Stress and Recovery

One of the core concepts behind energy management is that you increase your energy by cycling between stress and recovery. Weightlifters use this method all the time by stressing their muscles at the gym and then taking suitable downtime for the muscle fibers to recover and grow stronger. If you skip the recovery phase and keep trying to build muscle, your body will eventually start eating away the muscle, destroying your progress.

Cycling between stress and recovery is essential in all areas of your life. When you are working hard on a project, if you continue working constantly without rest your performance will suffer. If you keep going without rest you will eventually burnout. Like a car that has run out of gas, you can’t keep functioning without recovering your energy.

In their fantastic book, The Power of Full Engagement, Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr talk really flesh out the concept of energy management and the stress/recovery cycle. Their book contradicted many time-management philosophies that stated you could produce as much as you had time for and that rest was wasteful.

The stress and recovery cycle extend beyond just getting work done or getting in shape. I believe that harnessing these two components is the key to making progress in any area of your life, whether it is social, conquering your fears or even enjoying life more.


The reason cycling stress with recovery is important comes from the physiological principle of homeostasis. Much of what your body does is regulatory. If your body gets too hot, it tries to cool off. If it gets low on blood sugar, it makes you feel hungry to try to find food. If the blood becomes too acidic, it releases calcium from your bones.

What the body is trying to do is achieve the stable state of homeostasis. This is the equilibrium point where it isn’t too hot or too cold, too hungry or too full, too acidic or alkaline.

This homeostasis doesn’t just apply to your bodily functions but to your mind. When you exert yourself beyond what your body is used to it creates the feeling of stress as it wants to retreat to your internal set point. By cycling stress and recovery in the different areas of your life you can adapt your body to form a new internal equilibrium.

Pushing Yourself

I believe that we all have our own internal equilibrium points for various areas of our life. This could represent the amount of social interaction we can handle and need to feel comfortable. The amount of organization we naturally maintain or the amount of variety we need to keep from getting bored. Even the term “comfort zone” seems to imply that people are inclined to seek homeostasis.

The old model of personal development was to push yourself as hard as you can outside of your internal set point. If you want to be disciplined, just focus and commit. If you want to achieve goals, focus on them constantly. If you want to be successful you need to work harder.

Although this advice was certainly valid, it oversimplified the reality. Almost everyone intuitively understands the notion that working harder is important to success, but then they would fail to do so. People who set goals for themselves and failed to take the action necessary to achieve them. Internally their body was saying that this extra pushing was abnormal and it put up resistance to try and stop it.

In order to make any changes in your life you are going to have to push yourself. You are going to have to disrupt your homeostasis. Without offering some form of recovery your body is going to scream louder and louder at you to stop what you are doing. You can’t win this battle in the long-term. If you don’t recover your energies, your body will force you to.

If you are hyper-focused on your goals, spending some time to disengage can recover the energy you need to be in top shape. Hobbies, new activities or even a challenging activity that can take your mind off your larger problems can help recover energy.

If constantly interacting with people is giving you stress, periods of alone time can recover your energy. Similarly if you are feeling restless working on a project, spending time socializing can help recover that energy.

Cycles of stress and recovery are critical to making long-term change. Short-term dramatic change is possible, but sustaining it requires you to shift your internal equilibrium. Taking time to recover your energies and making progress in incremental steps is the key.