Dear <<First Name>>,
Last week my “introvert life hacks” email got a good response so I thought it was time to share another hack that I have been saving. This one will give you more energy so you can be more prolific.
I should warn you, this is the longest email I’ve written. That’s because it is actually a bonus chapter from User Zero. Since it is so long, if you have my book, consider printing it out and tucking it in the back of your copy. Without further delay, here is this week’s mental hack. Stay creative.
Hack Your Mind for Maximum Energy
The Secret Mental Models of Energy Alchemists
Don't fight forces, use them.” - Buckminster Fuller
My son loves to get the wheels of his monster truck spinning. Each time he pushes the tires against the carpet the speed increases. Faster and faster, the wheels spin until the truck is screaming to be released. With pure joy he sets the vehicle down and marvels at the unstoppable power of what he has set in motion.
Most of us know the type of person similar to that flywheel-powered toy. They seems unsinkable. No matter what life throws at them they persevere. Every blow makes them stronger, they always come out on top, and they make it look so easy. What’s their secret?
Science tells us that perpetual motion is impossible because there are always leaks, friction, resistance, and pressures attempting to stop the machine. Personal energy suffers the same fate. If your system isn’t efficient it will require great effort to prevent it from slowing to a halt.
Imagine a spectrum with energetic, highly-prolific people on one side and ineffective under-achievers on the other. You and I fall somewhere between these extremes. Sometimes we create art, sometimes we generate mediocrity, sometimes we fail to produce anything at all. Our output seems to be limited by our energy, skill, and time. If we plug those variables into an equation, it would look like this:
(Energy x Skill) / Time = Output
As mortals, this brittle equation fails us because it seems fixed. The excuses are obvious. Work is exhausting and it drains our energy. The talent fairy skipped us, leaving us without skill. There are only 24 hours in a day. It is no wonder that our output is so minimal. Prolific people know how to hack their system to get the most out of the core elements of creation. Despite the appearance of alchemy, prolific creators are using the same formula as you and I.
The mistake we make is thinking of our energy system like a rechargeable battery that gets drained and refilled daily. We wake up tired, fuel with caffeine, and if we’re lucky we make it through the afternoon before the battery dies completely. Evenings are spent relaxing, discharging whatever capacity we have left on leisure. The cycle repeats until eventually we are as dead as a used up Duracell.
Slice open my son’s monster truck and you won’t find a battery. Instead you will find a flywheel. Seemingly immune to friction, the inertia of a single heavy disk is what animates the toy with an unnatural determination to keep moving no matter how difficult the terrain. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins explains the power of flywheels. He says:
Picture a huge, heavy flywheel — a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible.
Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn.
You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns ... four ... five ... six ... the flywheel builds up speed ... seven ... eight ... you keep pushing ... nine ... ten ... it builds momentum ... eleven ... twelve ... moving faster with each turn … twenty … thirty … fifty … a hundred.
Then, at some point—breakthrough! The momentum of the thing kicks in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn … whoosh! … its own heavy weight working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum.”
This is the system fueling the amazing breakthroughs of highly successful people. Imagine a life where every input makes you better, where careful curation of your friends, food, fitness, and work allow you to be completely optimized. You could break free of the high/low rhythm. You could have fewer days of blah, shorter chunks of life that pass without remark. You could have more days of productivity, bigger blocks of beauty, extended time in your zone, more euphoric flow states. Instead of a toy that requires constant battery swapping, our lives can be perpetual motion machines, driven by the power of our own momentum.
A flywheel is an example of a feedback loop. Unlike in a battery, the energy that is added to a flywheel gets magnified. The speed, quality, and productivity of the system improves with each iteration.
Feedback loops can be negative as well. A doom loop appears when negative energy crashes a system. Catastrophic failure occurs when flaws are magnified and compounded with each spin of the wheel.
Here is an example of a flywheel loop: I am engaged by my work, so I want to gain new skills, which leads to new knowledge, which leads to success, which leads to more energy, which makes me more engaged, so I want to gain new skills…
And here is an example of a doom loop: I think I know everything about my job, so I shoot down ideas that challenge my knowledge, which causes political conflict with co-workers, which drains my energy, which makes me too lazy to learn new skills, so I fail to gain new knowledge, which makes me think I know everything about my job, so I shoot down ideas…
Could we refactor the earlier equation to generate energy like a flywheel? What if we optimized for energy instead of output?
(Energy x Skill) / Time = Output
(Output x Time) / Skill = Energy
In other words, if we can figure out how to prioritize energy, everything else will happen naturally. The goal isn’t to produce more, the goal is to use the act of production itself to generate more energy. You use that energy to reinvest in your system, pushing your flywheel a bit faster.
When you solve for output you are constantly compromising. What’s the best I can do given a deadline? What’s the best I can do given my unskilled team? What’s the best I can do within a bureaucratic company? Notice that the limitations are all outside your direct control?
When you optimize for energy, you are able to push on levers within your control. Is there somebody who drains your energy? Try to remove them from your system. Is there a time-draining habit in your life that you can eliminate? How can you compensate for areas where you lack skill?
As you work to optimize the efficiency of your system, monitor yourself for things that affect your energy. Measuring the positive and negative inputs of your life can give you an idea of the health of your flywheel. Identify the things that either boost or drain energy from you. Everyone is different, but the list might look something like this:
- New Skills
- New Knowledge
- Connection with People
- Shipping Quality Work
- Difficult Personalities
- Dull Tasks
- Poor Health
- Debt (technical, creative, or financial)
- Environment Flaws
When your flywheel is spinning, it feels great. All the boosters seem to connect and reinforce one another. When you are creating something that you believe in you can’t help but seek out the knowledge that you need. Working with people smarter than you is invigorating because you always feel like you are growing. Likewise, sharing your knowledge with a thirsty student recharges your energy reserves. When you find yourself in positive energy territory your work doesn’t feel like work at all. Occasionally you might be so engaged by your day job that you take work home with you. If you voluntarily work overtime on weekends you aren’t overworked, you are on a mission.
Drainers are unavoidable, but ideally you will be able to maintain your momentum through the energy-sucking times of life. Ideally you will be able to see the immovable object in the distance and correct your course. But what happens when your wheel stops? Perhaps you haven’t noticed the small leak that has been decelerating your wheel for years. Maybe your momentum collides with an immovable object? Maybe you’ve been hit by a set of drainers so intense that they blow out your candle of positive energy. What now? I hope you never find yourself in this situation, but if you do I pray that you find the will to start pushing on your flywheel again. It’s going to take time. Speaking of time…
Even a variable as seemingly fixed as time can be hacked. Reclaiming wasted time is like striking gold. Efficiency requires us to ruthlessly evaluate whether the time we are spending on something is going to spin our wheels or slow them down. It is counter-intuitive, but it takes time to create time. Exercising takes time but the effort repays you with energy. It takes time to refactor your code but the effort repays you every time the code runs. It takes time to write weekly blog posts but the effort repays you with clarity in your thinking.
Leveling Up: How to Hack the Illusion
But we can go even deeper. The flywheel concept above has a flaw. It’s a metaphorical illusion. There isn’t an actual flywheel inside you. There isn’t a battery inside you either. Even the booster/drainer descriptors are imaginary. Here is the insight that has the power to transform you. You have the ability to decide whether something, anything and everything, is a drainer or a booster.
Remember the unsinkable person I described at the beginning of this story? They fight similar headwind as us, the difference is that they channel energy from the boosters but they also have the ability to draw energy from things that non-alchemists classify as drainers.
The illusion is that we are reacting to positive and negative stimulus. A more accurate description is that we are choosing whether to let things energize or deplete us. It feels like things are happening to us, that we are being pushed and pulled by forces outside of us. Once you realize that you are the gatekeeper to your mind (in my book I call this User Zero) the illusion shatters. Your world changes when you accept that you are choosing whether to be boosted or drained in every moment.
Drawing energy from boosters is harder than it may appear on the surface. Booster blocking seems to come naturally. Cynicism is practically a default lifestyle. There isn’t a positive event in life that can’t be decapitated by destructive attitudes. We are good at adding justifying clauses to good things in our lives. It’s easy to think “but I don’t deserve this” or “I just got lucky” to our accomplishments.
Try to be on the lookout for negative energy hiding in what appears to be a booster. For example, normally, praise from a stranger would give you a healthy boost. Let’s say a stranger gives you a compliment. Most of us would let the flattery go straight to our head. It bypasses our normal BS detectors. Of course we believe it. As a result we might find ourselves basking in the praise and stalling because we took our foot off the gas pedal.
Seeing the positive energy hiding in the drainers is even harder. Energy alchemy happens when we are able to transform drainers into new sources of energy. Revisit the list of drainers above and imagine ways that you could flip them into things that increase your momentum. Hiding in each drainer is potential energy.
You are now an energy alchemist, equipped with the ability to transform whatever obstacle life throws at you into fuel. Here’s an example of what that filter might look like. Consider an encounter with a difficult personality. Normally, you would try to avoid such a person. Toxic personalities often drain your energy but they can also uncover reserves of energy you never knew you had. Superman is better because of Lex Luthor. Every hero has a transformative, often tragic, back story. Master this mental flip and there is nothing in the world that can stop you.
Thanks for reading. As I mentioned, this is a bonus chapter of User Zero. If this essay got your mental wheel spinning and you don't already own a copy consider picking one up. Stay creative.