Manage Your Energy Not Your Time
Time management is the cornerstone of productivity thinking. But maybe we should be managing our energy, how we feel and when we feel good, rather than our time?
“It’s Friday afternoon. I won’t do this now. Bring it back on Monday.”
“But my boss said it’s urgent.”
“Bring it back on Monday.”
For a few years in my early twenties I had a regular job. I was a clerk, in a bank, with short hair, a suit and tie. It was a day job. It was a means to buying more music gear, airplane tickets, and a car I could get home in without having to call roadside repair or a tow truck.
Occasionally the job managed to be interesting. This was usually when I could figure out a way to get away from my department, which dealt with car finance, and have meetings in other parts of the bank.
One example of this was my visits to the “credit cycle guy” as everyone called him. Every now and then there would be a car lease that for some reason didn’t comply with the normal rules. And there was only one guy in the bank who could sign off on it. So I would walk down to an office that was full to the ceiling with papers and files, and which was where the Vice President for Credit Cycle Management was to be found.
My first visit to that office involved a loan for a Rolls-Royce. The car cost more than most people’s homes. But that wasn’t the problem. We had people on our floor who could sign off on a lease that big.
What the buyer wanted was for all the optional extras to be included in the lease. One of the extras was a matching picnic set, with folding tables and chairs, that slotted into a custom-made space in the boot. We didn’t have a category for furniture in our car finance policy!
Everyone – our sales reps, our preferred dealer, and our private banking people – was desperate to get this VIP deal approved. I volunteered to go see the credit cycle guy. No-one else seemed to want to. And on a Friday afternoon I was told: “come back on Monday!”
Know Your Energy Levels And Your Limits
Feeling a little chastened and wary, I returned on Monday morning. He sat me down and explained why he had sent me away.
Friday afternoons were not a good time for complex decisions. You’re tired. Maybe you had too much for lunch. You’re thinking about the weekend. You rush things. You make mistakes.
This was my introduction to the idea that there are right and wrong times to do things, based on how your body is behaving, and what your energy levels are.
Managing Energy Levels
An influential 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review called Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time popularised the idea of thinking about your energy as it relates to your work.
Time is a fixed resource. You can’t add more hours to your day. At first, managing your time makes you a lot more productive. Then the incremental improvements start to taper off. Pretty soon you run the risk of turning time management into something that consumes more time than it’s worth.
By contrast, your energy levels are suprisingly elastic. You can bring more energy to your day by getting enough sleep, or being well rested. You can manage your energy during the day by eating well, or taking breaks. Your habits and routines, from exercising regularly to taking care of your frame of mind, can help you bring the most energy to what you do.
You can also do a lot to match the tasks that require the most energy (or require you to be at your best) to the times of day when you have the most energy available.
This involves knowing yourself a bit. Maybe you take on the most complicated or demanding challenges in the morning, when you feel fresh? Perhaps you put those mundane, repetitive tasks into the afternoon, when you feel a little flat? Or you spend a little time on those creative things in the early evening, when you feel relaxed, but not yet too tired?
And of course, this involves not scheduling challenging tasks at those times when you aren’t at your best. Like not looking at complicated deals late on a Friday afternoon.
Energy And Productivity
Time is an equally distributed resource. We all have the same number of hours in a day. You can try to hack your way to more time by sleeping less, but it doesn’t pay off in the long run.
Energy isn’t equally distributed. Consider the people who turn up every Monday complaining about another working week. That kind of mindset makes it impossible to be productive or to be at your best.
We’ve all had that feeling when we do something and feel great while doing it. We know that when we turn up at our best, physically, mentally, emotionally, we’re at our most productive. An hour at our best is worth more than an hour expertly crammed full of stuff we don’t feel up to taking on.
Self-Knowledge Is The Key To Using Energy Well
Thinking back to the credit cycle guy, it’s clear he was trying to manage his energy. Who knows what mistakes he made, or saw, that made him enforce his Friday afternoon rule.
The office gossip was that he was grumpy and difficult to deal with. If all I had to go on was my experience taking a fraught request to him late one Friday afternoon, I might’ve agreed with them. But the guy I got to know, who was into golf and sailing and loved his grandkids, was very different. He was smart, had a nice grasp of personal boundaries, knew his limitations, managed his energy, and was good at his job.
I still don’t really know what the credit cycle guy did during the rest of his time in the bank. But the lesson about managing your energy, picking when to do things and when to avoid doing them, has stuck with me ever since.