Full Tank, Always

October 24, 2019

Jon Wortmann is Author of Hijacked By Your Brain.

Energy levels are a highly personal attribute—how much energy we can spend and at what point we reach saturation are more often a reflection of our own make-up. So, no better way to arrest the drain than to chalk out a plan that complements our unique life patterns.

You open up your calendar in the morning and simply sigh. The past few months have been too much. What you have to do this week is too much. How can a human being be expected to go from meeting to meeting to meeting without a break? How can you stay healthy when every day is full? How are you supposed to actually do your job when all your time is already booked?

You have heard of time management. Many of the solutions are valuable. How you create your to-do lists, compartmentalize information, and organize the who and what of your day has power. So often, we waste time without thinking and time management helps.

But let us say you are intentional. Let us argue that you are solid at managing your time. In today’s information saturated, 24/7 communication world, it is not enough. Even perfectly managed time is not necessarily well spent. No matter how you bucket your limited hours, you may not be having the work and life experience you need to be your best.

The new frontier in terms of work performance is energy management. Energy management is the discipline of paying attention to the quality of how we spend time. Depending on your circadian rhythms, your genetics, and your personality, you have a natural energy level and everyone is different. Have you ever walked into a room with someone who just seems to always be on? Some people have internal engines that simply rev hotter and longer. That does not make them better performers or less vulnerable to wasted time and ultimately burnout. What differentiates us as human beings is our attention to the purposes of our energy spend.

Every human being has a tank. Drain it, and you perform poorly. Run on fumes too often and you will burnout. Stay burned out and that is when any of us are at risk for more pervasive mental health problems. The solution is to analyze your drains, natural energy capacity, and employ intentional patterns in your daily life to stay fueled.

Step 1- analyze your energy drains

Take a simple assessment.

  • Do you get enough sleep? Yes or no.
  • Do you meditate ten minutes or more per day? Yes or no.
  • Do you vigorously exercise ten minutes or more per day? Yes or no.
  • Do you eat healthy foods every day? Yes or no.
  • Do you limit polluting chemicals in your body from smoking, drinking, or other drugs? Yes or no.

If the answer to any of these questions is, ‘No’, your energy is already starting less than it could be each day. Any search of scientific literature can prove what ignoring these good habits does to the body and brain. Unless you have a genetic make up that does not need sleep, recharging, and can process toxins easily, cleaner living is the first step to maximizing your ability to be most effective. This assessment is not meant to judge your choices; it is a mirror. Want to know why you cannot deliver your best work or be your best self? Sometimes it is about the way we stress our own systems.

Step 2 – recognize when your energy is best

Your energy has a pattern and it is noticeable, if not measurable.

Are you a morning person or an evening person? In many offices, because of flexible work schedule and international commitments, managers are not as committed to 9 to 5 schedules. That can be good. It allows you to work when you are most effective. Even if you are forced to work a particular schedule, you still have some control over when you do which work. Few of us are great thinkers all day. Few of us have extra emotional capacity at all hours of the day. Knowing when you are best prepares you for how you plan your energy spend.

If you are an introvert, you need alone time to recharge. You can still spend all day with people, however, at the end of the day you can’t spend more time with people.

Illustration by Nilesh Juvalekar

Next, how many meetings do you have each day? Depending on your meeting load, your personality decides whether this is okay or a terrible thing (and when to have meetings if you have a choice). Some of us are introverts and others are extraverts. It is a fundamental category of personality and it has everything to do with energy. If you are an introvert, you need alone time to recharge. You can still spend all day with people, however, at the end of the day you cannot spend more time with people. If people give you energy, on the other hand, as an extravert you cannot work alone all day. You need meetings in one form or another. You need supportive collaboration and coaching with another human being. If your job is done on a computer and alone, at the end of the day you have to spend time with people or you will repeatedly feel depleted. Neither personality type determines whether you enjoy the people with whom you work. Your personality determines the volume of people time that is good or bad for keeping your tank full.

Finally, how many decisions do you make each day? Decision fatigue is a real thing because our frontal lobes simply wear out. Thinking takes energy. Making choices takes energy. You cannot make successful choices when all you want to do is throw away your healthy living plan and eat ice cream covered in chocolate to deal with all the stress. If you make lots of decisions in your job, you have to make them when you still have the energy to think clearly.

Your energy is your value and time is the currency that spends it. Reserve recharge time and overflow hours in your calendar.

In each case, plan high impact work, meetings, and decisions for when you know you are most impactful. If you are a morning person and an introvert, plan your meetings and decision-making time for the first half of the day. If you are an extrovert and are best in the afternoon, plan meetings for the morning and then do your budget, analysis, or writing time for the afternoon. The skill is to recognize when your energy is best and plan the most important efforts for that time of the day.

Step 3 – apply proven energy management techniques

After taking care of your physical self and paying attention to when you perform best, three techniques maximize energy day to day.

  • First, time banking. Your energy is your value and time is the currency that spends it. Reserve recharge time and overflow hours in your calendar. You cannot constantly run at a deficit of energy and emergencies and unexpected opportunities will come up. Block off your mediation, exercise, and either alone or people time to refill your tank. Block off time in your calendar, each day and each week, for reflection and expected overruns. You cannot spend energy you don’t have.
  • Second, limit the scope of your projects. How? Boundaries. How? Be ready to say ‘No’ to work that is outside of your charter for core performance. The caveat to this is if you are killing your day job and have bandwidth, spend it. What you cannot forget is that when you are overextended, you will need recovery time eventually. If you always say ‘Yes’ to be a good teammate or so others will like you, it is a formula for eventually breaking down. Only you can put boundaries around where you spend your energy.
  • Third, commitment mapping. You have requirements in your role. They fit into daily, weekly, and quarterly to-dos. They take a certain amount of energy. If you are the kind of person who can do presentations improvisationally, with very little prep time, that will leave room for meetings before the event. If you are a person who needs to diligently practice to be natural and comfortable before an audience, the energy needed for presenting will mean less energy for other work or demand more recovery time. Sometimes the answer to better work is changing our commitments. Doing less can let us produce more.

Stopping energy drains, working when our natural energy is best, and applying energy maximizing technique can change the way you feel and the way you perform. You will not always have control of your schedule. Your boss or culture may dictate the way you have to work some, even much of the time. The goal then is to control your energy spend whenever possible. If you do, you can be the one rising up the ladder to greater and greater control of where you put your energy in the future.