Can I adapt to high energy situations?
August 1, 2012 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Can high energy be learned?

I worked on campaigns for a couple of years. Campaign hours are long, the work is relentless and the crisscross traveling is extensive (and I only traveled in-state). After three or four days of a breakneck schedule, I would always be exhausted to the point where I could barely function and no amount of caffeine or exercise would pep me up (and this was when I was in my early 20s). I'd sneak off for naps and alone time because I felt so awful.

But there were always the staffers who had endless energy, who reinvigorated after 3 hours of sleep, who didn't seem affected by jet leg on cross-country or international trips. I grilled them for their secrets, but all I came up with is that some people are wired with that type of energy, and some people aren't. While I won't rule it out for some of the people I worked with, drugs/uppers (beyond caffeine and energy drinks) weren't involved.

My question: if this type of go-go-go energy doesn't come naturally, can it be learned? Were you like me - a bag of incoherent bones after a three-day work bender - and trained yourself to become one of those peppy upstarters? I love campaign life, and I enjoy busy, breakneck work schedules, but I just can't seem to keep up. I'm interested to learn if you, personally, have become an very energetic person and how you did it. Any literature on the topic works, too.

As a note, I'm in my 30s, fairly healthy and an introvert. I recharge alone, so I wouldn't rule out that I just can't cut that type of extroversion this lifestyle demands.

posted by Laura Macbeth to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
if this type of go-go-go energy doesn't come naturally, can it be learned?

In my experience, my energy level is directly proportionate to my level of general happiness. The happier I am, the more energetic I am. YMMV.
posted by amro at 11:57 AM on August 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

My energy levels changed dramatically when I shifted to a healthier diet (less carbs). Before I used to be all peaks and valleys, I maintain a much more consistent energy throughout the day now by restricting sugar/carb intake.
posted by smitt at 11:58 AM on August 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have known the campaign meatgrinder. I can tell you how I survived.

Being an energetic person and appearing to be an energetic person are two different skills. If you are getting the work done equally as well as Peppy Field Organizer, you two have the same amount of energy in reserve. It's just that Peppy Field Organizer just looks so damn bright and happy and excited to see people all the time. There's still plenty of room for less ebullient people who get the work done...they just don't do so well with vol recruitment. (That was me. I work with data now.)

If I was you, I'd reframe this. This is not a question of how energetic you are, it's a question of how bubbly you want to appear. Who cares? You're not the candidate. The fact that you are still on campaigns after these years is a testament to your survival. I have seen campaigns destroy people, but not you.

You are not alone in your struggle. Nearly everyone you are working with suffers. Sure, some of them hide it better. But no human can work like that forever without damage. They don't do it because they have a natural reserve of energy, they do it because they believe.

What's important is not maintaining your energy, but maintaining your belief in whatever it is your campaign is about. You're there because you believe. Energy comes from fervent belief. You know that you could make more money working reasonable hours in Corporate Land, but you don't because you're saving the world. That's motivation that can't be learned, and it's what you have in spades if you're still there.

You know that what's in your heart is real. Just fake the outside, because the outside doesn't matter. Some of the best staffers I have known cracked fewer smiles than heads. That's a virtue equally as necessary as a patina of bubbliness. Don't worry about them.

Best of luck. And remember--a high-paying consultant gig is right around the corner for you!
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:14 PM on August 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Great answers so far. (Love it, Hollywood Upstairs!) Just to clarify - I don't work on campaigns now, and haven't for 5-6 years. I'd just like to return in the next few.
posted by Laura Macbeth at 12:19 PM on August 1, 2012

Food and sleep are two of my three biggest factors in energy level. I'm a very up person and it comes down to if I'm eating well and if I'm getting enough sleep. Both of those a difficult in your situaion but honestly, they're very important.

For food, I've done the paleo diet and found that my energy levels were higher than a regular grain and sugar diet, so maybe salads and meat are your friend when you can make it work.

In terms of sleep, again, it'd be trick with the schedule you're describing, but invest in earplugs and a sleep mask so that hotel stays can be as restful as possible and nap when you can. I worked as an RA in college so there were days I went to bed at 4 and had class at 9. I used earplugs then to get the best possible short sleep I could. Also, take naps when you can.

The other big thing for me is attitude. When I'm happy, I'm peppy so make sure you love the work you do and know the little things that can boost your mood. I'm an introvert, so in your situation, I would need a 15 minute break from people every couple of hours just to listen to a few songs or read a chapter of a book to re-energize.

And I agree with Hollywood Upstairs. Sometimes you won't feel it and as long as your not interacting with people who will make a stink, it's okay to be grouchy or tired from time to time.
posted by GilvearSt at 12:41 PM on August 1, 2012

Are you really an extrovert? If so, you get energy from being with all those people (up to a point). If not, then you may always need some re-charge time without people. Things that help most people be more energetic: good health, good nutrition, exercise, more exercise, sunshine, not drinking/using drugs*, music, attitude**, commitment, humor***, the people you're around, pacing.

*alcohol and many drugs damage cells, and your body uses energy on cell repair. Caffeine and a few other stimulants seem to be an exception. Getting prescriptions while traveling on a campaign is a huge pain, so I recommend caffeine.

**Perky Field Leader may be naturally optimistic, and get energy from it. Back Room Hack may be naturally angry and cynical, and get energy from the anger. In my case, attitude makes a difference, and anger takes a toll on you. Perkiness may take a toll on those around you, but screw 'em.

Laughter is energizing. If you have a volunteer who really has no time, have them send you a joke every day.

posted by Mom at 12:51 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with Hollywood Upstairs. There's appearing energetic, and being energetic.

But part of staying in it for the long haul is pacing yourself and knowing your strengths. The Scots have an old saying that a man can outrun a deer. Not that the man can run faster than a deer, but that a man can set a sustainable pace and run for a longer time than a deer, who runs in short bursts and then gets tired.

There's presumably lots to do on a campaign (I've never worked one, but I have worked protocol, which has a similar breakneck pace). Knowing where your strengths are, and being strategic in where you will make the biggest impact with your work is important. Once you have that down, I think you'll find the energy levels will follow.
posted by LN at 12:59 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me vitamin B and exercise - both help with my "real" energy level as well as my mood...
posted by NoDef at 1:56 PM on August 1, 2012

I'm a high energy person and it's possible that I am inherently so, but this is what I observe in myself which you may be able to implement, YMMV:

Energy output and recharge time are directly related. I have an intrinsic need for a specific form of recharge, and when I get it, I output at high energy. When I don't, everything suffers. If you are an introvert you may need absolute alone time for a required period every day in order to perform well with others afterwards.

Enjoying the work helps immensely, it is hard to have high energy in pursuit of something you don't care about.

Hydration, dark green vegetables, high quality proteins. That is, kale, water, meat, nuts, whole grains, fruits---not protein mix and granola bars and sport drinks. Avoid processed carbohydrates and sugars.

Exercise, both resistance and endurance.
posted by epanalepsis at 4:35 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Former campaign staffer here, and I know exactly what you mean.

One of the best pieces of wisdom I ever picked up working on campaigns was from a guy who'd been involved with a million primaries (this was in NH). He told a story about meeting an activist priest who had been through it all. He asked him how he kept going - didn't he get tired? The priest's answer: "the cure for exhaustion isn't rest. It's whole-heartedness."

Now, I don't think this is entirely true (though it's a good thing to tell a group of people who are going to be working 80-hour weeks for the next god-knows-how-long). Sleep is important for most of us, as is adequate nutrition, time with friends, etc.

But. When I look back at the times I was just all-out on campaigns, working crazy hours, and wasn't miserable and exhausted, they were the times I felt really personally invested in what I was doing, loved my team, and felt challenged by the work. Those were the times that I felt energized by the work itself, where it provided a sort of energy feedback loop.

While there are just those people who have higher energy levels, I bet a lot of the high-energy people you knew on campaigns were just really fed emotionally that way, either by the candidate or the work, or the energy of the campaign. That's why campaigns can be so addictive!

But Hollywood Upstairs is right, too. There's plenty of room on campaigns for people who are more low-key - I'm always surprised by how many introverts work in politics. There can be a lot of pressure, especially in field, especially if you're female (I don't know if you are) to be Super Bubbly Cheerleader, but acting like someone you're not saps energy too. So maybe you're the low-key but efficient data manager or the snarky new media director (where I landed, hello!). There's room for all kinds of people on campaigns, and especially if you've got a few cycles under your belt, there's no need to have to pretend to be someone you're not.

Also, as a side note: some of the best organizers, press secretaries and other campaign staffers I've known have been introverts. Being able to connect one-on-one with people in a genuine, low-key way is an introvert specialty and really valuable for campaign work.
posted by lunasol at 7:05 PM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, you can adapt to high energy if you do it in a balanced way. You want to shoot for running yourself at 100% capacity. But what most people try to do is run themselves at beyond 100% and burn themselves out. It is simple math: in order to run yourself at your best for a sustained period, you can only expend the amount of energy that you can recover in a 24 hour period. More or less.

And when we go beyond 100%, our bodies don't respond linearly. A day of running at 110% might take a week to recover from. If you do that every day, you are going to burn out quickly.

Stimulants are a razor's edge thing: they help you get to 100% output easier, but they also make it WAY easier to blast through 100% and over-do it. And the same thing with food. Like someone else mentioned, I find that if I eat more protein and less sugar/starch, I can sustain higher levels of activity longer. (Physical, mental or emotional energy.)

In other words, find your limit. Find where your 100% is. Combining that with what the others have said, maybe your limit is much lower for some kinds of work than other kinds of work.

Attitude is another big thing. If you are acting bubbly because you feel like that's part of the job, but inside all you are thinking is "I hate this, I am not a bubbly person, I am just doing this because I love the cause and I can't wait until I am done," you are expending more energy than you need to and are exhausting yourself. You could choose to tone it down to a level you are comfortable with, or find a way not to hate it so much. The latter is a skill that is very hard to learn, but becomes invaluable once you start to get good at it.
posted by gjc at 7:26 AM on August 2, 2012

Response by poster: Really great answers. Points that stand out are the idea that many people are just faking it well, and that loving what you're doing/believing in the cause feeds energy (which I've found to be true).
posted by Laura Macbeth at 10:26 AM on August 2, 2012

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