Managing your energy

Originally written for LawTalk Magazine, published 10 May 2019

We’re often told to manage our time effectively to get things done – make to-do lists and block out time in the day for specific tasks.

As demands on our time and energy continually increase, and we find ourselves stretched both in the workplace and in other areas of our lives, we need to find better ways to manage than simply putting in more hours. We need to shift our focus from managing our time to managing our energy for consistent high performance and learn how to increase our ability to do more.

There is the obvious approach we can take, paying attention to energy levels through the day and planning tasks accordingly. When we’re smarter about the way we work and save our high energy times for creative work, discussions, decision-making, planning, thinking and reflecting and our low energy times for routine work and administrative things like answering emails we can increase our work output.

However, according to Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, in The Power of Full Engagement, “the number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not”. Recognising that while time is a finite resource, but our energy is not, brings a whole new perspective. As we focus on our quality of energy, we can start thinking about how to build more energy and increase capability.

To increase energy capacity, Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, identifies four sources of energy in all of us – the body, mind, emotions and spirit. With each energy source there are practices we can establish to renew our energy more quickly, and more interestingly, increase our overall energy capacity.

 The Body – Quantity of Energy

We all know good nutrition, exercise, sleep and rest makes us feel better, but for many people practicing consistent healthy habits is difficult. Several factors may be responsible for this attitude like the cultural expectation we should be busy and exhausted to demonstrate how hard we’re working and a tendency to put others’ needs before our own.

We need to shift both our individual mindset and that of organisations to recognise if we look after ourselves first, we will be more productive and efficient, and everyone wins.

Aside from the basics of eating well, getting adequate exercise and sleep, ensuring regular short breaks through the day can help rebuild energy. We naturally experience peaks and troughs in energy through the day, typically in 90 to 120-minute cycles known as ultradian rhythms. By harnessing our ultradian rhythms and working with them, giving ourselves a short time out at that point when energy naturally lowers, we can return with better concentration.

It doesn’t matter how long or short these breaks are, it’s the quality that counts. Whether its 20 minutes to take a walk outside, or three minutes to do some breathing exercises or simple movements, listening to some music or talking to a colleague, if it allows your brain to switch off momentarily, you’ll get back to work with renewed energy.

Alternatively consider the pomodoro technique which aims to promote a sense of urgency to encourage focus. Set a timer for 25 minutes of focused work, then a 5-minute break.  After 4 rounds (around the time of one ultradian cycle) take a longer 15-20-minute break.

You may find one method works better for you than the other, or that an adjustment to the work cycles suits you best.

The Mind – Focus of Energy 

While many people consider it essential or more productive to multitask, the reality is it seriously cuts into productivity. Research has repeatedly shown that multitasking can slow productivity by as much a 25-40% especially as tasks become more complex.

Our brains aren’t made to focus on more than one thing at a time, what we actually do when we multitask is shift from one thing to another. When we do this, not only do we lose time and energy, there’s also evidence that multitasking could be changing the structure and function of our brain.

Multitasking creates an addictive dopamine feedback loop, rewarding the brain for losing focus and encouraging a constant search for more external stimulation. Whenever we multitask, we’re training our brains to lose focus and get distracted. While we’re developing this addictive craving for more distractions, we’re also increasing stress hormone production, causing mental fatigue and anxiety. It becomes an exhausting cycle.

Heavy multitaskers have been found to be less mentally organised, struggling to switch focus from one thing to another and having difficulty sorting out relevant and irrelevant details. Media multitaskers (those who spend long periods on several electronic devices at once, like texting while watching TV) display lower grey-matter brain density, resulting in less cognitive control and poor attention span.

Consider focusing on one task at a time for an ultradian or pomodoro cycle, avoiding distractions by closing your emails and putting your phone out of sight. Pay attention to your energy and focus fluctuations and take a break at the end of your cycle. You’ll get more done more quickly and reserve energy for other tasks.

People typically spend one third of their time in the office and half the time they are working from home reading and answering emails. One third of that time, the emails are neither urgent nor important. Instead of responding to emails as they come in, set aside times during the day to check them. You be able to focus better on the task at hand, saving yourself from losing energy from attention shifting and you’ll get through the emails faster in one hit. Make it clear to people you work with that this is how you operate, and if its urgent they can call you.

The Emotions: Quality of Energy

We do our best work when we have a positive outlook, and this contributes to the quality of our energy. If we don’t take breaks through the day, we can’t sustain this positive outlook.

The stress of high workloads and unexpected challenges have a real effect on mood. As we move into negative emotions – anxiety, irritability, impatience – and a stress response is stimulated it gets hard to focus, we lose clarity, logic and the ability to rationalise.

Learn to recognise what triggers negative emotions through your day and how to manage them to promote clarity and maintain productivity.

We can change from a high stress fight-and-flight response to a relaxation response in just three minutes with slow breathing techniques. Try taking deep breaths through your nose deep into your belly for five seconds in, then pause before breathing out for seven seconds. By prolonging the out breath, you’ll tap into your relaxation response more quickly.

 The Spirit: Meaning and Purpose

When our work aligns with our values and we’re doing things that give us a feeling of meaning and purpose, we usually feel more positive and can focus better. We may not have spent much time reflecting on our core values, but when we can identify what’s important to us it can be a powerful motivator and get us working more in our flow.

Schwartz looks at three categories:

  • What do we do best and most enjoy at work?
  • Allocating time and energy to the things that are most important to us
  • Living core values in daily behaviours

It’s important to recognise that what we do best and what we most enjoy may not be the same things. Think about the jobs or activities that you find fulfilling, absorbing and inspiring and focus in on the specific aspects that are most enjoyable.

Often what we say is most important to us may not be where we spend much of our time. Set aside time for the things that are important – family, health, friends etc – these are the things that help rejuvenate and rebuild energy.

We can manage our time as much as we want but the bottom line is there is only 24 hours in the day.

When we recognise how we’re working is depleting our energy and take care of our energy sources effectively, we can take on more in the same amount of time.

Organisations need to move away from focusing on how to get more out of their people to investing more in them and enabling the space for their people invest in themselves.