★ Rockstar Book Review: “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working”

Tony Schwartz

Reviewed by:
On May 5, 2017
Last modified:June 7, 2017


"The Way We're Working Isn't Working" is a must read for anyone involved in the working world, whether you're the employer or the employee. It contains critical insight into what makes us perform at our best... and at our worst.

This is part of our Rockstar Book Review series.
Be sure to check out all previous books we’ve covered!

“The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance” by Tony Schwartz

rockstar rating 5 stars

Who it’s for: Leaders, followers, and the self-employed in the working world. People who feel there’s something wrong with the current methods of getting work done, and want proof there is a better way. (This might be a great gift for your boss, if you have one. I’d call it a win/win!)

Readability: HIGH. Despite its 275 pages, I found this book an easy read and a great reference, thanks to point-form summaries at the end of every chapter and a back-of-the-book reference called “The Big Ideas”. Further, this research-heavy book doesn’t overwhelm—a rarity in this category.

What I liked about it: It’s an amazing book! Schwartz has done his research and had a direct hand in helping us learn what leads to great performance. The result of all that effort is this fantastic book, which contains what he’s discovered and has applied in his own life. I could not put it down and found myself saying “YES!” out loud on numerous occasions.

Why? Because the concept of “work/life balance” is overused these days and Schwartz presents the idea in a new way that compels us to consider that balance. His findings make it clear that the need to reach it—through “renewal”—is imperative for both businesses and individuals.

What I didn’t like about it: Nothing, other than the occasional typo. This book is the ultimate performance book and a highly-annotated copy is now part of the Free to Pursue library.

Where to find it:

Amazon @ $9.98 || Free @ the library

“The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” is the Antidote to the Current & Expected Self-Destructive Habits of the Modern Workplace

Tony Schwartz doesn’t mince words. The way we’re currently working is detrimental to both workers and employers. The workplace is now a place full of distractions and immediate demands that suffocate our ability to think deeply about problems or opportunities. Add to that longer hours, the need to reach for conveniences that lead to poorer food choices and lower activity levels, less time spent connecting with others in a meaningful way and lower physical activity levels. The result is that today’s worker is fighting a losing battle to maintain, let alone increase, personal performance.

Unfortunately, what gets measured—usually face time and/or checkmarks on a never-ending “to-do” list—gets done, but it’s not what matters most… to anyone!

Superior performance demands both deep concentration and intermittent breathing room, and we’ve managed to choke both of these to such an extent that they’re now deemed unaffordable luxuries. Schwartz is here to convince us the opposite is true: we can’t afford to not pay attention to the need for deep thinking and recovery, because therein lies the greatest potential for us to be successful over the long-term.

The ethic of more, bigger, faster has prompted us to spend far more energy than we adequately renew, in a frenzied and largely futile effort to keep up with relentlessly rising demand. (pg. 50)

For the individual, that means focusing on four sources of energy, or “dimensions”, and the corresponding human need they address:

  1. The physical (sustainability)
  2. The emotional (security)
  3. The mental (self-expression)
  4. The spiritual (significance)

#1. The Physical Dimension

Physical energy is the basis for all other energy. Without physical energy, we can’t function in any other dimension. Our minds and our bodies are deeply interconnected, and when our body is working well, our mind is too.

When we expend and renew physical energy in healthy ways, such as exercise, eating well, engaging in play, sleeping, taking breaks, meditating, going on vacation, etc. we are expanding our overall energy reserves (a resource that, unlike time, we can create more of). We’re giving our body what it needs to be able to continue to operate in spikes of high performance—90-minute or so bursts of focus and energy (aka “flow”)—throughout the day that make us feel alive and engaged.

Conversely, when we expend and renew energy in unhealthy ways, such as consuming caffeine, junk food, and even amphetamines as pick-me-ups and alcohol, sleeping pills, TV and painkillers as a way to relax, we’re masking the problem with short-term solutions that often have long-term consequences. These include: elevated stress hormones, a greater risk of developing chronic illnesses, shortened attention spans, irritability, etc.

By giving the body what we know it needs, and avoiding what we know is just a short-term fix, we can give ourselves the best chance to thrive in the physical dimension as well as the other three.

#2. The Emotional Dimension

When we take care of our bodies, we’re calmer and more engaged, and more patient and optimistic. We’re also more resilient when faced with adversity. We’re even more peaceful and receptive to the ideas of others. In short, we feel more secure and that state makes us more likely to be aware of, and introspective about, how we’re feeling at any given moment. That means we can be fully present for ourselves and others.

When we don’t take care of ourselves, we exhibit emotions and behaviors that we often come to regret: impatience, anger, fear/worry, exhaustion, depression, sadness and emptiness among others.

There’s also an external factor that can have a great negative impact on this state: an affront to our sense of personal value. Feeling unappreciated, under-appreciated, or disrespected can have a significant impact on our emotional wellbeing.

Feeling appreciated is as important to us as food. The need to be valued begins at birth and never goes away. (pg. 13)

In short, we need to feel we matter, both to ourselves and to others.

#3. The Mental Dimension

We want to have an impact. We want to do something that creates real value, but how do you measure that? Traditional measurements of productivity (hours worked, tasks completed, speed of response, calls made, presentations delivered, articles written) don’t measure quality or impact. Add to that our modern expectation of being “always on” and Schwartz argues that modern ways of working undermine our ability to produce meaningful work, the type of work that “puts our unique skills and talents to effective use in the world.” (pg. 15)

When we’re working at our best, we’re engrossed more often, moving periodically from narrow/tactical tasks to big-picture/creative/intuitive thinking. This ebb and flow energizes our passion, deepens our focus, and helps us grin and bear it when the going gets tough. Conversely, when we’re feeling disengaged and scattered, we’re more likely to move intermittently from shallow, impulsive, inefficient work states to states of being overwhelmed and apathy. These are a drain on the psyche. How can we possibly do our best work when we feel this way?

Perhaps no factor influences productivity more directly than people’s capacity for absorbed attention. (pg. 232)

The message is clear: We need room to think deeply in order to do our best work, and unplugging regularly throughout the day is key to accomplishing this.

#4. The Spiritual Dimension

When we’re clear about our values, and live them as best we can, we feel alive and aligned with our true selves. We feel that what we’re doing has significance when it’s in line with what we consider important.

Self-evident, right? But for many of us, the reality is that we manage to work for companies and in ways that go against what we deeply value (despite “core value” statements suggesting otherwise). We justify this decision by the number of zeros on the paycheck or the great benefits and/or perceived level of financial security the job offers. The result is a constant mental tug of war between the pros and the cons of the position and a constant feeling of unease, both of which sap precious mental and emotional energy. This tug of war is uncomfortable and draining, and this reality ultimately leads us to resort to doing one or more of the following:

  • Finding work that is more in line with our values
  • Losing ourselves in the mechanics of shallow work in order to quiet the mental chatter with “busyness”, and/or
  • Distracting ourselves with unhealthy habits to try to forget our discomfort.

(Side note: Unfortunately for me, I did plenty of #2 and #3 before finally acting on #1.)

Doing work that matters to us is important, and no amount of money or perks can make up for a deep mismatch between our values and that of our employer. Ultimately, both parties pay a price for this misalignment.

Bottom Line

“The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” is a must read for anyone involved in the working world. It contains critical insight into what makes us perform at our best… and at our worst.

Where you can find the book: Amazon @ $9.98
Where you can find the author: Tony Schwartz (via Wikipedia)
Watch: TEDx Talk on the topic

Other suggested books of this type: “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey (see habit #7), “Thrive” by Arianna Huffington and  “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.

Books that are quoted in, or address specific topics in, this book: “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, “Peak” by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, “Why We Work” by Barry Schwartz, “Drive” by Daniel Pink, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl, “More Than Money” by Mark Albion , “RAPT” by Winifred Gallagher and “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr.


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Hélène is Rockstar Finance’s Curator of Books, and Blogger at FreetoPursue.com. A perpetual student, speaker, writer and coach, you’ll often find her reading, researching or writing. She also likes travelling and hanging out with her husband and their greyhound Belle.

Last modified: June 7, 2017

2 Responses to :
★ Rockstar Book Review: “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working”

  1. I start a new job this week and all of these issues have been on my mind. I get to work remotely, so I’ve been able to challenge the physical effects of sitting at a desk all day, which is a HUGE plus in my book. But there’s still the mental and emotional issues of yes, I’m still dependent on someone else for my paycheck.

    1. Having some discretion over how we use our time during the day is a definite plus when it comes to managing intermittent renewal, so good on you for taking advantage of that opportunity.
      As for the dependency on the paycheque, at least you’ve found your silver lining for the time being. Good luck to you with the new job.

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