Alexis Ohanian Thinks About His Energy Like a Bank Account (Why You Should Too)
🕒 Reading time: 12 mins
Tl;dr: Think of your physical and mental energy like a bank account. Spend your resources more wisely to create sustainable success.
I was recently talking to a friend who works as a consultant.
Turns out, he’s making a pretty high salary and just got a promotion. He also regularly works more than 8 hours a day and says he often feels tired.
It got me thinking. We’re often happy to overspend our physical and mental energy if it helps us make more money or be more successful.
But here’s the problem. It’s not always good for us, or even sustainable in the long run.
Someone who knows this all too well is successful entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and husband to Serena Williams.
10 years ago he looked successful, satisfied, even fulfilled. In reality he was overworked and unhappy.
“I overdrafted on my physical and mental bank account [for too long].”
Ohanian is now a harsh critic of ‘hustle porn’, which is a recent trend that glorifies overwork.
It wasn’t always that way: “It’s easy to roll your eyes at all this wellness stuff”.
Yet, it was only when he realized he was underperforming that he knew needed to be more conscious about how he spent his physical and mental energy.
Let's be clear. This article is not about wellness at the expense of hard work.
In fact, wellness is your secret weapon. It makes you more productive and more competitive. Not less.
It's why the world's top athletes, businesspeople and creatives all regularly take time out to recharge.
You too can be more conscious about your physical and mental health if you think of it like a bank account.
Here’s how Alexis’ concept of the mental and physical bank account can transform the way you allocate your personal energy - and live a more fulfilling, healthy and successful lifestyle.
💸 Be conscious about what you spend
Imagine if you only had 20 minutes a day to do what you wanted. What would you spend it on?
Maybe you chose to see your best friend. Or decided to do a workout session at the gym.
When we’re faced with a limit it’s often easier to allocate our resources accordingly.
That’s why we can budget with our money. We know how much we have in the bank because we can see the number in our accounts.
But here’s the thing: when it comes to your energy and your mental resources, it’s not always as clear cut. There’s not an ‘energy balance statement’ or a ‘stress overdraft’.
How you feel at any given time can’t be quantified like it can with a bank account.
But make no mistake, your physical and mental bank account still exists. The details are just a bit more fuzzy.
The problem is that it's easy to use up our energy on tasks which don't really benefit us in the long run.
Remember that all-nighter you pulled? Or how about that evening you spent listlessly scrolling through social media?
They all cost energy. But did you get a good return? Was it valuable?
Think about how you're spending your energy
Like with money, we exchange our energy and effort for value.
And that means to spend your resources and energy effectively and get a good return, you need to think consciously about it.
Although we’d like to think otherwise, energy is finite. Buying a new watch drains our bank account. Replying to emails drains our energy.
When we buy something, we prioritize. We’re saying that we want to exchange our money for that Starbucks coffee instead of other things that are lower on our list.
We can actually approach our energy the same way. By taking the time to prioritize what is most important, you’re less likely to be spending your effort on things which don’t provide value.
Also known as the Pareto Principle, this rule suggests that 20 percent of your activities will account for 80 percent of your results.
Sometimes we spend money on things we don’t really need. The same can be true with our energy.
That’s why identifying which activities are the most valuable - and scheduling accordingly - is so important.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO and Square CEO successfully runs two companies at the same time by breaking his week down into different ‘themes’:
"The way I found that works for me is I theme my days. On Monday, at both companies, I focus on management and running the company…Tuesday is focused on product. Wednesday is focused on marketing and communications and growth. Thursday is focused on developers and partnerships. Friday is focused on the company and the culture and recruiting. Saturday I take off, I hike. Sunday is reflection, feedback, strategy, and getting ready for the week."
While you might not have the luxury of theming each day, you can still organize your day into a series of themed time slots so you can focus your energy. This way, you can concentrate on a task without being distracted.
Simple changes can have big impacts. Scheduling two 30-minute windows to check your email will probably cost significantly less energy than constantly checking it throughout the day. And allow you to focus on work that really matters.
🏦 It’s always good to have savings
Most of us have a savings account.
We might need money spare to fix a broken boiler, to be able to take that summer holiday, or to buy a house.
Savings help us to ensure that we have money left over for unexpected moments or give us an opportunity to buy things in the future.
And whether it’s resting, recharging or recuperating, conserving our energy is just as necessary.
We all need time to get ourselves back on track after a stressful week. Or have some left over for if some unexpected stress comes our way.
That’s why deliberate rest is important. Really important.
Rest like a champion
Having a world champion tennis star as your life partner can have its advantages. Serena Williams showed Ohanian that rest is not just important for top performers, it’s crucial.
“[Serena] is so committed to the time she spends at work, but equally as committed to the time she spends at rest and recovery. That’s both physical and mental — it’s not just resting your body, it’s also resting your mind. Undeniably, it’s the only way you can perform at that level so consistently and under so much scrutiny.”
Founder and CEO of the popular project management tool Basecamp, Jason Fried puts it another way:
“We think about how much time we put into work, but I think it’s valuable to think about how much time we put into life. If you say, ‘Well, I work 60-hour weeks,’ it’s like, ‘Well, how many hours a week do you live?’ It’s not something that can be ‘carved out,’ it’s something that you do. You have to live otherwise something else will take its place.”
WIthout rest we can easily become depleted and ineffective.
Have you ever asked yourself the question: ‘Am I being busy or productive?’
If you’re spending energy for the sake of feeling busy, you might not be actually getting much value in return. It’s probably better to ‘save’ that energy for later.
Joseph Bienvenu, a psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, thinks busyness is problematic:
“Emotional distress due to overbusyness manifests as difficulty focusing and concentrating, impatience and irritability, trouble getting adequate sleep, and mental and physical fatigue.”
In fact, being constantly ‘on’ takes away our freedom to think, play, explore, nurture relationships and rest.
Take a step back for a moment. Do you schedule time to rest and enjoy life?
⌛ If you take a loan out, be prepared to pay it back
We know if we borrow money we don’t have, we have to pay it back - usually with interest.
In an age where we’re regularly encouraged to ‘push ourselves’ or ‘do more’, it’s easy to borrow energy from our future selves.
Think all-nighters, extra hours at work, or answering emails on the weekend. Most of us have been there at some point.
And, in special circumstances, it can even be helpful. Ohanian says: “Some of my best times have been working all night in the office.”
But the emphasis is on special circumstances.
Hard work vs. overwork
It goes without saying that hard work is important. And yes, there’s a place for challenging yourself in the name of personal growth.
But in today’s culture, drawing the line between hard work or overwork can be difficult.
When we pull an all-nighter once in a blue moon, it can be necessary to get us through a tough period. Maybe we need to hit a pressing deadline or close a crucial deal.
But doing it regularly is not advised.
As leading neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker explains:
“Sleep is actually not like the bank. You can’t accumulate a debt and then hope to pay it off at some later point in time. So sleep is an all-or-nothing event in that sense. So you can’t short sleep during the week and then try to binge and oversleep at the weekend... You’ll never get back that full eight hours you’ve lost.”
Your loan on sleep or energy eats into the enjoyment and productivity of your next few days.
A single night of sleep deprivation increased anxiety levels by 30% in healthy young adults.— Dr. Rhonda Patrick (@foundmyfitness) 5 November 2019
New research by @sleepdiplomat has identified that deep sleep may inhibit anxiety by helping reorganize connections in the brain. https://t.co/rtA8HzA7kn
To 'repay' it means getting into a better routine.
Ensure that loaning your energy is the exception, not the rule.
🛏️ Don’t stay in your overdraft for too long
Living on borrowed money for too long can lead to long-term debt, or even bankruptcy.
Similarly, the burnout and mental health epidemic we’re living through now suggests that too many people are living on borrowed energy for too long.
The results can be just as damaging.
The effects of social media, lack of job security, and the pace of technological change all add new sources of tension to our lives.
You might feel like you’re ‘on’ all the time or tired on a regular basis. You might struggle to have enough time to cook healthy meals or to exercise frequently or relax.
And the response to this tweet from Stripe engineer and Cushion App founder, Jonnie Hallman suggests that lots of people can relate to the challenges of modern life:
Still have no idea how people can…— Jonnie Hallman (@destroytoday) 25 August 2019
✅ work a full-time job
✅ cook dinner often
✅ exercise regularly
✅ enjoy weekends
✅ keep the apartment clean
Seems basic, but I can’t consistently do it.
Achievement shouldn't mean burnout
In fact, Jonnie’s handle @destroytoday symbolises his ambition to achieve. But his tweet demonstrates the daily realities of living life on those terms.
Earlier in 2019, he experienced his first panic attack. A post on his blog describes how he was able to start re-evaluating how he spent his energy.
Science shows that our bodies aren’t designed to operate on continued stress.
If you can relate to any of these feelings, try and find a way to re-prioritise your time to you can be successful and healthy.
🙌 Invest for the long-term and reap the rewards
“Investing in your physical and mental health while you’re young is such a high ROI thing, which I’m just doing now” says Ohanian.
And like with any investment, it’s important to think long-term.
Going to the gym, eating healthily or taking the time to cultivate personal relationships aren’t necessarily going to benefit you immediately.
But over time you'll probably enjoy increased productivity, better health and more fulfilling relationships.
And unlike investing in a startup, the results are more predictable when you invest in yourself.
If you sleep well every night you will feel better. If you go to the gym regularly you will become fitter.
As Ohanian reminds us: “your self is your greatest resource and asset”.