucius: “Choose a job you love and your will have to work a day in your life.” Now, the problem is that we can’t always choose to do what we love — either in our careers or in our personal lives. However, we can choose how we approach our work so we can enjoy it more. Rather then thinking of work as work, reframe it by thinking of what you love about it. Sound easier said than done? Here are a few research-backed suggestions.

Practice Gratitude:

Research has shown that feeling grateful helps you replenish your energy in the face of fatiguing tasks. Let’s say you don’t like your job. Regardless, there are always things that warrant being grateful: You have a job when many others don’t. Maybe you enjoy some of your colleagues. Maybe there are perks and benefits. Berkman points out that the reason gratitude has such a replenishing effect is that feeling grateful both increase positive emotion and helps you see the big picture.

Detach From Work When You Are Not Working:

Many people take work with them at night or do it during their time off. As a consequence, the stress of the day blends into evenings and vacations and eats up recovery time. Sabine Sonnentag, professor at University of Mannheim in Germany, has found that people who do not know how to detach from work during their off time experience increased exhaustion over the course of one year and are less resilient in the face of stressful work conditions.

Sherron Lumley is a television news producer covering the White House, Capitol Hill, and breaking news for an international audience of 40 million. Although her professional life is based in Washington, DC, Luley chooses to live in Oregon. During breaking news events in DC, her job is intense. However, when she returns home to Oregon, she remains intentionally out of reach, enjoying her family, hiking in the mountains, canoeing, or restoring her Victorian home. She doesn’t check messages until she is at the airport, just before returning to the East Coast. “The time I spend at home recharges me and reminds me of who I am,” Lumley told me. “When I return to Washington, I’m able to handle the pressure and pace gracefully, bringing out the best in the news team.”

Because she has found that psychological detachment from work is particularly difficult when the job’s workload and time pressure are high, Sabine Sonnentag stresses how critical it is to learn to consciously detach from work when it is highly demanding. Sonnentag has found that psychological distance from work is the fastest path to recovery and leads — surprisingly perhaps — to increased productivity. “From our research, one can conclude that it is good to schedule time for recovery and to use this time in an optimal way.” Activities that Sonnentag’s research confirms help with detachment are exercise, walks in nature, and total absorption in a non-work-related hobby. Positively reflecting about your job after work hours can also help replenish you.

In our busy and overwhelmed culture, we are often urged to manage time better. Time management apps, blogs, and workshops abound. We believe that if only we could manage our time, we would get more done and be happier. However, there are only so many hours in a day, no matter how neatly scheduled you are. A better focus — and one that few people understand — is energy management.

How are you using the energy you have each day? Most people burn it unnecessarily on high-intensity emotions, self-control, and counterproductive thinking. The best way to manage energy is by cultivating calm. The result? Less stress, a clearer mind, and sharper focus to get your work done. You get the same amount of work done, but you remain balanced and enjoy the process. Because you are able to think more clearly, you do a far better job. The best part, of course, in that because you are not as tired, your energy levels remain high. As a result, you are happier and more successful.

(Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Emma Seppala’s “The Happiness Track” from the Fall 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoyed this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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