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The myth of low energy

What is energy? What is vitality? How are they different, and why does that matter for leaders?

6 min read


The myth of low energy

Susan Fowler

If you don’t feel like you have enough energy these days, join the club. One of the most effective tools you have for coping with today’s challenges is being compromised: Energy — your capacity for taking action or vigorous effort, the power you have available to do the things you need to do. 

The question is what to do about it. Case in point: After an emotional week of making tough decisions to keep his business afloat, an exhausted CEO explaining why he took a well-deserved break, wrote:

“As we have learned from social neuroscience, our Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) only has so much capacity in a given day until it simply shuts off and takes a break.”

His belief in limited energy is a popular theory promoted by life and executive coaches, the blogosphere, and other well-intentioned advice givers based on the famous Strength Model theory from Dr. Roy Baumeister, et al, published in 1998. His legendary experiments asked subjects to exhibit self-control (resist chocolate) and then complete a puzzle. Other subjects just worked on the puzzle without the temptation of the chocolate.

The results? Subjects who had exercised self-control had less energy to solve the puzzle. The phenomenon is referred to as ego depletion.

The claim is that using self-control (or willpower) is like using a muscle; once you exert the muscle, it becomes tired and weak. When that happens, throw in the towel because your brain has nothing left to give (or accept the consequences of your lack of self-regulation). Coaches encourage you to strengthen the self-regulation muscle by exercising and eating right, monitoring your energy and practicing self-care.

You may feel that you have low or no energy left to expend. However:

Here’s the deal

  1. Neuroscientists looking to explain the phenomenon of low energy were eager to prove Baumeister’s popular theory of ego depletion. But, since 2016, a series of well-regarded studies found Baumeister’s research couldn’t be replicated. Alternative theories are proving more demonstrable. For example, it might be true that resisting chocolate left little desire to work on an irrelevant puzzle, but it turns out that resisting chocolate to work on a meaningful goal can enhance energy. Baumeister admits that his theory has changed over the past 20 years and will continue to evolve. The problem is, advisers (especially coaches) tend to preach the theory as if it’s true.
  2. Buying into the idea that you only have so much energy available to you becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thinking your energy is limited limits it. Ego depletion can become a convenient excuse, robbing you of effective strategies for generating desperately needed energy.
  3. Energy is different than vitality. This understanding can lead you to a proven strategy for generating positive and sustainable energy even in the face of a crisis.

Generating physical energy

You know how to generate physical energy. Get restful sleep, monitor eating habits, exercise regularly, blah, blah, blah. You’ve heard it all before. We may argue about how many hours of sleep you need, what the best diet is or what is the most effective exercise regimen, but we have general agreement on how to generate physical energy. 

But what if you eat right, exercise and get a good night’s sleep, yet still have to drag yourself out of bed in the morning? That has nothing to do with physical energy. It has to do with psychological energy or vitality. 

Generating vitality

Vitality is the energy available to you for taking action. It is the energy that enables you to self-regulate (resist the chocolate) and still have the energy you need to pursue your goals (work the puzzle). Vitality is the feeling of being alive, vigorous and energetic. When you have vitality, you are fully functioning. 

Three nutriments have proven to enhance vitality: choice, connection and competence. These three psychological needs are the key to not feeling drained; they are the antidote to low energy.

You have two options. One, you could exercise willpower and self-control to create low-quality energy. This takes the form of:

  • Exercise self-control by begrudgingly wearing a mask because it’s mandated
  • Complain about the isolation you feel because you are social distancing, can’t hug a loved one, or meet with friends at a bar.
  • Call on discipline to not rip the mask off your face when your breath fogs up your glasses

Second, you could create choice, connection, and competence to generate vitality (high-quality energy). This takes the form of:

  • Choose to wear a mask because you connect with doing what’s best for the welfare of others and contributing to the greater good
  • Find value in realizing that human connection is natural and necessary; revel in the awareness that we’re all in this together; appreciate that separateness and division are not in our nature but constructs worth fighting just as hard as we’re fighting a virus
  • After grumbling, laugh at yourself for finally learning that you were wearing your mask upside down without the wire to keep your breath from fogging up your glasses. Admit that if doctors and nurses can perform intricate procedures wearing masks, maybe you can learn how to buy groceries while wearing one

Remember that having energy is different than feeling energetic. When the challenges of COVID-19 leave you feeling drained, you have an antidote. Generate high-quality energy — the vitality you need to thrive — by creating choice, connection and competence. 


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information, visit

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