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The Restorative Power of Small Habits

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Steve Shloss, CFP®

Castle Financial

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Martin was a member of an executive team tasked with leading a large reorganization of his division, and he was under pressure to deliver results. Despite the stress and workload, Martin enjoyed his work and was motivated to make a difference.

But little by little, Martin found himself struggling to maintain the energy he needed to perform. Small events began to unsettle him far more easily, and it took him longer to move on and regain his usual zest. He had always considered himself resilient and able to deal with uncertain, complex, and high-stakes situations. Martin wondered what was going on.

In recent years, there’s been a renewed focus on employee well-being and the link between systemic organizational problems and burnout. Burnout is a serious physical and psychological condition, which requires attention and care.

But in working with our executive clients, we found that a narrow focus on burnout ignores a key part of well-being: the more subtle but equally important daily maintenance of one’s energy through the quotidian challenges of leading and driving results.


The first signs of losing this daily energy are often similar to the experience of Martin. Symptoms include decreased patience with delays or mistakes and increased self-doubt. We’ve seen client’s strengths (directness, tact, or caution) turn into liabilities (snappiness, fear, or procrastination). Mundane triggers become chronic stressors. Sometimes sleep is affected, colds or coughs become more frequent, and the weekend’s rest is not enough to start fresh on Monday morning.

Leaders we’ve worked with can be hesitant to address these effects, because they don’t feel sufficiently serious or impactful. It isn’t burnout, so, they feel like they should just “suck it up,” in the words of one executive we spoke with.

But we see it differently. This daily maintenance of energy — even when it doesn’t feel close to risking burnout — is a key element to sustaining and thriving at the intense pace that is expected of leaders today.

Energy is not just physical or psychological — it’s multi-dimensional. Based on our experience over the last 25 years (and building upon the work of Tony Schwartz and others), we’ve identified five “energy batteries” that impact leaders’ wellbeing:

— Physical battery: This refers to physical health and vitality. Sleep, movement, and nutrition are the main factors that charge this battery; any challenge in these areas will quickly deplete it.

— Mental battery: This involves clarity, focus, and intellectual agility. It’s usually charged by activities like practicing mindfulness or learning new topics, and it’s depleted by constant demands and interruptions.

— Emotional battery: This is about creativity, emotional intelligence and self-regulation. It’s recharged by enjoyable activities, restorative hobbies, creative practices, or fulfilling time with family and friends, and it’s depleted by having to manage conflicts or rehash hurtful events.

— Spiritual battery: This includes motivation and sense of purpose. It can be restored through time in nature, volunteer work, religious traditions, spiritual practices, or introspective activities. In our experience, this is the battery that is most often taken for granted in the business world.

— Social battery: This refers to both personal and professional relationships. It’s charged by social activities, such as time with friends and colleagues (outside of traditional work activities), as well as being able to freely and safely travel. It’s depleted when we do not feel safe where we live, when we work in a place where appreciation is scarce, or when we’re worried about the well-being of loved ones.

While the boundaries between the five batteries are fluid, an idea of where you are on each helps you more easily and quickly assess your needs. Examining each battery can give you a clearer, more palpable sense of what’s recharging — and what’s depleting — your energy. If you find yourself struggling in certain areas, you can ask: How are my habits supporting my energy? Where do I recharge faster? Where do I drain more easily? What can I adjust? What do I need to accept for now?

With clients like Martin, we typically see that it’s their physical and mental batteries that need recharging. We regularly see clients who have become very sedentary, for example, and at the end of the day are in a brain fog, with far too many hours spent in front of the screen.

To recharge their depleted batteries, we suggest our clients identify “mini-habits,” or a meaningful activity that they can commit to consistently doing. For example, to recharge a physical battery, rather than making a big commitment like exercising three times a week, someone like Martin might decide to climb the stairs and take the farthest parking space to increase his daily steps.

These small tweaks can produce compounded results. For one client, taking short breaks throughout the day provided insights about what he could delegate and what required his direct attention, improving his ability to make accurate decisions and sustain the fast-paced changes in his business. Another found that listening to five-minute meditations on their train ride to work each morning helped to ground them for the day ahead.

By adopting this approach, we’ve seen clients regain their confidence in their ability to deal with life challenges — both with what they can influence and what they needed to accept (such as a chronic health condition or a restructuring that is occurring at work).

When we start to experience frustration in our work lives, whether from a delayed answer, a postponed call, or a meeting ending with no clear decision, it’s time to assess the impact on our five energy batteries. While these incidents might seem minor, they do affect the body and mind, raising cortisol levels and reducing cognitive and emotional resources.

Increasing daily resilience not only helps with everyday well-being, it also helps leaders stay effective in crisis situations because it builds the skills to be mindful of their energy and methods to keep it at optimal levels.

c.2024 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

This HBR article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

Steve Shloss profile photo

Steve Shloss, CFP®

Castle Financial

Schedule a meeting