We have established that, when it comes to personal productivity, Energy Management always has to take a front row seat. No energy, no productivity – no matter what productivity system you use. This is because personal energy is a finite resource: Once you’ve used it up, you are pretty much done for the day.
We also looked at practical ways of maximizing your available energy on any given day. So ideally, you start every day with a “points total” of 100 energy points; i.e. your maximum capacity.
Now it’s time to discuss ways of using that available energy in the smartest possible way, since we want to make sure you get the most bang for your buck. There are different factors which may affect this, like timing, quality of the task and so on. We’ll now go through them step by step.
Timing is the most crucial thing to pay attention to when it comes to making smart use of your energy.
The prime spot: Right after waking up
You should start working on your most important task right after you wake up. This is when your energy points total will be the highest. Unfortunately, it only goes downhill from there. This is the “filet mignon” of your personal energy use, so to speak. Consequently, the period after waking up should be sacred. Nothing should be deducting points from your energy account but your most important task. Don’t let anyone or anything steal that supply of energy from you! Ever. Which brings me to my next point: When I say “right after waking up”, I mean it. We are going to do this Ernest Hemingway style. Get up in the morning, feeling fresh after a perfect night of sleep. Get immediately to work. No phone, no internet. No newspaper. No chit-chat with other human beings. No shower, yet. No breakfast, till you feel hungry. When you do, you eat and then go right back to work.
The second best choice: After every subsequent meal
Not quite as good as the prime spot, but a close second is the period right after every meal. For instance, studies have shown that our ability to make difficult decisions increases after a meal. And on the other hand, working on a complex task while feeling hungry is a sure way NOT to give it your best. But not just any meal will do: The wrong kind of food; i.e. highly processed food and lots of empty carbs will actually make you feel really tired and unproductive shortly after your meal. If you experience tiredness in the afternoon, that’s usually a sure sign that you need improve your diet, by eating mainly fresh vegetables and high quality meats and fish. And then again, protect the period after your meals as if it was your baby kitten. No one else gets that highly productive time span as it must be allotted to your most important task. No internet and no phone during that time, as you will probably have guessed by now.
The third option: After a break / a nap
This is the third best option, but still a good one to be highly productive. After taking a proper break, you are usually in a much better state of mind to tackle a difficult problem, since you have just regained a few points on your energy points total. But again: Not just any break will do, only a proper break. Checking your Facebook or reading up on the latest Hollywood gossip online are not proper breaks. Such activities do not really recharge your mental energy, they just distract you. You don’t feel more recharged after them. Taking a walk in the park is a proper break. Taking a nap is possibly the best kind of break. Talking to someone over a coffee can potentially be a good break, but that also depends to the kind of person you are talking to. Energy vampires are obviously to be avoided.
Choosing the right task
The next important thing after choosing WHEN to best work on your most important task is to choose WHAT to work on. Remember, we want to use our available energy as smartly as possible. Spending our prime time after waking up on something dull and repetetive is not the best way to spend your energy. We only want to concern ourselves with the really great stuff, the important projects that really matter to us. This is actually the point where energy management and more classical productivity methods interconnect. After all, if you are crystal clear on your purpose and your priorities, you should have no problem in choosing the next appropriate thing to do. Unfortunately, most people don’t operate from such a point of clarity. That’s sad but that’s just the way it is. Plus, even for people who make a conscious effort to figure out their stuff, priorities are constantly in flux, not something static. Even those people might be pretty confused about what best to do with their energy at times. So, what I propose in the meantime is that you assess your to-do list using the following very pragmatic criteria.
Long term benefits of a task
This is by far the most important factor when choosing what to do. Always ask yourself: How will this benefit me long term? Yes, taking care of that super urgent customer complaint might seem crucially important at this moment. And in comparison, investing in your health by going to the gym right now does not seem urgent at all. After all, it doesn’t solve any immediate problem and you can still do that later. Yeah, right… The truth is, later never happens. Later is when you have no energy points left. Go to the gym now. Talk to the customer later (if at all). 20 years from now, you will thank your younger self for keeping a workout schedule, and you won’t even remember that one stupid customer. Longterm thinking and investing almost always beats short term, even if doesn’t seem like that at the moment. Smart people know that and act accordingly, not so smart people don’t. Choose your tasks for your prime energy spots by looking at longterm benefits and you will practically never go wrong.
The pleasure it gives you
You can’t work against pleasure, at least not for too long. It just costs too many energy points and we really don’t want to waste those unnecessarily. Let’s look at the example of working out again. Let’s imagine a scientist came up with the perfect workout, based on using workout machines. This magic workout would provide the most bang for your buck: the biggest muscle and strength gains in the least time commitment with additional cardio benefits. This workout would be the unwavering workout benchmark from here on, which has been scientifically proven. The only problem is: You hate working out at machines. But you love doing body weight workouts… These are, unfortunately 30% less effective, as the scientists have concluded. Guess what: Do the body weight workout still. It will be worth it, because you are much more likely to comply with it over a long period of time. In the end, your fitness results will be much better than with the magic machine workout, because you will actually stick with it. You can’t work against pleasure, not for long. It costs you too many energy points.
Understanding the complexity of tasks
As a general rule, more complex tasks are preferable to small tasks. It is very tempting to start with the small ones, as you rack up a bunch of “quick wins”, so to speak. But don’t be fooled: Taking care of all these small, usually less important tasks also costs you energy points, and will leave you with not enough left when you finally get around to tackling the big, complex tasks. It’s a psychological trap: everybody loves the feeling of winning, of succeeding… By taking care of the quick, small tasks, you satisfy that need and trick yourself into feeling good about yourself because you can say “Hey, look how many items on my to-do list I just checked off!”. It’s not about the quantity though, it’s about the quality of the task you took care of; e.g. its long term benefits to you. Choose complexity instead of distracting yourself with quick wins.
Most of the following points I have already briefly touched on before, so I’ll keep it short. But there are always the same pitfalls where stuff goes wrong, so I want to make it crystal clear one more time that you should leave no wriggle room to kid yourself that you are being productive when you are being not.
You only have 100 points
You have to get this: Your energy on any given day is a finite resource. Spend it on Facebook, chit-chatting with energy vampires, or taking care of only external demands and you can waste a lifetime without producing anything meaningful. And that feels like shit, as we WANT to be productive, as we WANT to create something meaningful. It’s a basic human need. But you need to provide the right pathways for it to happen. And the first thing is to realize this: I’m not special, I’m not an exception, the world will not magically gift me with unlimited energy to do with as I please. You need to ration that stuff and treat it like gold or live with the consquences.
Know the difference between “Urgent” and “Important”
I somewhat touched on this above when I was talking about long term benefits. But since this is so important, it want to reiterate it and put it in a more general way: There will always be two types of tasks or projects. Things that are thrown at you from the outside, like your boss telling you to do something, a customer complaining to you, your spouse telling you to take the trash downstairs, your friend asking you to help him with a website and so on. All of these things are more or less urgent, as there is an external force trying to impose the task’s completion on you. However, there are other things that mostly stem from your own needs and desires: Learn Russian. Find a job that you actually enjoy doing. Spend more time with meaningful people. Travel to Brazil. Complete 15 pull ups. None of these things are urgent, they could technically all be done at almost any point in your life. But all of these things are important, they truly matter to you as a person and they were not forced on you by anyone else. So an alternative way of recommending longterm benefits over short term benefits would be to always choose important projects over urgent ones. Almost no one does it, but when you do, you will see incredible changes in your life.
Avoid quick rewards
We touched on this when we were looking at the complexity of a task, but it needs to be said again: Stay away from quick, easy tasks during your prime productivity times. Those periods are for meaningful, important projects only, and are not to be wasted with quick wins. This is a temptation that will always creep back in at some level, so always look out for it.
All this talk about using your energy in the smartest way possible might create the impression that you are supposed to be an always working, über efficient productivity machine. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point of energy management is in fact realizing you CAN’T live like this, because your energy is limited. So consequently, breaks are just as important as productivity phases. That’s why we looked at all things energy producing and conserving first! To drive this point home, on average, I sleep, like, ten hours a night. I take a two hour walk every day, oftentimes longer. I celebrate each meal, taking as much time as I want with it. The result: I feel so rested that when I get to work, work just flows and actually becomes an enriching and inspiring experience. That makes you looking forward to your next productivity phase. It also makes you enjoy your next break that much more.
There you have it, a basic gameplan for using your energy in the smartest possible way. All of this is not rocket science, I admit. Many ideas in this article you might have already been at least vaguely aware of. But ask yourself: Do you, every day, play actual attention to these principles while your day goes on? Do you actually APPLY this kind of energy centered thinking to your day? 99% of people don’t. But they still wonder why they don’t get the results they hope for in life while some very few “lucky” people do… It’s not magic. It’s not luck either. It’s living a smarter and as a result more unconventional life by practising these priniciples on a daily basis. So start today!