Woman with wind-up key
Photo: Greg Miller
Forget being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—all the author wanted was enough oomph to get through the day. And she needed something more inspiring than "eat right, sleep right, exercise." So she went looking for her very own, very personal wind-up key...
When you spend as many hours as I've spent collapsed on the couch in front of the TV, you have a lot of time to think about how bushed you are and what you might do to give yourself more energy. At 30—single, no kids—I suffered not only from exhaustion but also from exhaustion guilt. I knew I was too young and unencumbered to be so tired, but even on my best days, when I started off grooving, the grooving inevitably became chugging, which quickly turned to churning, which eventually sank into grinding.

I'd tried the "exercise, eat right, get a good night's sleep" program—and found it unsustainable. I would run for a week, then run out of steam. My budget did better with $5 Kung Pao chicken dinners than $10 salads from Whole Foods. And my life as a freelance writer was too unpredictable and deadline intensive for a minimum-daily-requirement approach to sleep. There had to be another way.

So I devised an incredibly random and totally unscientific strategy to recharge, based on a few "if, then" theories I'd speculated about during those lethargic hours on the sofa.

1. If sluggishness, like yawning, was contagious (and judging by my family, I'd say the chances were good), then might energy be, too? In which case, would spending time with energetic people pep me up?

2. On the other hand, if one's energy level was the result of genetic predisposition, like big breasts or flawless skin, then, in the spirit of push-up bras and concealing foundation: Would faking energy give me energy?

3. Or maybe low energy was the result of a bad attitude—in my case, expressed by the mantra "I don't feel like it." If so, could I turn things around with a hearty dose of "I think I can"?

I'd conduct my own energy-building experiment, answering these questions and checking in with some experts along the way.

Afraid of losing momentum before I even got started, I quickly made a list of people whose energy I might be able to tap. My first (insane) thought was the fifth graders my friend Maria teaches—if ever a group of people had pep to spare, it would be a bunch of manic kids. But when I talked to Jon Gordon, author of The Energy Bus, he encouraged me not to confuse frenetic with energetic; the former, he warned, is often a sign of being hopped up on what he calls stress energy. "The people who make you feel energized may not be the ones who are bouncing off the walls," Gordon said. My energy-by-osmosis experiment made sense to him; he told me that every social interaction is an exchange of energy. But he urged me to gravitate toward "the right kind of high-energy people"—people whose oomph was enthusiastic but focused, passionate but purposeful.
Penny Wrenn
Photo: Greg Miller
I immediately thought of my good friend Tracey—an irrepressibly happy, married working mother who lives in Brooklyn. In Tracey's world, everything is always "Great!" and "Yay!" Stop by her house unexpectedly, and she'll whip up a batch of cupcakes. She took up deejaying when her daughter was just 4 months old, and she spends her weekends zipping off to Home Depot with her happy, handsome husband. If my life were an episode of Extreme Makeover, Tracey would be my desired "after" picture. And hanging out with her would be more than just a chance to borrow some octane; it would also give me a chance to flex some faking-it muscle. I would match her "Yay!" for "Yay!"—even if it killed me.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Brooklyn. The sun was shining. All my normal clothes were in the laundry, waiting to be washed, so I ended up wearing a sexy summer dress I wouldn't otherwise have chosen. And feeling sexy gave me a spark—a spark so strong that it didn't fizzle out even when I ran into an old boyfriend and his new fiancée (whom I liked more in 20 minutes of chatting than I'd liked the boyfriend in two months of dating). By the time I showed up for brunch with Tracey, I was on an energy roll. I was present. I was engaged. My dress got the attention of an actor sitting one table away. (Flirty glances from handsome actor? Instant energy boost.) Tracey came with her family, and as we laughed and talked, I forgot I was there to wiretap her zest. I simply enjoyed myself.

And then another funny thing happened: On the way to Tracey's house after brunch, she expressed surprise at my low-energy complaints. "I've always seen you as energetic," she said. Then she stunned me with the news that she envied my energy vibe—specifically, the way I could talk to anyone about anything and become the resident conversation-engager in a room.

I figured that since we were being honest, I might as well tell her that I was jealous of the way she was always "Great!" and always had stuff to "Yay!" about.

Then she compared me to Dorothy's friends in The Wizard of Oz—the Scarecrow looking for brains, the Tin Man looking for a heart, the Lion looking for courage, when in fact they'd had these things all along.

I went back to my couch to think about what Tracey had said. She wasn't the only person who was baffled by my energy quest. So maybe I wasn't as low energy as I thought. Or maybe I was defining energy the wrong way.

It was true, as Tracey believed, that I zoomed in the presence of other people. I greeted friends with an excited "Hey!" or "Look at you!" I hugged, kissed, complimented, checked in on the latest news. I smiled a lot. And laughed—loudly—when I got a kick out of someone. It was usually when I was alone that I felt zapped.

Maybe I had two personas—onstage and backstage. Or maybe I'd been unwittingly faking it all along, at least in some situations.

Judith Orloff, MD, author of Positive Energy, doesn't believe in faking it; instead she endorses "acting as if." "You want the energy to be real," she told me when I called her for advice. Faking it, she explained, is merely going through the motions—the product of a "getting it over with" mentality. "Acting as if," on the other hand, requires actually getting into the energy act and telling yourself, "I am energetic" or "I have the energy I want." It is about trying, and practicing, and it could lead to something positive.

When I told Orloff about my date with Tracey, she zeroed in on the jealousy. "Being envious or comparing yourself all the time binds up energy," she cautioned. Point taken. But why, then, had the "I'm jealous of your ____"; "Well, I'm jealous of your ____" exchange with Tracey felt so refreshing?

"Expressing yourself clearly and lovingly—while not holding anything back—can be an amazing energy boost," Orloff said. "Honesty can set energy free."

Expressing yourself clearly and lovingly can be an amazing energy boost. I couldn't get those words out of my head—and it dawned on me that maybe this was because I am at my least clear and least loving when I'm in my head. When I'm feeling lethargic, I don't give myself a pep talk; I don't recognize the specific things I have accomplished, or remind myself of my ability to get things done. Instead I let my inner Mommie Dearest take over, which leads to brutal self-accusations about falling short—underperforming, underproducing, underachieving. The voice in my head turns into a hammer: "Get out of bed! Off the couch! Get it together already! What's wrong with you? Whatever it is, get over it!"

I'd always believed that voice. I believed that lethargy could be cured only with scolding and tough love. Now Orloff was telling me it would rather be killed with kindness. In her eyes, beating up on myself for feeling low only brought me lower. A more effective step toward "setting an energetic tone," she said, would be to practice compassion for myself. If I could be kind to myself, without a "must" or "should" attached, I would be all the more energized.

More than a week had passed since I began my experiment—so was I brimming with vim and vigor? Put it this way: No. But there was a shift that came directly from moments of being nicer to myself. Saying to myself, "I know you're not up for it—and baby, I know you're tired—but let's give it a go anyway, shall we?" made it easier to get up in the morning. Being kinder to myself also helped me become more aware of the places in my daily routine where lethargy liked to lurk but could be cut off at the pass. My desk chair, for instance: I noticed that after three hours, my bum started to hurt; since discomfort can be a downward spiral to exhaustion, I started getting up and walking around a few times a day. My bed: Those snooze-button intervals were a drag. I didn't fall back to sleep—I just lay awake wallowing in "I don't have the juice" self-pity. So I started rising as soon as the alarm first sounded.

When I spoke to Orloff again to report on my progress, she said I was energetically tuning in to my body. Yet even with the slightly higher buzz from all my findings (that a sexy dress can tilt the energy scale in your favor, that confessing your jealousy to a good friend lightens an emotional load, that exhaustion isn't a thing to be beaten into submission), I still didn't have the energy I was hoping for.

But I had one more task to go: overcoming "I don't feel like it." So I called David Burns, MD, author of the cognitive therapy bible, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Cognitive therapy helps people change the self-defeating thoughts that lead to self-defeating behavior; "I don't feel like it" seemed ripe for such a change.

When I told Burns that I was looking for alternatives to the "exercise, eat right, get a good night's sleep" prescription, he had this to say about that advice: "That's garbage." The man was now officially my hero.

"Those solutions offer more of a placebo effect than anything else," he told me. "They don't get at what's really going on with people." Burns said the real enemies of energy are feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, anxiety, hopelessness. And he was willing to guide me through his method for dealing with those feelings.

When clients complain to Burns that they wish they had more energy, his response is always, "More energy to do what?" It's an obvious question, but when he turned it on me, I was stumped.

What would I do with more energy? Shower more often? Floss before bedtime? Hang the framed paintings that had been stashed in the corner of my living room for I'm ashamed to say how long? Scrub the coffee cup rings off my desk (which would first require digging out the desk itself from under the piles of junk that had accumulated all over it)? Shop for a new pair of ballet flats? Read The New York Times? Learn Spanish? Rejoin eHarmony (oh, but the thought of filling out that online questionnaire again—it had to be ten pages long!)?

I floated these ideas to Burns, who insisted that I choose one thing to start with. If I examined a single daunting task, he said, I could uncover what was making me avoid it. Dubious, I chose the desk.

Burns went to work, tossing out diagnostic questions: "Why would you bother cleaning your desk?" (Oh, I don't know—maybe because stuff is starting to stick to the coffee cup rings?) "What negative thoughts come to mind when you consider the task?" (Only disorganized losers, with little hope of ever making sense of their lives, have desks that look like mine.) "On a scale of one to 100, how angry, hopeless, frustrated, inadequate, or guilty do those thoughts make you feel?" (85.)

I could almost feel the dots connecting. No wonder I rarely felt like doing anything: The mere thought of the attempt detonated a smoke bomb of negative self-opinions. Emotionally, it was easier to avoid the tasks altogether.

In his book, Burns talks about a problem endemic even to to-do-list makers. He calls it do-nothingism, and says that like its close relative, procrastination, it's rooted in defeatism (the belief that your efforts won't get you anywhere), feeling overwhelmed ("It's all too much," you think), and fear (of disapproval, of success, of failure, or of not getting it "just right").

I saw, now, that "I don't feel like it" was my version of do-nothingism. Given that so many of the to-dos on my list were ruled by other people's needs or whims, "I don't feel like it" was my attempt at invoking some do-as-I-please autonomy. But if Burns was right in saying that action often leads to motivation and energy—and not the other way around—then my stubborn refusal to engage was only getting in my way.

That insight led me straight to Jim Loehr, coauthor of The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. I liked Loehr's definition of engagement: "the ability to bring your full and best energy to whatever one is doing at the moment—right here, right now." And I felt a perverse glee when he told me, "People start getting less efficient at producing and recovering energy around age 25 or 30." (Depressing but validating; maybe I wasn't too young to be exhausted, after all!)

What I didn't like so much about Loehr's ideas, at least at first, was that he's a big "exercise, eat right, get a good night's sleep" guy. But as we talked, I started to see his point. A higher energy dividend, he said, comes with properly earning and spending the get-up-and-go currency that we call oomph, pep, zest, or "the juice." According to Loehr, the energy cycle breaks down this way: Make it, use it, replenish it, repeat. Twenty-minute walks and leafy green vegetables were "make it" endeavors. Six hours of sleep instead of three were replenishment.

And where I usually messed up—as Loehr told me most of us do—was in the "use it" cycle. Loehr blames the underuse of energy for much of the world's exhaustion. The biggest underuse culprit: being in a sedentary position for long periods of time. As in, ahem, watching TV.

Yet energy isn't only about what we do to, and with, our bodies, Loehr said. He, like the other experts I spoke with, believes energy must be considered from four angles—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. I was starting to understand the first three components, but what about the fourth?

I thought back to my conversation with Jon Gordon; he'd asked if I felt spiritually connected to a higher power.

"Like God?" I'd said. "Not really." Don't get me wrong; I believe in something bigger than me. But did I feel the pull of a certain life force lately? No. And now I began to wonder if my lack of vigor was related to a spiritual disconnect.

So I took a final detour in my energy journey: I made a date to see a clergyman.

Sitting across from me in his office at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, Jesse T. Williams Jr., the church's head cleric, told me that energy is a spiritual notion—or as he put it, "God has everything to do with it."

As a churchgoer, I'd felt the motivating boost of a booming Sunday morning sermon. But it always wore off. How then, I wondered aloud, to tap into this power on a regular basis? Williams's answer was simple: Ask. "Give us this day our daily bread"—that's his own approach, requesting no less zest, and no more, than he needs.

And maybe sufficiency is the point. Call it "giving it all you've got." Some days my all is a lot; some days it's not. After conferring with the experts and starting to practice what they preach, I've discovered that I can tilt the odds in favor of higher-energy days by being more present, letting go of envy, getting out of bed, eating a vegetable once in a while. Just as important, instead of stressing out about low-energy days—which only adds to the cycle of exhaustion—I now take them in stride. I show myself some compassion. I give myself a break. I say to myself, "Not bad, baby," and I feel good. Not "Great!" exactly. But pretty damn good. Which, for today, is energy enough for me. 

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