March 18

What leaders can learn from physics


What if I told you that physical principles can help you become more productive and more relaxed? It’s an unusual thought, so let’s dive in…

It all began when I was lying in a deck chair on a beach, enjoying the early March sun in the Ticino. I was on my second timeout from work within just two years. I was – once again – overworked and overstressed. Both my energy level as well as my motivation were at an all time low. As I was gazing out onto the beautiful shimmery lake, I started to wonder: How is it possible that I often run out of energy before achieving those important milestones?

My brain accepted the challenge… it immediately started searching for answers. For some odd reason, it first brought up the law of entropy. I remembered the funny way in which our chemistry teacher in high school explained it to us: “All things strive for a higher degree of chaos, unless you supply them with energy. Take your households, for example: If you just live your life, the mess gets bigger by the day, because everything strives for chaos. So what do you do? You have to supply energy into the system… by cleaning up!”  So very true, but in that moment in the deck chair I asked myself: OK, what does this have to do with my being overstressed?

And then I realized: Entropy itself had nothing to do with my situation – apart from the fact that my mind was a mess at the time. But I began to suspect: if the law of entropy can be applied to simple everyday situations, couldn’t there be other physical principles which help in other life situations, such as mine? After all, nature is full of patterns…

And then my mind somehow came up with this other metaphor: I compared my work goals to destinations on a road trip. I comforted myself by realizing: When I take my car and want to reach a destination 700 km away, then I also have to stop and refuel on the way, that seems obvious. So my timeout was inevitable after all, wasn’t it?

Shortly after I realized that my assumption wasn’t entirely true! The amount of gas required to reach my destination largely depends on the speed at which I’m driving there! I could reduce my speed from 130km/h to maybe 100km/h and then reach my destination without refueling on the way, even though it would take a longer time.

Obviously I had stumbled upon more physics: Aerodynamic drag and its role in fuel efficiency. In short, the amount of energy required to reach a destination is not constant. Instead, it depends on the speed at which a vehicle travels, because aerodynamic drag increases disproportionately with velocity. The following graphic illustrates it nicely:

What we can learn from this chart:

  1. Every vehicle has one or two clear peaks with optimal fuel efficiency.
  2. The best fuel efficiency is usually reached at medium speeds.
  3. Both low and very high speeds exhibit poor fuel economy.
  4. Beyond a certain speed, fuel efficiency only deteriorates.
  5. Every car model is a bit different, but the principles always hold true to all models.

You can probably guess what my next thought was: Maybe, this principle can be applied to work life. If I reduced my work speed in the future, I would be able to reach my goals with less energy, thereby eliminating the need for large “refuelings” on the way. Although the idea of slowing down isn’t new, only the realization that physics backs this up finally made it tangible for me. So if I’m right, then the equivalent rules for us would be:

Principles of work pace

  1. Every person has one or two optimal work paces
  2. The most efficient work paces are located in the middle range
  3. Both very slow and very hectic work paces make you inefficient
  4. Beyond a certain work pace, further acceleration will only deteriorate both performance and efficiency.
  5. The optimal pace is different for every person, but the underlying principle holds true for everyone.

These principles sound very reasonable and convincing, don’t they? Have you ever noticed that your performance is really poor when you want to work on a Sunday or on vacation? That’s because you are running below your optimal efficiency (rule #3). On the other hand, have you ever been under stress and then made too many mistakes by trying to accelerate even more? That’s rule #4. I could go on, I think you get the point.

I went one step further and calculated my personal potential benefit from slowing down in the future. I’ll spare you the details and jump right to the  conclusion: If on 60% of my work days I only work 8 hours instead of 10, I actually gain 100 hours per year, because I don’t need long timeouts any more (at least that’s the theory for now).

And there’s more good news: Since we are human and not machines, our energy replenishment works completely differently. Working fewer hours a day will allow us to recharge our batteries “on the go”. And on top of that: Who hasn’t noticed that the best ideas usually come to mind when we are relaxed and not necessarily thinking about work?


The physical principles of drag and fuel efficiency teach us that the energy required to reach a goal is neither constant nor predefined. Instead, we need disproportionately more energy to reach the same goal at a faster pace. By slowing down and finding our optimal pace, we can conserve important energy and thereby ensure that we reach our goal(s) without breaking down.  We can use the energy saved for other areas in our lives, like our families, friends and hobbies, thereby creating a better life balance with more creativity.

However, a few important questions remain unanswered for now:

  • How do we slow down? It’s not that simple if you’re used to a fast pace, is it? How do we refrain from that temptation to “just answer that last important email” after an already long work day?
  • What is our optimal work pace, and how do we find it?

I’ve made it my mission to find answers to these questions over the next weeks and share them with you here. So stay tuned!


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What leaders can learn from physics

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