Are you stuck in the productivity trap? Manage your energy, not your time

It is not our time we need to manage — it’s our energy

Do you… Feel like you’re not using your time well when you’re not doing something “productive”? Fill micro-moments with checking emails, headlines or stocks on your phone? Feel a bit lost as to how to fill down time? Skip meals and snack on the go? Struggle to engage with your loved ones after 12-hour days?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re likely stuck in the productivity trap. To escape this exhausting, overextended way of life, the typical advice is to manage our time better. But that doesn’t help if we simply cram more tasks into the extra hours we gain. It is not our time we need to manage — it’s our energy.

We need to value recovery just as much as getting things done. A good analogy is the phenomenon of “supercompensation” in sports science: you strengthen muscles by stressing them to the point where fibres start to break down — and then allowing them enough time to recover. Muscle stress without rest causes lasting damage, yet muscle rest without stress causes atrophy. It is the oscillation between stress and recovery that builds performance.

In decades of working with world champions like the tennis player Pete Sampras, golfer Ernie Els and boxer Ray Mancini, the founders of the Energy Project discovered that the best athletes use rituals to recover while they compete. For example, the best tennis players had consistent rituals in the 15-20 seconds between points, such as focusing on their racket strings to avoid distraction. When hooked up to heart rate monitors during matches, these players had the most dramatic oscillation: their pulse soared under the stress of play, then dropped as much as 20% as they recovered between points.

It’s been 16 years since Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz outlined their findings in a seminal Harvard Business Review article, but their strategy is more relevant than ever. Energy comes from every part of you — body, emotions, mind and spirit — so you have to manage energy in each of these areas, they say.

I use FirstBeat heart monitors to map clients’ stress and recovery, and have seen first-hand how simple but specific rituals to manage energy in these four areas can change lives:

Physical energy

  • Enhance your sleep by leaving your phone outside the bedroom — several clients find that this really helps, and their partners seem to like it too! (See more advice on how to sleep better in this post.)
  • A brisk walk or cycle on level ground counts — some clients now park further away from work to walk more. After seeing his FirstBeat charts, an accountant who spent his days sitting in front of a computer got a Fitbit, started monitoring his steps and took out a gym membership. He felt far more energised and slept better.
  • Take brief breaks away from your desk every 90 minutes to two hours. Chronobiology shows your energy levels drop at these intervals.

Mental energy

  • Write down your intentions for the day first thing in the morning, or better still, the night before. Sometimes an old-fashioned diary where you can jot things down really helps.
  • Don’t start your day by opening emails. Allocate two specific slots for this, and be realistic about how long it takes. McKinsey found email takes two hours a day on average.
  • Do focused work away from phones and email. One entrepreneur goes to the library, where you have to be silent, to strategise.

Emotional energy

  • Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend. For example, at the end of the day, tick off the intentions you have achieved, possibly even highlighting the one that you feel most proud of.
  • In upsetting situations, mindfulness provides an opportunity to notice the good amid the bad. Instead of beating yourself up about a mistake, reflect on how you were resilient and innovative to find a way through it.
  • Get into the habit of appreciating three things in your life every day. This could be something really simple such as a cup of coffee, or a conversation with friend or colleague.

Spiritual energy

  • Pepper your day with “sweet spot” activities that energise you. One client struggled to delegate, but then realised that doing so allowed others to do what they find pleasure in — giving them the opportunity to thrive. At the same time, it freed him up to do more of the strategising that he most enjoyed.
  • Set aside time and energy for what you consider most important. Engineers at a motorsport team I worked with agreed to switch off all technology from dinner time, so they could focus on their families.
  • Connect with what fires you up — what gives you a sense of meaning and purpose. This enables you to see the bigger picture and appreciate all the small steps along the way. It changes a job into a passion.