Stop managing your time, and start managing your energy instead

Most people would love to have more hours in the day, but what if time management wasn’t the solution?

When do you find you do your best work? Are you at your desk, a private room or a coffee shop? Is it the morning, afternoon or evening? What kind of tasks are you working on? Are there people bustling around or is there dead silence? Did you work out recently or have a good nights rest? Are you regularly engaging in activities you enjoy? All of these factors are related to energy management, not time management, and they ultimately determine whether we’re able to perform at our best.

What is energy management?

Our performance in all areas of life depend on how we manage our energy. We typically think of performance as a function of skill or ability, but we miss half of the equation — our capacity to perform. It’s only when we manage our energy effectively that we’re able to do our best work (never mind actually enjoy it and be able to pursue our interests and hobbies outside of work).

Performance = skill (ability) + capacity (energy management)

Why is it important?

If you imagine the quintessential high performer, a professional athlete typically comes to mind. They invest their lives into being in the top condition humanly possible. Consider a typical professional hockey player (if you’re not Canadian, think of a soccer player). What percentage of their waking day are they performing at their peak potential? 10%? 20%?

A hockey player typically plays less than 30 minutes in a game, and a soccer player plays for 90 minutes at most. Even 90 minutes is less than 10% of our waking day (assuming they get 8 hours sleep) or 20% of an 8 hour day. What percentage of your working day do you (or does your employer) expect yourself to perform at your best?

Even if you’re your own boss, I can bet you it’s more than 10% and probably closer to 80 to 99.99%. At least, that’s what I’ve heard from the hundreds of people I’ve asked the question.

This means energy management isn’t just important, it’s mission critical. If you ignore how you manage your energy, you will always perform below your potential, and you’ll likely be struggling unnecessarily.

The four domains of energy

As you go through your day, the actions you take (or forgo) will impact your energy. Tony Schwartz (author of “The Power of Full Engagement”) says energy should be broken down into four domains — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. You can think of these domains of energy like gas tanks. Every action we take draws fuel from one or more tanks. That means we also need to refill them regularly. This oscillation between using and renewing our energy is the process of energy management. We can also expand the capacity of our tanks — more on that later.

A few quick definitions:

Physical Energy — your ability to manage your body. This includes movement, diet and rest.

Emotional Energy — your ability to manage your heart. This includes cultivating positive emotions and mitigating negative emotions.

Mental Energy — your ability to manage your mind. This includes mental focus and effective task switching.

Spiritual Energy — your ability to manage your spirit. This includes your connection to your deepest values and your purpose.

Performing at our peak energy potential

To perform at our maximum potential, we typically need to draw on all four domains of energy like a symphony orchestra working together in harmony. That’s why all tanks of energy need to be refuelled regularly.

Similar to our muscles, we also need to expose our energy domains to positive stress (think lifting weights) that test the capacity of our tanks, and cause them to expand. If we don’t fully engage a domain of energy (think lifting too little weight or too infrequently), it will atrophy, just like our muscles. If we overextend a domain of energy (think lifting too much or too frequently without rest), then we also compromise the capacity of our energy.

The key is to engage in activities that push us to the edge of our capacity, for the appropriate period, and then disengage from the activity to allow the domain to recover. It’s similar to the principle behind interval training.

For example, when it comes to mentally engaging tasks, like working on a proposal, analyzing a problem or writing this blog post, I typically work in 25 or 50 minute sprints. I set a timer, and after it beeps, I’ll take a five minute break. The key is, during the break, I’m not jumping into emails or social media. I typically standup, stretch, go for a short walk across the office and grab a glass of water. Sometimes I’ll meditate, have a quick chat with a colleague, or even do a few pushups or squats. What I’m doing is resting my mind and restoring my mental energy.

How to get started on managing energy

There are two key steps to starting this work, auditing how you currently manage your energy, and starting a small experiment to better use and restore your energy.

  1. Energy audit

I recommend starting with auditing your mental energy as most of us ‘knowledge workers’ rely heavily on this domain. It’s also critical for changing or creating habits — more on that in a future post.

You can do all four domains if you’re feeling ambitious, but our energy levels in each domain are interconnected and often track in a similar way. If you focus on one, you will likely get insight into the others.

Step one, draw a graph like the one below. The X axis is time and tracks the time for when you wake up to when you go to sleep. The Y axis is your mental energy and tracks your mental energy from zero to 100 percent.

Energy Audit Template

Step two, think of your typical workday, and plot your mental energy from the time you wake up, until you go to sleep.

Energy Audit Example Part 1

You will also want to identify key activities throughout the day so you can see what actions correlates with your levels of energy.

Energy Audit Example Part 2

Step three, look at your graph and reflect on the following:

Where do you see the biggest dips in mental energy? What are you doing during or before that?

Where do you see the highest levels of mental energy? What are you doing during or before that?

What do you think actually caused the dips or higher levels of energy?

You might have to do some further observation to answer these questions, and I recommend making time to reflect on these questions in your upcoming week. However, you can start taking action right away. Here are two strategies.

2. Energy management strategies

1 — Take advantage of your natural flows of energy

There is some evidence that suggests that all people have natural flows of energy through the day. For example, I typically find my mental energy is the highest in the morning, but one of my coaching clients is the opposite and finds they do their best work in the afternoon. Looking at your energy audit, see if you might have a ’natural’ period where your mental energy is the highest.

During this period, are you doing your most important work or are you doing shallow tasks? Consider how you might be able to schedule your most important or challenging work during these periods. Often what causes productivity humps is we try to do our most important work in our natural energy valleys or waste precious high energy periods on unimportant tasks.

2 — Schedule deliberate energy recovery near the dips

Looking at the energy dips or the point when your high levels of energy start to dip, how can you restore your energy? I suggest some type of restorative break on the order of five to fifteen minutes. If you can get in 30 to 60 minutes, great, but that’s not always what you need. Then pick a specific routine to do during the break.

Don’t leave it up to chance, decide now, and I suggest that you schedule it, set reminders in your phone or on a sticky note, and tell your accountability buddy if you have one (or get one).

Here are a few simple routines that you can do to restore mental energy:

Meditate

Short walk

Nap

Doodle

Day dream

Drink water

Stretch

Mindful breathing

Replace coffee with tea or water

Hard workout (e.g. lift weights, Tabata training, spin class)

Light workout (e.g. yoga, tai chi)

Appreciate or acknowledge someone (aka gratitude bomb)

The key here is to experiment and figure out what works best for you. It will likely take trial and error. I highly recommend using some sort of log book, whether it be a journal or an app so you can track your progress. Good luck and I’d love to hear about what you discover!