Time is Fixed, Energy is Variable
You only have so much energy in a day.
I don’t just mean physical energy, I mean mental energy.
It doesn’t matter how much time you allocate to an important task, if you can’t effectively focus your mental energy or if your energy reserves are running low, your performance will suffer.
You might be busy, but you won’t be productive.
It’s important to remember that being productive means getting important things done. How you manage your time is certainly important here, but no one is maxing out their use of time. If you wanted to find time somewhere in your schedule, you could find it.
Finding mental and emotional energy is the real trick.
Here are some tips and tricks to making the most of your available energy to make sure you get important stuff done:
Find Your Priority
You’ll notice that I said “priority” (singular) instead of the more common phrase “priorities” (plural).
According to Greg McKeown in his outstanding book Essentialism, the word “priority” entered the English language in the 1400’s and for 500 years it was singular.
Only in the last hundred years did it come to be used in the plural.
When you think about it, the term “priorities” is an oxymoron. Your priority is your most important objective. If you don’t have an objective of singular importance, you don’t yet have a priority.
It’s worth taking the time to find your priority. As Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit says:
“The most successful people are those that are best at identifying their deepest, most important goals.”
Your priority will be the task that moves the needle the most towards your most important goal.
One strategy for finding your priority that I learned from Tim Ferriss is to look at your to-do list and ask yourself: Which one of these, if done, would render all the rest either easier or completely irrelevant?
Embrace Routines and Rituals
Have you ever noticed how much effort it takes to switch from a distracted state to a focused one?
If you’ve ever fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole and then realized you should be working on something, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Switching from the shallow to the deep is not easy. Sometimes you might not be able to pull it off at all. Even when you do, the amount of willpower it takes to switch from an easy task to a difficult one takes an enormous toll on your storehouse of mental energy.
The smart move is to find a way to avoid needing to make this transition altogether.
To do this, work to create habits, routines, and rituals around work.
For example, I always used to struggle to write consistently. I would try to make time in the evenings, but I had trouble focusing, so I switched to writing in the mornings.
Morning rituals are powerful because they are easy to form habits around. One of the elements of a habit is a trigger, and the morning already has a built-in trigger: waking up.
It took a while for the habit to stick, but the investment was worth it. When I wake up, I read my Bible, write in my journal, do a very brief exercise to get my blood flowing (usually one set of push-ups and a headstand), and then I sit down to write.
There’s no switching from distraction to focus, my brain just automatically starts to focus because that’s just what we do after push-ups.
You want good behavior to be automatic. When good behavior is a choice, it’s a choice that you might not make.
When activities that lead to progress are put on auto-pilot, you can really go far.
Make Time for Deep Work
We live in an age full of distractions where the immediate trumps the important.
In some ways, this is a good thing. Our ability to connect to others with unprecedented speed has tremendous benefits.
But the cost is that few people make time for undistracted work where they can be pushed to the edge of their abilities.
This creates a huge opportunity. As Cal Newport argues in his book Deep Work, with so few people going deep, those that do develop a competitive advantage.
In the last section, we already saw one effective strategy for scheduling deep work, what Newport calls the rhythmic philosophy.
This strategy has the advantage of consistency, but is usually limited with the amount of time you can spend doing deep work. I only get an hour or two of work in before I have to go off to my 9–5.
Another approach he describes is the bimodal philosophy. This is where you split your time into deep and shallow segments. A famous example of this would be Bill Gates and his legendary “think weeks.” You could also split the week up into deep and shallow days. For instance, maybe Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are devoted to deep work, and Tuesday and Thursday are devoted to administrative tasks.
The bimodal approach can be helpful for entrepreneurs who need to do deep work, but also rely on social media to expand their reach. It’s essentially a form of batching. One large chunk of time is devoted to deep work, another large chunk of time can be devoted to connecting.
Recharge Your Batteries
If the problem is a limited supply of mental energy, and obvious solution would be finding a way to “recharge.”
The most important way to do this is by getting enough sleep. Go to bed on time. Wake up on time. Develop good sleep hygiene. Take a nap if you need to.
There are other ways to recharge your batteries as well.
If you spend a lot of time focusing on your work, you need to counterbalance with creating time to let your mind wander.
Now, the problem we face is that this doesn’t mean you just need to take a break. Most of the time when people take a break from work, their phone comes out. This is exactly what you don’t want. When your phone is out, your attention is not free to wander, it’s captures and divided by a shining glowing rectangle. Your phone keeps you locked into a counter-productive reactive mode: too shallow to be of any use, but too distracted to relax.
I’m not saying your phone is bad, I’m just saying there are times when it needs to go away and stay away.
The way to recharge mentally is to let your mind wander, and if you’re not used to it, this can be uncomfortable at first. You have to learn how to enjoy your own company.
The tasks that let your mind wander tend to be routine, manual, and repetitive. These are things you don’t need a lot of brainpower for. Think mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, or going on a walk.
You can “multi-task” during these tasks by listening to an audio book, but you miss the benefit of mental rest. I love listening to enriching audio books and podcasts and will still listen to them during these tasks, just not all the time.
Automate as Much as You Can
The more decisions you have to make, the more mental energy you use up. The more you can automate trivial decisions, the more energy you will have for the things that matter.
Even the most productive people don’t make perfectly efficient use of every second allotted to them.
Time management is important, but time isn’t the biggest bottleneck. How you allocate your mental energy is going to determine how productive you are.