Like most of us that live in the PAID environment (Pressure, Always On, Information overload, Distraction1), I’ve struggled to manage my time so that I don’t always feel stressed, overwhelmed, and at risk of burnout. It turns out that my attention, and maybe yours too, has been focused on trying to manage the wrong thing.
Time can’t really be managed, after all. We can only slot things into it or make substitutions. We can’t create new time or manipulate it to be other than it is: seconds, minutes and hours ticking by on the clock.
Our energy, on the other hand, is malleable. Our physical energy is ultimately limited by our body’s resources however our mental energy is much more flexible and significant than most of us realize. We have a far better chance of reducing stress and overwhelm and increasing our joy and sense of fulfillment overall when we manage our energy versus time.
A colleague’s writing on the topic prompted my own reflections on managing energy (for a good, brief read, check out:”Successful Leadership Is More About Managing Energy, Not Time” by Daniela Rhaese). The concept blew my mind, frankly, and I shared her post widely and frequently. Soon, I began discovering some of the crucial ways in which I was giving away my own energy on a daily basis. As we say in coaching, awareness creates change and I’m now reclaiming every last bit of the energy I can, and re-distributing it where it’s needed most.
Below are the top three ways I’ve been giving away my energy. Which ones resonate for you, and what choice can you make to reclaim your own energy?
- Scheduling Insanity
I’m a very good scheduler. I calendar every meeting and every phone call I need to make, as well as project work. I even calendar dog walks, lunch and time to meditate. Typically, every line on my daily calendar is full up until 8pm.
Here’s where the insanity comes in:
- I often don’t schedule enough time for each activity, especially project work and phone/email communication – so I run out of time before I’m meant to move onto the next task, which then becomes crunched as well.
- In addition, I never schedule time in the day for reading and responding to all of the emails and texts that I receive. Somehow, I’ve figured I will just fit those in between other tasks that are already being squeezed per above. On any given day, I’m actually trying to accomplish what is physically impossible for me to do, given the time allocated. I only realized this when I began noticing my chest tightening so much that I actually thought I was becoming at risk for a heart attack.
If this sounds like you, begin to notice your own energy as you look at your calendar or while you take the occasional break. If you are being unrealistic (or insane) about what you can possibly accomplish in a day, you may want to re-consider how you allocate your activities so they don’t leave you gasping for breath and instead allow you to feel good about yourself and energized at the of the day. More on that below.
2. Obsessive problem-solving / coaching / nurturing
My mind loves a good challenge and there’s no shortage of them in life. When a friend or family member begins sharing their thoughts about a particularly complicated situation at work, for example, my mind clicks on as if someone pressed an “on” button. I immediately begin thinking of questions I might ask them to expand their awareness and potentially help them come up with a solution or next step. I’m all in, and so is my energy.
What I don’t often consider is how my energy was before my conversation partner started speaking. Is it the end of a long day for me too? Am I overwhelmed or stressed out by my own challenges? How much energy do I actually have to give to another person in that moment, and what is that going to cost me? Sometimes it is okay for me to listen and be engaged but other times this will leave me drained and energy-deficient when it comes to dealing with my own challenges.
Again, the key is to notice your energy in these moments and be in a position of choice about how you want to expend your energy in that moment. Maybe it’s okay to just listen and tell your friend that it sounds like they’re getting a good understanding of their situation. Or, maybe you’ll have enough energy to engage and ask thought-provoking questions.
3. Prioritizing the smaller, easiest things first
You have an hour in front of you which you’ve previously scheduled for some heads-down project work. Just before you get started, you check your email and notice three new emails. You know you can respond to each one fairly quickly and it would be nice to get those out of the way, and then you can be fully focused on your project work. What do you do?
If you’re like me, you begin responding to those emails and suddenly what seemed like a quick task has now taken thirty minutes of your precious hour. Once you finally shift your attention to your project, you’re now under the gun because you have to accomplish sixty minutes of work in half the time (bring on the scheduling insanity). Your mental energy becomes frantic and your creativity goes out the window. So much for getting some good work done and feeling proud and fulfilled at the end.
The energy-maximizing approach here is obvious: focus on the bigger project first and leave the smaller, easier tasks to the end or another time. The challenge is to recognize your impulse to start with the small tasks first, thus depriving yourself of the mental energy needed to be successful with the project work. Mindfulness helps and meditation actually trains your brain to resist this impulse – with practice, you can become better at choosing to stay on task and get the reward that comes with that choice.
Another tip (courtesy of Hougaard & Carter, “The Mind of the Leader”) is to create your schedule based on when you know your energy is highest in the day and matching that to the tasks that require the most energy, a.k.a. “schedule your priorities rather than prioritize your schedule.” If you’re a morning person, schedule that project work or networking activities before noon. If you’re an afternoon person, do the small, easy work in the morning.
Managing your energy versus time starts with becoming aware of the energy you have and how you are giving it away already. The more you notice this happening, the more likely you will be able to make a better choice in the moment or next time around. Don’t forget to celebrate when you do make a better choice – even a little private cheer can give you the positive motivation to do it again and again.
1Hougaard, R., Carter, J. and Coutts, G., 2016. Mindful Leadership: Achieving Results by Managing the Mind. Leader to Leader, 2016(79), 49-56.