Full Engagement

In an article I wrote a few years ago called Do It Now, I explained some time management techniques that allowed me to finish college more quickly than usual. What I probably didn’t make clear in the article was that I didn’t overwhelm myself like a workaholic to pull it off. I had a great deal of leisure time every week, including taking at least one full day off each week. I stole time for doing extra homework mainly from the inefficiencies of school itself, not from my personal time. Some classes require concentration for the entire duration, but at least 80% of them don’t. How much cumulative time during a typical one-hour class are you fully engaged in listening, writing, or doing some kind of mental or physical activity? For me it was probably about 10-15 minutes per hour on average. The other 45 minutes would be spent waiting for the professor to show up, waiting for the teacher to finish the opening babble-talk, pointless administrative and announcement talk that could have been eliminated with a handout, hearing further examples and explanations for a concept I had already grasped, hearing students ask questions for which I already knew the answer, and lots of digressions into the professor’s nostalgia for the 60s (or worse, the 70s). So during a one-hour lecture, I would put this wasted time to good use by doing schoolwork for other classes, whereas my other classmates would spend a lot of time looking bored and not be fully engaged most of the time. So one of my greatest discoveries was that I could reclaim this wasted time during classes themselves and put it to good use. Instead of sitting there bored, I kept myself working. And this worked so well that I actually did most of my homework during classes, so I didn’t have to do much extra work outside of class.

See any similarities to corporate meetings? What percentage of meeting time are you truly 100% engaged? My guess would be 15-20% on average, but the exact number doesn’t matter.

But let’s generalize this a bit more. What percentage of your day are you fully 100% engaged in whatever it is you’re doing? (I borrow the term “fully engaged” from the book The Power of Full Engagement.) Ask yourself, “Am I fully utilizing all my available personal resources right now?” Think of your brain and body together as a factory where your goal is to maximize output (you’re free to define output however you wish). So you want to keep the machines running as efficiently as possible. If you have machines sitting idle that could be put to good use, you’re operating below capacity.

Now the goal isn’t to push yourself until the veins are bursting out of your forehead. By all means enjoy your downtime. But if you’re going to do some kind of work, then it seems logical to work at full capacity. When you work, really work. The work time will pass anyway whether you’re working at 15% capacity or 95%. But you’ll experience a huge increase in output if you can fully engage yourself.

Children are a great model for seeing full engagement in action. When I watch my 4-year old daughter Emily, she’s always fully 100% engaged in what she’s doing. When she’s playing, she’s 100% playing. When she’s eating, she’s 100% playing. When she’s napping, she’s 100% playing. 🙂

Sometimes being fully engaged means focusing on one task or project and tuning out everything else. If you’re giving a presentation at work, there’s no room for multitasking. But if you’re preparing a meal or driving to work or cleaning up your office, you can also be listening to audio books at the same time.

If you work at full capacity for a while and get tired, then take a break — a real 100% break. Literally shut your brain off for a while, such as by taking a nap or meditating, or just close your eyes at your desk and breathe deeply for 15 minutes. Many of the greatest achievers of all time were nappers, including Thomas Edison. Acknowledge that you’re switching from fully working to fully taking a break. Don’t remain stuck in that haze of not quite working and not quite resting, such as by doing web surfing for a while and then returning to work at 20% capacity. If you feel mentally tired and can’t work anywhere near 100%, don’t grind yourself into the ground. Stop for a while. Switch off your mental factory, do the required maintenance, and then get it back to 100%.

Finding blocks of time where you aren’t fully engaged and upgrading your usage of this time to fully engage yourself is a great way to squeeze more productivity out of your life without becoming overloaded. When you watch TV, are you fully engaged? Not even close. Even while watching TV, you could be cleaning up, exercising, or giving your significant other a foot massage. Now there’s nothing wrong with just relaxing either, but often you’ll find you do have the energy to be more fully engaged in tasks if you push yourself a bit. I have a home gym where I do weight training, and I need to rest briefly between sets. My muscles need these breaks, but my brain doesn’t. So I often read articles from magazines or newsletters during these minutes. Or I’ll listen to an audio book during the whole session. So I turn a sporadically engaged activity into a fully engaged one.

Now you might think that taking all your 20% engaged periods of the day and upgrading them to near 100% will have the effect of exhausting you more quickly. But most likely you’ll experience the opposite effect. When you fully engage yourself, you gain an obvious short-term boost in output, and this has the effect of boosting your energy and self-esteem as well. When you look back on your day and know you only worked at around 20% of capacity, you’ll often feel lousy about it. You know you could have done better and just wasted a lot of time, and years of this behavior tend to be very draining and de-motivating. But when you fully engage yourself, you tend to feel really great about your performance. You’ll still make mistakes, but they won’t be due to lack of effort. When you go to bed, you’ll be thinking, “Wow, I really did my best today. I couldn’t have done it better.”

Being fully engaged isn’t just about doing. It’s also about being. How often have you been off somewhere else mentally? Yesterday I went for a 2-hour walk through various casinos along the Las Vegas Strip (Treasure Island, the Mirage, Caesar’s Palace, Bally’s, and Paris). It was crowded due to the holiday weekend, and I saw a lot of people with vacuous expressions who clearly weren’t fully engaged. People were sitting at the blackjack tables looking utterly bored. Yet occasionally I’d see someone having the time of their life, regardless of whether they were winning or losing. Now it could have been the free alcohol. But at the very least, these people were fully engaged in what they were doing. They were totally present and enjoying themselves. Those who weren’t fully engaged were clearly wandering mentally… thinking about work or other problems or just zoning out completely. Such a sad way to spend a vacation.

Fully engage yourself in the present moment. When you work, get yourself completely into work mode. When you play, forget about work and enjoy yourself. Squeeze the maximum productivity out of your work, the maximum fun out of your play, the maximum connection out of your conversations. If you can’t seem to focus, take 15 minutes to put your complete attention on thinking about whatever is distracting you, and then let it go. If you feel anxious, then give yourself some 100% dedicated worry time, during which you get all your worrying out of the way.

Incidentally, this site is now averaging about 500-600 visitors per day with less than 1% coming from search engines (and 75% of those SE hits are just searches on my name). That’s wonderful for a site that’s only 8 weeks old. I’m seeing a lot of hits coming from various web mail servers, which implies people are learning about this site primarily by word of mouth, or possibly someone announced this site in an email newsletter. Either way, thanks for spreading the word!

Have a fully engaged day! 🙂