Ever feel like you’ve got everything under control, then something unplanned happens and throws you into a tailspin? You might be in need of some reserve capacity.
One of my favorite podcasts is The Broad Experience. The host, Ashley Milne-Tyte, is a British reporter who lives in New York and regularly interviews women about the challenges and opportunities they face in the workplace in the U.S. and across the pond. I was listening to a show she recently posted about women physicians and the particularly difficult sacrifices these doctors have to make. They spend an enormous part of their day giving and giving to patients all day – often dealing with very emotionally taxing problems – and then at the end of the day have little time or energy left over for their friends and family. Sound like a familiar problem? I thought so too. One of the women she interviewed had recently reduced her workload and clinical responsibilities because she realized she need to build in more “reserve capacity” in her life to deal with things she could not predict. This was largely driven by a sudden illness in her family.
This idea of building in reserve capacity really strikes a chord with me. So often, I will spend every bit of energy I have available so that at the end of the day, I’m completely wiped out – mentally and physically. I then go to sleep and start all over again the next day. It’s like I’m treating my body like a balance sheet – whatever energy I have at the beginning of the day is netted out to zero by the end. It’s a very efficient system. The problem with this system is that in the real world, life often needs more of us than we budget for. We need some resilience. That is when having more capacity comes into play.
This idea of reserve capacity is nothing new. I mean, it’s a perfectly acceptable strategy in business and government. The Army has the Army Reserve, our monetary system relies on the Federal Reserve and countries store oil reserves – specifically for “just in case.” Interestingly, and perhaps more appropriately, the concept of having a reserve is also found in biological systems.
In my many discussions with Tim McGee, Biophilic Design Manager at International Living Future Institute, he has helped me understand how nature achieves resilience. Tim describes ecological resilience or “robustness” as the ability to continue regardless of the damages inflicted upon a biological system. In nature, if you want to be robust you actually have to give up some efficiency. Any specific system can’t be efficient and be robust at the same time at the same scale.
So, my takeaway here, using good planning and nature as a guide, is that we can’t be 100% go-go-go if we want to be able to handle life’s unexpected twists and turns. We need to build in some slack. Why? Because this extra capacity is what is going to get us through our next crisis or major challenge. Long-time Buddhist meditation teacher and writer, Sharon Salzburg often says, “It’s hard to give from a source of depletion.” She’s so right. But how do we build up our energy-bank so we are not depleted when our next crisis occurs? For me, it’s about scheduling time in my calendar for doing activities that give me energy rather than use it up, like running, reading or spending time with good friends. Sometimes just doing nothing. It’s intentionally not productive. I’m not wasting time. I’m just building up my resilience, thank you very much.
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Leigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher. She works for EYP, an architecture and engineering firm and is the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line.