One thing I’ve been pondering a lot recently is a concept I like to call “Energy Management.” In my opinion, it’s one of the most important aspects of productivity and habit building, if not the single most important. Energy management deals with one simple question: How do you use your available energy (mental and physical) to get the most out of your day?
Ironically enough, most traditional productivity systems only pay lip service to managing your energy.
Steven Covey, arguably the godfather of productivity literature, does mention it, but quite tellingly, this topic is the last of his 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, called “Sharpen the Saw”: You are supposed to balance your professional activities with relaxing ones, like exercising and meditation, so you don’t burn out in the long run. But he doesn’t really go into how managing your personal energy actually affects your day-to-day productivity, your decisions about what to do next.
Getting Things Done (GTD) takes energy management a little bit further, but not nearly far enough. Energy Management is at the end of a very long process of cataloging all of your different tasks into a system, and when you finally get to choose what to do, you are advised to pay attention to your personal energy level at the moment, i.e. to take on bigger tasks when you still feel fresh, take on smaller tasks when you are tired. I’m not just bitching when I say that once you are done with the proposed GTD process of cataloging and organizing tasks, you will not have much energy left for your actual task at hand… and that’s coming from a big advocate of GTD.
The best take on Energy Management I’ve come across so far is The One Thing by Gary Keller. He uses a cell phone metaphor to explain that people only have a limited amount of energy available each day. Once the battery is used up, you are done for the day, no matter what your to-do list says. As a result, he advocates starting with your most important work in the morning and pushing off the less important to later in the day. This idea is at the core of his productivity system, and it makes a whole lotta sense. But even Keller doesn’t take it to the utmost extreme. He is all about finding your top priority in life (and at the moment) first and THEN going about energy managing.
As much as I worship his book, I think he has it the wrong way around. Energy Management always has to come first.
Let’s take the cell phone metaphor a little bit further. Actually, let’s transform it into a role playing games metaphor. (Yes, I’m a huge nerd.) Think about yourself as a character in a game who has 100 “Energy Points” available for each day. And now think about where your energy points go.
Here is an example, based on what my day looked like a while back:
- Wake up in the morning, after a shitty 6 hours of sleep: Already deduct 20 points because you are not well rested.
- Turn on the cell and the computer and start REACTING to stimuli coming from the outside, e.g. calls about my business, e-mail inquiries, contract questions, complaints, etc.: Deduct another 20 or so points because you are already pissed off at the world just throwing stuff at you. Keep doing this until noon.
- Eat a crappy, carb-heavy lunch at some fast food place because at this point, you are already in need of a treat. Yes, your rational mind knows that steamed vegetables and some high-quality meat would be better for you, but this is life in the trenches and not an ideal world: Deduct another 10 points for bad energy restoration.
- Meet up with the plumber / the web designer / a potential business partner: Deduct 20 points.
- Teach for a couple of hours, intersperse taking care of new and existing customers: Deduct 50 points. (At this point you are are already used up and in the negative range.)
- Answer some more e-mails and take care of administrative stuff: Deduct 20 points. (Now deep into the negative range.)
- Go home, put a pizza in the oven and turn on some series, anything to turn your mind off and make you feel relaxed, of course not caring that by eating more garbage and watching TV before going to bed you are already setting yourself up for failure the next day, i.e. more sleep deprivation.
So where in hell do you get the energy to figure out your “purpose” and “priorities” in such a day scheme? (=The One Thing).
Where would you find the necessary emotional detachment to think about your current projects, the necessary next steps and even the reasons why you are pursuing them? (=GTD). Sure, you can time block an hour or two, even in the busiest day, if you put all your willpower into it. But even that always falls apart, sooner or later, because the rest of your day doesn’t support this time blocking, because the energy points don’t add up in the long run. It is simply not sustainable.
My point is: Energy Management is at the heart of productivity. It always has to come first. You cannot tinker with it, at least not over the long run. Everything else, even clarifying your purpose and your priorities, comes second. You first need the necessary energy to clarify these two things.
The real problem stems from the fact that energy is not very tangible. We don’t think about it in role playing games terms. Instead energy is more of a vague feeling of “feeling fresh” or of “feeling tired.” Energy Management hardly crosses our conscious minds. As a result, we constantly tend to overestimate our current reserve. When we feel fresh, we always tend to assume that this state of mind will not change, as if there is an unlimited amount of energy to use whenever we fell like drawing upon it. And we also constantly underestimate the energy cost of pretty much any activity: the call we still have to make, the new marketing idea we decide to try out, the project we take over from someone else, and yes, even folding our laundry.
So we constantly spend money we don’t possess, so to speak. And then we wonder when we don’t get around to our real priorities or even just figuring them out (which also takes energy). Or, worst case scenario, we just burn out. And all that because we haven’t put Energy Management first. And no, you are not that special. Ignoring Energy Management will catch up with you too.
I apologize for this article not being very actionable, at least at this point. Energy Management is such a vast topic that I couldn’t do justice to it with just one article. And I also don’t claim to have all the answers. But I promise I will talk about this again, and give more and more actionable advice, based on my own experiences, as we go. I think it is paramount though, to first create an awareness for the subject, to truly understand: Energy management always comes first – the rest is secondary.