Manage Your Energy as Well as Your Time

The key to getting more done is NOT working longer hours

April 28, 2010

If there is one thing we can all agree on, it's that we all have much more to do than time to do it.  The recent recession has accelerated the trend towards greater worker productivity, making many of us feel as though we have to work 10-14 hours a day to address our burgeoning workloads.  The problem with this strategy of course, is that time is a finite resource.  In order to devote longer hours to work, we must devote fewer hours to something else.  All too often, overworked professionals muscle through longer workdays, by skimping on meals, exercise, sleep and personal time, leaving them exhausted, disengaged and in the worst cases physically ill.

The key to getting more done is not allocating more time to work, but understanding your own personal energy, and managing it as a renewable resource.  By creating a routine that works with the natural rhythms that influence energy levels throughout the day, you can sustain peak energy levels and greatly increase your capacity to get things gone.  

Respect Your Body

Our bodies are the ultimate source of personal energy.  When we neglect them by eating poorly or failing to get enough exercise or sleep, we undermine our performance and our ability to manage our emotions and focus on what needs to get done.  It is critical to practice healthy behaviors on a consistent basis.  Be sure to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night.  Go to bed early, and improve the quality of your sleep by reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption – and  eliminating late-night snacks.

To sustain physical energy throughout the day, eat a healthy breakfast rich in whole grains and lean protein.  Avoid foods containing refined sugar, which causes blood sugar levels to spike and then nose-dive leaving you irritable and unable to focus.  Don't skip meals or gorge yourself at mealtime. Rather than two or three large meals, eat several smaller meals every three hours to keep blood sugar levels constant.  Keep healthy snacks like apples or trail mix at your desk as a bridge to your more substantial meals.

Learn to recognize the signs of waning energy – excessive yawning, restlessness or difficulty concentrating. Don't work on any one project for more than two hours without taking a break.  Get up an walk around.  Go for a quick walk outside, visit a colleague, or walk up and down the stairs to get your blood flowing and "push reset."

Manage Your Emotions

Getting enough sleep and eating properly throughout the day will help you improve your mood by keeping fight-or-flight emotions at bay and helping you hold your blood sugar level steady.  But there are other things that you can do to channel positive emotional energy and keep negative emotions from getting the best of you. 

Disperse stress, irritability and anxiety by practicing yoga or deep-breathing exercises.  Foster positive emotions by expressing affection or appreciation for others.  Positive interactions with others will help you see them as people rather than obstacles or liabilities.  When conflicts arise, you'll be less apt to take things personally and better able to negotiate a compromise.

Be sure to keep things in perspective and look for the silver lining.  Consider things from another person's point of view.  Ask yourself what you can learn or how you grow from failures or stressful situations.  Consider how you are likely to view your present circumstances in hindsight.

Maintain Focus

Today's knowledge worker is bombarded with information.  In the face of persistent connectivity and instant communication, we feel that we have to multi-task to get things done.  But contrary to popular belief, multi-tasking actually undermines productivity and diminishes mental energy.  It takes several minutes to transition from one activity to another, making multi-tasking a terribly inefficient use of time.

Instead of multi-tasking, try grouping similar tasks into 90 to 120 minute blocks.  If a project requires deep concentration or strategic thinking, turn-off your email and IM or get up and find a quiet place that is free of distractions.  A conference room, a reading area or a vacant office away from the telephone and email are all good options.

Focus on activities and projects that will yield the greatest long-term return.  At the end of the day make a list of the most important things that you need to accomplish the following day, and attack the list with vigor.  Be sure to schedule time for complex or challenging work, to make sure you are making headway. 

Be True to Yourself

Understand what it is that you enjoy most about your work, and what it is that you do the best.  Look for areas of overlap, and focus on these tasks to help you feel fulfilled.  Make sure your actions are consistent with your values, and do what you say you are going to going to do.  If your children are the most important thing in your life, make sure to make time to interact with them and participate in their activities.  Bridging the gap between your ideal self and your day-to-day activities will help you achieve more energy and a greater sense of well-being on and off the job.