Sunday, July 3, 2011

Maximizing your energy

Part of being an engineer is that I tend to view the world around me in terms of energy, and how it can be converted into other forms. That is, at its base, maybe the primary foundation of engineering: converting energy from a natural form to a more useful form.

For example, when you start your car, the gasoline is mixed with a proportion of air in your fuel injector, and a spark plug created a spark. This action converts the potential chemical energy of the gasoline-air mixture into a thermal energy within your cylinder. This heated air then expands to fill the cylinder, moving your piston. Thus, the thermal energy is converted to a linear (up-and-down) kinetic energy. This piston is attached to a shaft, which then rotates—so the linear kinetic energy is converted into a rotational kinetic energy. This rotational kinetic energy is then transmitted down the axles to the tires—and your car drives forward. So we convert potential chemical energy into thermal energy into linear kinetic energy into rotational kinetic energy.

The same thing happens with the product I make (wind turbine blades). The nuclear energy of the sun heats the earth’s crust at different rates, thus creating pressure differences. This in turn creates wind (kinetic energy of air from high pressure to low pressure areas). This wind passes over our blades, which are designed to use the Bernoulli principle to turn the kinetic energy of wind into rotational energy of the blades and, therefore, the shaft. This shaft spins a generator, thus converting the rotational energy into electrical energy. So the process goes: solar nuclear energy -> kinetic energy (wind) -> rotational energy of blades -> rotational energy of generator -> electrical energy.

The point is, I tend to see life in terms of energy. And one of the most fascinating things about Christians is how poorly we use energy.

So with that in mind, I have four basic pieces of advice regarding how you use your energy.

1. Be intentional about gaining the most energy possible.
Every engineer will tell you – the greatest impact you can have in an energy conversion is in increasing the starting amount of the initial energy source. That is your greatest limiting factor. That is why high performance cars require higher-octane gasoline—it burns more efficiently and thus you start out the process with more energy. In my field, we are limited by Betz’s Law, which puts a massive limiting factor on how much wind energy we can convert.

So in your life, you need to be purposeful and intentional about doing the things that give you the most energy—mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. That starts with a good night’s sleep. It continues with eating right (thee solid meals per day), and of the right things (balanced diet). You don’t have to be a workout machine or a crazy person about nutrition: I’m not advocating that you have to be in good shape—just that being healthy will help you have a lot of energy when you start the day.

(Full disclosure: This is a “do as I say, not as I do” situation. I eat okay but not great. I certainly do not get enough sleep each night—usually only 5-6 hours on a good night. I try to make up the difference by drinking my body weight in caffeine each day. I do not recommend this approach.)

2. Multiply your energy whenever possible
One of the tricks that engineers can use to get maximum benefit out of the energy available to us is the use of gear ratios. For example, say you have converted the incoming energy into rotating a shaft at a rate of 1000 revolutions per minute. But you really want the end result rotating at 5000 revolutions per minute. You can achieve this without any new incoming energy: you simply add gears to the shafts. Shaft A (1000 rpm) has a gear of that is five times the matching gear on shaft B. As a result, for every revolution of shaft A, the second shaft (B) revolves five times. Thus, even though you have not increased the quantity of incoming energy, you are using it in the most efficient and effective manner.

Life is the same way. There is something in your life which can give you more energy. When I play basketball, I use energy in the course of the game but after it is over I am more focused and energetic than before. When I am having a good day at work, I come home with more energy than I left with. If you are one of those people who can get a second burst of energy from a twenty minute power nap, then do it!

You see, you cannot “will” yourself to have more energy. And taking a pill or drinking more coffee or sodas can only give you artificial, temporary boosts of energy. You need to be focused on the things that get your entire system (passions, emotions, physical, etc) engaged and going.

If you can’t name the thing that you can do to get more energy…then you need to find it. Maybe it’s a hobby, maybe it’s time for reflection, maybe it’s exercise. Maybe you don’t have enough sleep to start with, and you’re so low on the energy scale that you can’t get any back no matter what you try.

If you do know what those things are, then be intentional about creating space to do those things.

3. Avoid wasting energy
One thing few people know about energy production is that even the best energy conversion processes are horribly inefficient – 30-60% of the potential energy is really a top-notch, well designed system. Most of these losses are into the atmosphere, due to friction, etc.

People are the same way. What little energy we have (and it is too little, based on not following #1 and #2 above) is completely wasted. There are three major ways that people waste the energy that they have.

The first way is by doing energy-draining tasks. For too many people, work is one of these things. If your work never gives you any energy, but only drains it from you, then you are not in an ideal situation. Now that doesn’t mean everything is going to be rainbows and unicorns—if work was all fun, they wouldn’t have to pay you to show up! But it does mean that you should be able to find something about which you are passionate, and from which you get pride and joy.

The second way that many of us waste our energy is in busy-ness. The typical American family is far too busy. Between work, school, going to kids sporting events, making sure the lawn looks okay compared to the neighbors, gardening as needed, general house and car upkeep, paying bills, etc., life is filled to the brim just with the “normal” day-to-day routine. And then if you are a Christian at a busy church…well, get ready for really tiring out! Add on to that tough routine Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday night service, and a couple of ministries during the week, too. Being constantly busy is absolutely deadly to the Christian life, because it drains all possible energy out of you. Peace and joy and comfort—you know, the promises of the Gospel?—are not possible if you are always running on empty. There must be time for reflection and quietness and fun hobbies and a good book in front of the fire. There must be time to cuddle with your sweetheart and a cup of hot chocolate and watch a movie. There must be time to let the kids run outside for a couple of hours while you sit there enjoying doing nothing. If you are constantly running, then you will run out of gas before you ever reach your destination. As a friend of mine, John Chapman, always says: “We tend to prioritize the urgent above the important.”

The third way that we waste our energy is becoming passionate about things which we cannot impact. This is a more subtle, and perhaps more dangerous, form of waste—because you feel like you are doing good things. I know people will turn me off for this one, but please stay with me and answer me this: if you are one of those people who is really passionate about politics (on either side of the aisle), what has that gained you in life? All those hours spent watching CNN to keep perfectly up to date, all of that time posting comments on political blogs, all those dinner conversations filled with passion and energy, all that time listening to drive-time radio politics…what did you gain? Maybe, if you’re really lucky, you achieved some small change on a local political level. So maybe you did some good with all that passion. But could you have done more good by spending that time playing with your kids? Could you have done more good by spending that time in prayer or Bible study? Could you have done more good just watching a romantic comedy with your wife, to invest in your marriage?

You see, often we waste the energy we’ve been given by allowing ourselves to become overwhelmingly passionate about things that we cannot change, instead of spending that energy on things we can change. You cannot change the past and what someone did to hurt your feelings, so wallowing in it is a bad use of energy; a good use is in forgiving that person and repairing your relationship. You cannot effectively change the government into something it is not, but you can use the hours of your evening raising your children. You cannot change the state of education in the country by complaining, but you can spend your energy getting your kids into schools that you approve of (or homeschooling). Or (and this one hits close to home for me)—I cannot change the outcome of a football season by putting all of my energy into willing the Hogs to victory each fall, but I can change the lives of my sons by playing football with them in the backyard.

Do you see how we waste the little energy we have? Wasting energy is the thing at which we often perform the best.

So try to keep that in mind as you go through your day—how are you using the energy that you have? Is your schedule too crammed with busy-ness (maintaining the things you bought, kids organized activities/sports)? Are you in a job that drains you? Are you spending your passion and energy on things that are out of your control, rather than things that are in your control?

4. Aim the focus of your energy on things of God
If you do the steps above…well, you’re probably a better person than me. But if you did them, you would have the right amount of initial energy when you started the day; you would keep your schedule clear enough to avoid being run-down; and you would avoid wasting your energy on things that you cannot change.

So now—what should you be doing with that energy?

Now, you need to partner with God in your day-to-day life. Feed on God’s word, and think about the things of heaven. As you go through your day, think about how the thing I’m doing here relates to God. How can I partner with Jesus in the action I am doing today (work, parenting, hanging out with friends, etc.)? Create the space to think about the things of God.

Too many Christians think that being focused on the kingdom of heaven means that they must always be thinking about deep theology or super-spiritual ideals. That’s not the case at all. It doesn’t mean a somber life of theology. Living a Christian life means letting Jesus invade every aspect of everything you do. It means seeing the world through the lens of Christ. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to change anything you do (He might ask you to change your behavior, but not necessarily). Instead, it means letting Him have reign over the actions that you are doing—driving your kids to school and watching TV with your sweetheart and reading a good novel.

To be clear – I do not encourage at all that you create busy-ness in your attempt to ‘focus on God’. So many people think that focusing on God means being busy in eighteen ministries at a time; that isn’t it at all. I’m telling you to be like Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet all day in quiet solitude, listening to His words; not like Martha, running around ragged trying to serve Him.

Being spiritual doesn’t means that you only think about spiritual things; it means that you think about everything in a spiritual way. In other words, you don’t only have to do “church-like” stuff all the time; but in everything you do, make Jesus a part of it. The question is not, “What would Jesus do?”, but rather, “How can I involve Jesus in what I am doing?”

C.S. Lewis once said, “Aim at heaven and you get the earth thrown in. Aim at earth, and you get neither.” I think his point is that if you are always engaging God in what you do, then you will find yourself joyful and satisfied with everything else in your life. You will be able to find joy in your job and your schedule and your passions.

But to reach this point, you must create the space in your schedule through simplified lifestyle. You must take care and make sure that you are starting the day with the appropriate energy level. And you must ensure that you aren’t wasting your energy on things that you cannot influence.

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