In the quest for greater productivity, many of us seek out ways to squeeze more out of the 168 hours we have in each week. But we all know that some of those hours are more productive than others.
The key to getting more out of our time is to manage our energy, says business consultant Flip Brown, founder of Burlington, Vermont-based Business Culture Consultants, and author of Balanced Effectiveness at Work: How to Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor Without Driving Yourself Nuts.
“We can choose to think of time as this static, fixed thing,” Brown says. “We all have the experience that when we go to the doctor’s office, each minute can be excruciating. But, for example, when I’m out snowboarding on untracked powder, time is magically suspended. Most of us have certain time of the day and certain tasks that feel effortless.”
The difference has to do with our energy and enthusiasm rather than the amount of time we have, he says. When we get in touch with our natural energy rhythms and the tasks, routines, and people that energize us, then we can bump up our productivity significantly, while also increasing our satisfaction in our work.
Here’s how to get a better handle on managing your energy.
If you’ve ever felt dejected just looking at your to-do list first thing in the morning, then you’re likely sapping your energy before you even start your day.
Many of us overestimate what we can do or spend too much time doing things that are unimportant but deemed “urgent,” Brown says. Not everything has to be a fire drill. Practice setting reasonable expectations and boundaries each day.
“If you’re in a highly pressured, bureaucratic culture, it may be tough to do, but there’s only so much our minds, bodies, and souls can take before we check out,” he says.
You probably have a sense of when your most high-energy times are, Brown says. You may be fired-up first thing in the morning or have bursts of creativity after dinner.
If you don’t know, then track how you feel throughout the day for a week or so. When are the times when you just seem to be most efficient and feel energized? When are the points in the day where you’re dragging and in need of coffee, or even a nap?
Take advantage of high-energy times by either focusing on important, creative work that requires you be at your sharpest, or using that time to knock out those tasks you hate doing–for Brown, it’s bookkeeping–when you’re at your most efficient and can get them done quicker.
Brown frowns upon our “power through” culture. We need to take time throughout the day to recharge to be at our best, he says.
Take a couple of short breaks and–if possible–leave your desk for lunch or at least for a quick walk once a day. It may feel like you don’t have time, but you’ll likely come back with additional focus and energy that may make up for the time you took.
“If we really want to concentrate and be effective, 90 minutes is about how long our brains can stay focused,” he says. “After that, we’re going to be less effective until we take a break.”
Know what recharges you. Are you an extrovert who needs face time with other people? Do you need time alone to process information? Does physical activity help you refocus?
Brown takes periodic three- to five-minute walks throughout the day. Find ways that help you get your energy back, and then integrate them throughout the day, he says.
“These are the optimal conditions,” Brown says. “You’re not going to meet them every day in every situation. You’re not going to meet them all the time, but they’re something to strive for.”