Manage Your Energy Like Your Life Depend On It

An important value that the world of business has to offer to the world of mindfulness practice is working with energy and a sense of urgency.

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A woman's face trying to stay afloat in the middle of the ocean

Right now my life is just one learning experience after another. By the end of the week I should be a genius.

author unknown (once published as a Brush Dance greeting card)

When I was a full-time student at New York University’s Graduate School of Business, I commuted to school five days a week, one and a half hours each way — a half-hour walk to the train station, a half-hour train ride to Manhattan, and half-hour on the subway. I also worked twenty hours a week for a management consulting company, and I spent four to eight hours every day taking care of my infant son while my wife worked or went to graduate school. I read and studied early in the mornings or late at night. I sat meditation each morning and also began a newsletter called From the Marketplace, pulling together stories from friends who had left the San Francisco Zen Center and were engaged in the world outside the Center. I was highly motivated in my quest to learn about business and to integrate mindfulness experience with the business world.

Later in my career, while CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, I was constantly stretched to find the energy it took to engage fully with myself and everyone in the organization. My life very much felt like “rocks in a tumbler”: hard boulders hitting each other, again and again, constantly becoming smoother and smoother, the edges being worn down. Each day I would bump into my own habits and patterns, as well as the habits, patterns, and pain of those working around me. While striving for clarity I would at times create confusion. It struck me at times that the life of a mindfulness student or teacher, and the life of a businessperson or leader could perhaps be described as “one mistake following another.”

Mindfulness practice is often thought of as easygoing and contemplative however it requires tremendous energy and effort to stay focused on outer and inner transformation. There is an expression in Zen encouraging students to “practice as though your head were on fire.” Looking at ourselves, recognizing our habits and patterns and then having the skill and courage to work with them is a deep, visceral process. Looking outward, working to transform the confusion, pain, and suffering in the workplace and in the world takes a great deal of energy and focus.

The expression, working as though your head is on fire, means to work with intensity, with your full energy. Working with intensity does not mean that you need to act quickly or be in a rush. The combination of focus and intensity can often expand or shift our usual concepts of time. Intensity is a combination of focus, resolve, energy, and tenacity — focusing on the issue and not being distracted; working with resolve and determination; using your full energy, sometimes pacing yourself and sometimes moving quickly, much like a long-distance runner; and working with tenacity to go after a solution despite the difficulties and roadblocks.

One of the points I often raise in Company Time Workshops (a series of weekend retreats that combine mindfulness and business) is that, not only is it useful to look at ways mindfulness practice can inform business, it is also important to look at ways that practices and values developed in business can benefit and inform mindfulness practice. An important value that the world of business has to offer to the world of mindfulness practice is working with energy and a sense of urgency. In business, success and failure matter. Meeting goals matters. Meeting deadlines and delivering when agreed matter. When something is urgent in business, everything else takes a back seat to the matter at hand. This kind of energy can help to keep communication and actions crisp and clear, cutting through confusion and entanglements, distinguishing what really matters from what doesn’t.

In Zen temples a wooden mallet is used to hit a wooden block to announce when it is time for meditation. Written on the back of the wooden block are characters that say:

Life and death are the great matters. Don’t waste time.” None of us knows when we will die.

Zen teachers sometimes describe our lives as like being in a boat on an ocean, floating out to sea, knowing that someday our boat will sink — but having no idea when this will happen. Since we don’t know when we will die, we should make our best effort right now. There is no reason to hold back, nothing to wait for. This kind of realization and acknowledgment of the shortness of our lives can help to provide the kind of visceral energy required to transform our businesses and/or our lives.


  • Try working at different paces. For half a day, work at a slow and steady pace. For another half day, try working with increased energy and intensity. Notice the difference.
  • Notice what activities give you energy. When do you feel most engaged? Try to do more of these.
  • Notice what activities drain your energy. When do you feel disengaged? Try to do less of these.
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