It’s 8 PM. Most employees are gone and you’re alone in a huge office.
You leave and it's dark out. The parking lot is empty. You go home and can’t stop thinking about work. You wake up at 3 AM in sweats and respond to a few work emails.
Saturday you come back. Sunday, you are working from home.
CEOs live this life for years. And, somehow, many of them seem full of energy and happy. How do they do it? What can we learn from them?
The truth on their drug use
There’s a stereotype that CEOs are relaxing, doing blow, and getting the overnight package with high-end escorts every weekend.
Most leaders drink coffee and go home to their spouses. Mark Zuckerberg drinks zero caffeine. Elon drinks two cups of coffee. Teddy Roosevelt famously drank a gallon a day.
High-caliber drugs like cocaine impair cognition and performance over the long term, taxing overall energy. For example, at the end of World War II, Nazi leaders gave meth to soldiers to squeeze more out of them during key battles. But those soldiers couldn’t move for three days afterward. The crash always hits harder than the high.
One obvious source of energy is a healthy lifestyle. This brings a glaring exception to mind, Donald Trump. The 75-year-old is famous for his energy, despite having one of the worst diets in presidential history. He constantly ate KFC and Mcdonald’s. He never stopped talking and tweeting at all hours. He did five campaign rallies a day, shouting into the microphone, running his 20-something aides into the ground.
His energy mostly likely involved genetics. Some people burst with energy and scientists are only just beginning to understand why.
That genetic factor for energy
Dr. Greg Steinberg has isolated a gene that produces AMP kinase. It’s an enzyme that converts your food to energy. If you produce lots of it, you feel more mobile and ready to get things done. Obese people are often low in AMP kinase. They’ll feel exhausted and lack motivation. Dr. Steinberg aims to treat this with medication.
However, his study shows that if you exercise and are active, it enhances the release of that enzyme, helping you be more productive throughout the day.
Most CEOs find time to exercise 45 minutes at least three times a week. They know the benefits are worth the time. And — they know that a million-dollar paycheck means little from the grave.
The magic or prioritization
Stress carries a very high energy cost. And it’s not that CEOs never get stressed. They just get stressed about the right things: they are masters of prioritization.
Decision fatigue occurs when you have too many decisions to navigate and you give too much weight to each of them. It leeches your energy and happiness.
CEOs are paid to make a handful of highly consequential decisions each year. They know that everything else is important — but not enough to lose their mind over. The ability to stay cool under pressure is a massive advantage with energy management.
The myth of sleep deprivation
Humans sleep less than any other primate but we sleep much deeper. This is because we sleep on the ground, have no risk of falling from a tree, and are well-protected from other predators.
But we need all five phases of sleep. It’s not a race to get to REM. Each phase has a unique purpose.
Only 1–2% of the population can be fully rested after 4–5 hours of sleep. This idea that every super successful person goes to bed at midnight wakes up at 4 AM is a myth. Jeff Bezos preaches on the importance of sleep and says his decision-making is impaired when he goes without it.
Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and a majority of CEOs get closer to eight hours than they do to four. Turn off the phone and go to sleep.
The work hours
CEOs work an average of 62.5 hours per week. But within that number is significant variability. Some hover closer to 50 and 40 hours. But many work well above 80-hours. There are the tales of Elon Musk, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who worked north of 120 hours a week.
How do they do it? The truth is — it wasn’t sustainable. Elon was on the verge of crying in interviews during that period, and admittedly fraying at the seams. Marissa remembers those long hours like it was time spent as a hostage.
Most CEOs only work 120 hour weeks during important stretches. It’s rarely protracted across decades. So don’t think they are superhumans. We are all capable of rising to extreme challenges.
Many CEOs are secretly miserable
I’m ghostwriting a book for a CEO right now — who I can’t name per contractual details. Let’s call him Bob just cause it’s fun. Bob ran a Fortune 500 company for five years and founded a well-known restaurant before that.
Bob doesn’t match all the qualities you’d expect in a CEO. He didn’t finish college and was a troublemaker as a kid (to the point that his mom thought he’d end up in jail).
He did, however, possess the two critical CEO ingredients: work ethic and intelligence. He never studied and always got straight As. He started working when he was 13 and loved hustling for money. It was in his blood.
Bob scored 1540 out of 1600 on the SAT (on the pre-1994, harder version of the test). He said he was completely surprised he scored that high. He took it again just to make sure it was right and got 1570.
Among the factors, his work ethic and smarts eventually landed him in the C-suite. I asked him, “So being the CEO of a large company is an extreme profession, isn’t it? Did you enjoy it?”
“I enjoyed being a CEO and everything that came with it. But not the job,” he replied.
He added, “It was all hours. Every waking moment of my day I was working. I couldn’t even give you an estimate but it was more than 100 hours a week.”
Bob bought a house a block away from his office so that he could save time and be there in two seconds. His hobbies went away and his relationship soured.
He said it was essentially stress that kept him going. There were so many stakeholders and people depending on him. He said he kept a happy face at the office, but people rarely knew he was dying inside on many days.
Bob then explained that that was why he only committed to doing it for a few years. He knew it would be hell.
Things to remember
Don’t assume every CEO is having a blast and oozing energy. They’re rocking a poker face much of the time.
However, if you want to have higher energy levels, do the basic things right. Eat healthy and get sleep. Learn to manage your stress levels. They are leeches to your productivity.
Stagger and mix up your workload. Give yourself lots of short breaks. Outside of that, it is mostly genetics. Make the most of what you are working with.
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