Step away from the productivity tools. Energy management is the only skill you need.

Energy management works better than time managementDo you ever have days when work just flows out of you like water? You roll seamlessly and swiftly through one task and into the next, and the day closes with a clear to-do list and a quiet mind?

OK, maybe that is a bit of a fantasy most days. But some days can be pretty good for many of us.

And then there are the other days. Days when things take twice as long as they should, and the to-do list grows more overwhelming with each passing hour. An absolute slog.
So, why the difference? Why is time management so hard?

Because most of us think about it all wrong.

The limits of time management

Time management matters. The more time you spend in meetings you don’t need to attend, the less you will have for creative work. The more scattered your desk, the harder it is to find what you need to do the things you must do.

Tools like the Pomodoro Technique and Bullet Journals can help. There are tips and tricks out there to get more done, and many of them work. To a point.

But each day only holds so much time. How is it that some days you can get so much out of your 24 hours – and other days productivity is just impossible?

The difference boils down to energy – and how you manage it. All the time in the world can’t help you if you don’t have the energy to use it.

Optimizing your energy management

This is not a new idea (more here and here), but it’s one that doesn’t always gain traction – perhaps because people struggle with self-care, or because our society tends to focus more on optimizing our way out of problems than asking what we might be overlooking.

Whatever the reason, the solution for making the most of the minutes you have is using them to make the most of your energy. You need to harness energy when you have it and do what it takes to restore your energy when you are depleted.

Start with your own needs

As I have written previously, self-care is one of the most important gifts you can give yourself. There is no more important self-care – and no more important strategy for good energy management – than meeting your basic needs for nutrition, hydration, physical activity and sleep. Needs like this form the basis of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and they are fundamental to meeting needs higher up the pyramid formed by this hierarchy. If you feel well, rested and nourished, you can give far more of yourself to work, relationships and other priorities than you can if you are depleted.

Note when examining the pyramid that beyond the basic needs that keep us alive, we all have psychological and self-fulfillment needs as well. The higher up the pyramid you can go, the fuller your cup – and the more energy you will have. This is the paradox of generativity, for example – when you give to others, you also feed yourself.

This is also the paradox of enjoying pursuits outside of work. Devoting time to honing a new skill or exploring a new hobby takes hours away from other tasks, but as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang notes in his book “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,” what we gain in energy and perspective often multiplies our efficacy and our focus when we turn our attention back to work.

Making the most of your energy

Even when we do what it takes to build up our energy reserves, some days are better than others. The difference often comes down to how we parse out the energy we have.

We all have times when we are more alert, focused and enthusiastic about getting work done. For some people this is first light, for some it’s mid-morning and for some it’s after dark. Whatever your optimal time for cranking through deep work, make the most of it. Schedule writing time, research, planning or other work that requires attention and intention.

Similarly, think about the times when you have trouble focusing. Maybe you are sleepy after lunch or worn down by late afternoon. That’s exactly the wrong time to build a presentation or map out a book chapter. But it might be the perfect time for filling out paperwork or replying to emails.

Making the most of your calendar

When you layer good time management habits with good energy management, you find the sweet spot for productivity. But you can’t really stay in that sweet spot unless your calendar is structured accordingly. As you plan your time, consider that most work tasks can be boiled down to three categories – computer work (emailing and such), creative work and engaging with people. Plan your calendar to align this work with what you know about your energy patterns.

Make sure to educate those around you – if you have an assistant, he should know when you prefer to hold meetings and when you need time blocked off for deep work. (Building “white space” into your calendar will help). Your boss will have her own needs to work around, but there’s no harm in suggesting your preferred time of day for your regular check-ins. The more we all understand and structure our work around what works for us, the more productive we will be. Even better, alignment among your time and energy will contribute to lower stress and greater well-being.

Achieving time-energy alignment

We all have a finite amount of time. What we choose to do with it is up to us. When we work against our patterns — even with the best time management techniques in hand — we can end up frustrated, overwhelmed and unproductive. When we recognize and adapt to our patterns, it is stunning what can be accomplished in a single 24-hour day, and how satisfied we can end up as that day comes to a close. It all comes down to the skillset and the mental, physical, psychological and spiritual energy we bring to our time.

Your time and energy management

If this concept resonates with you, start by observing your own patterns and testing new ways of aligning your own energy and time. I’d love to hear how it works for you. Please share in the comments, on social media or by email!

Last updated February 16, 2021

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