Manage Your Energy – Your Life Depends On It

If you’re like me, you have the bad habit of“pushing through” when things get hectic or a big project is ahead. Historically, my energy reserves have carried me through, sometimes giving the false impression that they are endless. While my resiliency seems to have increased over the years, so have the demands from work and life in general.

What I’ve been forced to learn (over and over) is that my energy capacity does NOT necessarily increase to match demand. And when I need to rely on my reserves for a sustained period, they (and I) become utterly depleted. This lesson was reinforced (yet again) last year. This time, however, I’ve decided it’s time to really pay attention and find a new approach to my energy management.  

Previously I shared how to increase resiliency, which is more about getting past a specific difficult event over a finite period of time. Needless to say, in today’s crazed world, work doesn’t stop. Typically projects roll one into another and the demands of the job just keep increasing. As a result, we need to find a new way of managing ourselves for the long term. We need to manage our energy as if our life depends on it, because it does! If you’d like an idea of how well you’re managing your own energy, take Tony Schwartz’s energy audit here to find out if you are amongst the 74% of working people who are experiencing a personal energy crisis.

There are two basic principles of energy management:

1. Time is finite.

I often hear my friends, clients and colleagues say, “I just need more time.” Unfortunately, we are all allotted the same amount of time each day (only the number of days we get may vary) so we need to get smart about how that time is spent.

2. Your Energy is NOT an unlimited resource.

Your energy can be a renewable resource with the proper care. By carefully managing your energy you can bring your best performance to more areas of your life and get more done in the long run. BUT (and this is an important BUT), you must manage your energy diligently.

What it means to manage your energy:

What is the simple, though not always easy, way to manage your energy?

Take care of yourself.

I realize that you’re heard it before, but you really do need to put yourself first before you can take care of anyone or anything else.

Since taking care of yourself is often much easier said than done, I have a few suggestions for how to make your health and energy a top priority in the world of competing interests. These take some planning but I believe they are entirely achievable.

1. Be aligned and prioritize.

Is there alignment between what you say are your top priorities and values and where you actually spend your time, energy and focus?  

It’s essential to write down your priorities and values and to review them frequently. This will make them fresh in your mind so you’ll know when to say yes to a new demand for your time and energy. And, conversely, when to say no because the demand doesn’t support your stated priorities and values. Set boundaries and eliminate as many of the demands that aren’t in alignment as you can.

If you are in a high pressure, bureaucratic culture, this may be tough to do.  But you must also remember that your energy and attention is a limited resource which, over the long haul, is best used for your top priorities.

2. Know what drains you and what recharges you.

What gives you energy? Are you an extrovert who needs social engagement? Are you someone who needs alone time to process and reflect regularly? Do you need to exercise vigorously to burn off stress and to feel energized?

Having enough self-awareness to know what recharges you will allow you to priorities those activities over those that drain you!

3. Pace yourself like an elite athlete.

Elite athletes quickly learn that success over the long haul depends not only upon training hard, but also scheduling time to recover, rest, and heal. They know that peak performance requires adequate sleep, food to fuel their bodies, and plenty of water. Finally, they recognize that interval training is more productive and sustainable than constant maximum effort.  

Studies show that working in intervals of 45-90 minutes (maximum) and then taking a break will result in more productivity. The length of the interval varies in different studies, so play with what works best for you. The key is to consistently take a break, which means not working.  This can be a 5-10 minute walk outside, a visit with a co-worker talking about a hobby (not work), refilling your water glass at the furthest possible water faucet, or meditating (walking meditation is great in active environments). Whatever you do for your break, the important thing is to not work for 5-20 minutes. And take lunch away from your desk.

4. Don’t be a pretzel.

Are you contorting yourself to fit into a culture, or work for a boss who doesn’t fit you? Are you taking on clients who you don’t like and who drain you? This can be EXHAUSTING.

Instead, be authentic. Work for a company which fits you. Work for a manager who will let you do your work. When you are being interviewed, try to interview your potential employers reciprocally so you can determine if they will be a good fit for you. Being authentic can be scary at first but well worth it because, in the long run, picking the right work environment can save you from exhaustion and misery! 

5. Create a buffer.

Multi-tasking can cost us as much as 25% of our productive time, according to researcher David Meyer.  What many of us call “multi-tasking” is actually the process of quickly moving from one task to the next (not actually doing them at the same time). This constant shifting means that we need to also shift the skills and rules needed for each task. When we move quickly from task to task without allowing adequate time to recalibrate, we are likely performing each task more poorly than if we concentrated fully on only one item.   

Instead, try to focus on one task at a time. When you are ready to stop and move to the next task, do it consciously by creating a buffer or break in-between. This will allow time to recalibrate your mind and body.

Buffers can also be an important technique to help defuse negative emotions. By breathing deeply and then slowly exhaling five to six seconds, we turn off our body’s fight-or-flight response, which helps to prompt relaxation and recovery.

Finally, buffers can be important when shifting mindsets (for example, when ending your workday and before engaging with loved ones at home). It may take time to really shift during this buffer and to become “ready”, so build in a ritual.  

Some examples of rituals that can buffer between mindsets: listening to music during your commute, changing clothes, taking the dog for a walk or doing a short meditation. Then make a commitment to not engage with work for a period of time so loved ones get your full focus. If you need to continue working, shift back to that mindset after an agreed amount of time with your loved ones, not during. Checking that quick email right before sitting down for dinner can send you back to the middle-of-day stress – something your loved ones don’t deserve.

6. Bring it together and plan thoughtfully.

“If we are not intentionally finding ways to increase and renew our energy, we’re depleting ourselves. If we’re not getting stronger, we’re getting weaker.” ~Tony Schwartz

To be successful, we need to plan and build rituals. Winging it just won’t do.

Typically, when we “plan”, the method is to list a bunch of goals, without much thought for how it will get done or how much energy is necessary. Then, somehow, we make the plan work. Often this either makes us depleted, as we try to get it all done, or we are disappointed by our lack of progress.

Recently I took a totally different approach which worked pretty well.

First, I listed all of my rituals for self-care and managing my energy. Even if I was not yet doing them, I created a plan for how I was going to care for myself first (normally my self-care fit into the leftover times after everything else). This included rituals such as:

  • No screen time 30 minutes before bed,
  • 8 hours of sleep,
  • daily exercise,
  • time for eating healthy meals,
  • meditation,
  • date night, etc.

Next, I calculated the time that I estimated these rituals should take each day and week. I included everything on my list of priorities (personal, work, family, etc.) because my work doesn’t end at 6pm and so much of my time is integrated into my professional commitments.

This exercise helped me to quickly see how fast time gets eaten away. I realized I needed to make some hard choices. I had to drop some goals or postpone them for a while, which was NOT easy, but ultimately the right choice based upon my listed priorities and values.

It was extremely helpful to see the demands in terms of time and to see how much time was wasted on things that didn’t support my top priorities or depleted my energy for little return.

I know that if I follow my energy plan and rituals, I will have greater mental and physical capacity.  This, in turn, will make it possible to get more done in less time at a higher level of engagement. The trick is sticking with it!

You may not have the perfect conditions each day to be at optimal performance but, the more you understand how to care for yourself, the easier it will be to recognize what’s going on so you can take action quickly.

What is your long-term plan for managing your energy? If you need help developing your own, I’m here for you.