I’ve always believed that people don’t find books, books find people. Time and time again, I’ve stumbled across a book at the precise moment in my life when I needed the information between its covers.

The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz was no exception.

Lately I’ve been working with the idea reconciling the balance between self-determinism and powerful environmental forces. I’ve always believed strongly in self-determinism, but lately I’ve realized the importance of strategically picking your self-determinist battles and efficiently managing the rest.

I picked up The Power of Full Engagement because I was interested in learning more about the topic of stress and recovery, but little did I know, it would add greatly to my ideas about self-determinism.

The Book

The tagline of the book is “Managing energy, not time is the key to high performance and personal renewal.” The authors assert that we in the western world are typically more concerned with packing as many activities as we can into our schedule that we are with balancing our energy outputs and inputs.

I found this book to be a refreshing contrast to the sort of motivational, you-can-do-anything literature I’m used to reading. The tone is very practical, level-headed, and logical without all the rah-rah stuff that is starting to bore me.

I was also pleased to read that the authors were heavily influenced by the work of Stephen R. Covey, who I consider to be the founder of the post-modern personal development movement (Napoleon Hill was the founder of the modern movement).

Corporate Athletes

The authors, Jim and Tony began their work in this field by teaching athletes how to effectively manage their energy for top performance. They developed such a reputation that they began working with some of the world’s top athletes before corporations and business leaders started to demand their services.

Coming from an athletic background myself, it was easy to relate to the sports analogies, and I found their approach to developing “corporate athletes” fascinating. While most people consider sports and business to be two separate activities, Jim and Tony draw almost no distinction between their approach to coaching athletes and their approach to coaching business leaders.

They bring to light the fact that top athletes spend 80% of their year in the off-season preparing for very short, intense outputs of energy. An athlete builds capacity by stressing their muscles beyond their current capacity and then letting them recover and rebuild.

On the other hand, most people in corporate America spend 95% of their time expending energy at work and are lucky if they get two weeks of vacation. Instead of rhythmically alternating between periods of stress and recovery, we tend to always have the pedal to the metal.

In the book, they tell a story about Leonardo DaVinci, who tended to take liberal siestas from his work on the Sistine Chapel against the wishes of those who commissioned him. He responded by explaining that he accomplishes more by working less.

Mental, Emotional, Social, and Spiritual Muscles

I was excited to hear Jim and Tony explain that our mental, emotional, social, and spiritual capacities act very much like muscles, because I hold the same belief. You build strength in each area the same way you build physical strength: through stress and recovery.

We tend to think that only physical stress makes us tired. In actuality, your brain uses more energy than any other muscle in your body. When we look at our body holistically, we can get a sense for the need to rest other aspects of our lives.

Duality of Stress and Recovery

One of the major themes on this blog is the common principle of duality. The play between stress and recovery is a perfect example. Like all dualities, the answer is balance.

Jim and Tony acknowledge the paradoxical qualities of success: how less can sometimes equal more, and how high-performance is not always logical.

Stress

Jim and Tony define stress as pushing yourself to the point of discomfort. While an all-work, no-rest lifestyle may be stressful, it’s not rich in “stress” as defined by this book. The over-worker finds comfort and escape in his constant work. Stress means to get out of your comfort zone which often means changing the situations and demands that you put yourself through.

Recovery

Their definition of recovery is full disengagement. It means forgetting about work and putting yourself in a completely different place. Full disengagement allows your mental, emotional, social, and spiritual muscles to rebuild.

In a nutshell, the theme of the book is that in order to fully engage, you have to fully disengage.

Precise Rituals

My favorite part of the book was the discussion of ritualistic behavior. Jim and Tony claim that what separates high performers from the rest is that they have established highly precise, positive rituals in their training and everyday life. They claim that this kind of discipline can often beat out talent.

Their rational for this concept helped to crystalize my thoughts about self-determinism. They explain that our capacity for will and self-control is much weaker than we would like to think. The majority of our behavior is controlled by our habits and instincts, outside of our conscious control.

While we have the ability to take control of our lives, it takes precious energy that is not sustainable over the long run. By setting up highly precise rituals (such as working out at the same time every day, or avoiding email until a certain time every day), we make these activities second nature. This saves precious energy for setting up new rituals, or for putting into creativity.

Conclusion

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to improve their life. There is a lot of practical advice on how to perform at a higher level without a lot of hype.

The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz