Energy sponges: Ways leaders waste time and energy

Successful leaders must efficiently use their energy and time and minimize behaviors that waste them.

BY MICHAEL F. BROOM, Ph.D. | CEO, Center for Human Systems

Time is a resource, and leaders never have enough of it. There are goals that must be met, staff to be managed, customers to coddle, finances to figure out, superiors to satisfy and the partner and kids at home wanting attention. The list goes on and on. There is no time to waste!

Yet, we rarely think about the things we do automatically that waste time and energy. I’m not talking about activities that are restful, pleasurable, and rejuvenating. Reading a book, watching TV, having a glass of wine, or playing with the kids are good examples of ways we use our energy that may not seem productive but are necessary and useful. Don’t overindulge, but enjoy them well.

It’s the complaining, blaming, worrying, making excuses, and rationalizing that concern us. Procrastinating is another—too often, I find myself doing everything except what I should be doing.

Another is analyzing in my head for the 32nd time how I’ll talk my editor into giving me a bigger advance for my next book. Arguing and trying to convince are too rarely useful to be anything but energy sponges.

Then there’s pretending — pretending we know something we don’t, pretending we’re OK when we’re not, pretending we’re cool when we don’t feel cool at all. The list goes on.

These energy sponges are unproductive activities that soak up time and energy. What are yours? Get out a pen and paper (or your mobile device) and make a list. If you can’t think of many, ask your buddy at work or your partner and kids at home. They know.

The complexity of life in today’s organization and the pace of change are ever-increasing. Successful leaders must efficiently use their energy and time and minimize behaviors that waste them.

Why do we have energy sponges if they are such a waste? At some point in our lives, they helped us accomplish whatever goals were at hand. Your whining got you that puppy your parents didn’t want you to have.

Through procrastinating, someone else took out the garbage. When you argued long enough, your parents gave in. Blaming relieved your sense of responsibility.

As adults, we all have old habits that are no longer useful. To minimize them, we must be aware of them. Then, we can, with intention and deliberation, choose more productive uses of our energy. Beware, though, trying to get rid of your sponges.

They are deeply rooted in our behavioral repertoire and will show up anytime we are stressed or have become too complacent. What we can do, however, is dramatically shorten the time we spend with them.

Instead of spending several hours bemoaning the loss of my assistant, I now may spend only two minutes grieving the loss before refocusing on replacing her.

Here’s a two-part exercise that will help you increase consciousness of your sponges and see alternatives. You will need a pen and paper or someone to do the exercise with. We’ll use the story of Dr. Jayne Parker, who owns and runs a sizeable data-management organization, to make our points.

Part One

1. Think of a time when you were at your very best. Tell or write the story, including what it was like. Was it exciting, anxiety-producing, peaceful?

Dr. Parker told of a meeting with her board of directors. A new member was challenging her management style as being too soft. In the past, she automatically met such a sexist suggestion with the heat of her rather short temper. That day, however, she took a breath and replied softly, “Maybe it’s my softness that generated a revenue increase of 75 percent this year.” The challenger had nothing to say in reply.

Regarding what it was like to be at her best, she said she was surprisingly calm and centered. She also said how she responded was very effective, though it cost her the ego satisfaction that a blast of her temper would have given her.

2. Share with someone or write about: Can you be your best whenever you choose? If not, why not? If you can, why?

Dr. Parker’s initial thoughts were that being in a good mood and being in the midst of a very successful year had been vital to her being at her best. She was sure she couldn’t be at her best all the time.

When reminded that the question was about choosing to be at her best whenever she wanted to, she said she had always believed that people were in charge of their choices. In that case, she could see no reason she couldn’t be at her best anytime she chose to. She sat straighter and smiled as she said that.

Part Two

1. Make a list of as many of your energy sponges as you can think of.

Dr. Parker listed:

  • Worrying
  • Over-analyzing
  • Procrastinating
  • Blaming herself
  • Holding anger in

She had initially listed anger to her list. Emotions are not energy sponges. However, what we do with our emotions can be. Using anger in ways that damage needed relationships is certainly an energy sponge.

Holding anger can be a sponge when doing so causes headaches, depression, and passive aggression. Jane added “holding anger in” to her list. She gets migraines to prove it.

2. Rate on a scale from one to ten, with one being least problematic and ten being most problematic, each of your energy sponges.

Dr. Parker rated her sponges:

  • Worrying 6
  • Over-analyzing 5
  • Procrastinating 4
  • Blaming herself 8
  • Holding anger in 5

3. Share or write about a recent time when you were doing your highest-rated, most troublesome sponge. Write about this situation, how it felt, and how long that energy sponge lasted.

Dr. Parker talked about needing to speak with her vice president of administration about the growing number of hints she’d been getting about his uncooperative demeanor with other vice presidents.

She worried about offending him and possibly losing him. She had put off talking with him for a month. She blamed herself for not working more closely with him, not saying something to him sooner, and procrastinating when she should be forthright.

4. Write or share what you would do if the situation occurred again and you were at your very best.

Dr. Parker said she would calmly and politely ask him if he knew about the problem and what he planned to do about it. She said she would speak to him the next day.

At our next meeting, she said all of her energy sponges started up the morning she planned to confront him. However, she focused on her ability to choose action rather than continue with her sponges. She told him what she had been hearing. He said he did not know about the complaints and would speak with each of the vice presidents about how he might be more helpful. She scheduled an executive staff retreat to focus on how the team might improve its communication and effectiveness as a follow-up that would benefit the entire team.

There isn’t enough time in a day for leaders to satisfy the demands that their role and life offer them. Time and energy are too precious to use doing things that are neither productive nor satisfying.

Mastery of how we use our own energy is the first place we must look to improve our efficiency and effectiveness. From there, we can help those who follow us to master how they use their energy as well. A great formula to create great teams and organizations that will thrive and prosper!

Michael Broom is an organizational psychologist with 45 years of experience with various people and organizations. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network and the author of “The Infinite Organization” and “Power, The Infinite Game.”

Contact Dr. Broom for a free hour consultation at You’ll be surprised at the difference a single hour can make! Email him at for more info.

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