Energy Management – Personal Development Basics

by Vlad Dolezal on April 16, 2012

When you were a child, you learned to use a toilet, tie your shoelaces, and eat without spilling food all over yourself*.

These are basic life skills.

But much like these external skills, there are also basic internal skills, to do with managing your mind. Skills that are fundamental to your happiness and success in life.

Skills like making and breaking habits, handling emotions, or, as we will cover today, managing your mental energy.

Ideally, you would pick these up during your childhood, or be taught them at school. Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually happen, and many people go decades without getting even moderately proficient at some of the fundamental life skills.

That’s why I’ve decided to step in, and put together a detailed series of articles on this topic.

The post below clocks in at over 3,000 words, so you might want to leave it until you have the time and energy to read it and assimilate it fully.

Are you ready to become a master at managing your energy? Then read on.

*Actually, as I’m writing this, I’ve got breadcrumbs all over my t-shirt and my lap. Hmm, maybe I missed that life lesson…

Energy Management

“If only I had more time.”

People say that all the time. And then they go on to spend time watching TV, browsing the web aimlessly, and doing nothing much at all.

You probably do this yourself.

Think about all the things you would love to do.  The skills you would like to learn. The projects you want to start. The books you want to read. The people you want to spend quality time with.

Then think about how much time you spend on activities you could do without. Like most TV-watching, or browsing the web aimlessly.

Really, take a few moments to consider it.

Done?

Now, let me tell you a secret. You’re not doing anything wrong.

There’s just one other hidden variable I haven’t mentioned yet. Your mental energy levels.

The reason most people spend time watching TV and browsing the web without a clear goal isn’t that they don’t have goals and ambitions. They simply run out of energy, and the best thing they can do with their time is spend it in a mildly fun manner.

Most people don’t realize that. And so they don’t take the next logical step – question how to best manage their energy levels.

What if I told you that you don’t have a fixed amount of energy each day?

That you can increase your energy levels? That you can use your energy more efficiently? That you can recover your energy quickly in the middle of a day, and catch a “second breath”?

Think of all the goals you have that you don’t find the energy for right now. All the things that interest you, but you don’t spend time on them because your work and other commitments use up all your energy.

Would it be worth paying a bit of attenion to how you manage your mental energy, if you could get the energy to spend time on all your interests, on top of getting all your commitments done?

Take a few moments to honestly answer that question. Because energy management does take a bit of upfront effort, and changing some of your habits.

But it makes a big difference in the amount of energy you have available each day to spend on things you would love to do.

If you think this is worth making a few changes to your daily habits – then read on.

The 3 elements of energy management

Energy management comes down to three main elements, all working together. Unfortunately, most people barely have a handle on one of the three elements, if that.

We’ll dig into each of the elements in more detail in a second. But to summarize, they are:

  • increasing your overall energy levels

You don’t have a fixed “daily energy quota” that’s assigned to you at birth. It changes with your lifestyle and how you handle your body. And no matter how efficiently you use your energy, if you have very little to begin with, you can’t get much accomplished in a day.

  • using your energy effectively

Since mental energy is a precious, limited resource, it makes sense that you would want to use it effectively. Unfortunately, most people’s use of their mental energy is akin to trying to put marbles into a cup by throwing a fistful of them into the air, and hoping some will land in the cup.

  • recovering your energy quickly

And finally, you have more than just the night’s sleep to recover your energy. You also recover it at various rates during the day, based on what you’re doing. And mastering energy recovery can easily give you twice as much energy to get things done with, over the course of a day.

A camping analogy

To make the difference between the three elements of energy management crystal clear, I’ve got a little analogy for you.

Imagine that you’re camping in the wilderness, and have a limited amount of water with you.

Would you rather have a 2-litre bottle, or a 10-litre canister? Because that’s the difference of having high overall energy levels, and low.

Next, you want to drink some water. The difference in how effectively you use your energy is like the difference between simply drinking from your water canister… or drinking while spilling water all over yourself and getting more water on the ground than in your mouth.

And finally, as you use up your water, you will want to refill your bottle. Unfortunately, most people’s approach to recovering their energy reserves (except for night sleep) is the equivalent of unscrewing the bottle cap and hoping rain will refill the bottle. Extremely slow and not very effective.

You’d be much better off constructing a funnel to fill the bottle faster, or even finding a spring to refill it more often than just once each night.

Now let’s dig into each of the three elements in more detail!

1. Increasing your overall energy levels

Your mental energy levels come down to getting good nutrition to your brain, as well as having an effective supply of oxygen and glucose.

So yes, I’m going to talk about your body, because this part isn’t about mental tricks. No matter how effectively use your water supply, if you have a small bottle, you can’t fill it up more than full.

Increasing your overall energy levels comes down to three main things:

  • Fitness/exercise

When you’re fit, you have a more effective supply of blood to your brain, and everything that blood carries.

Now, I’m personally no big fan of gyms. I find them dull. But I always find ways to go on long walks, or go biking, or play some team sports with friends.

Whatever your preferred way of exercise, find something you enjoy (once you try it a few times, you will enjoy exercise. Really.), and do it at least 3 times a week.

As paradoxical as it sounds, exercise doesn’t make you tired. It gives you more energy overall, and more high-quality time. Exercise doesn’t take time, it gives you time.

  • Quality diet

By diet, I mean what you eat. Not restricting your caloric intake.

Diet is one complicated topic, and I couldn’t cover it properly in a blog post twice the length of this one, never mind a few paragraphs. But some of the best advice I’ve seen on quality diet can be summed up in seven words:

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

This comes from the book In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. By “eat food”, he means avoiding overly processed foodstuffs. Stick to foods that even your own great-grandmother would recognize as food, and you will go a long way.

The point of eating is not only to get energy, but also get all the nutrients your body needs to build itself effectively.

I have one more trick to help you recognize foods that are your personal high-energy foods. They vary from person to person, which is why I can’t give you a list to follow. But you can recognize them yourself with a quick exercise:

Eat a food. Wait 30-60 minutes. Notice how you feel.

Do you feel clear-headed and energetic? You ate one of your high-energy foods.

Don’t? Then you didn’t.

Give this exercise above a try. It’s honestly one of the best ways I know to recognize foods that leave you energized and ready to tackle the world.

If you want to dig deeper into the topic of quality diet, I’d highly recommend you check out the book I linked above.

  • Quality sleep

I wasn’t entirely sure where to put sleep, since it’s both a part of your overall energy levels and part of recovering your energy quickly.

In the end, I think it belongs in both.

Quality sleep leaves you well rested, and energized for the day ahead. I think you know the feeling – ready to take on the world, at least for a couple of hours! Okay, you might not feel this way right the moment you wake up – but if this feeling kicks in some 30-60 minutes after waking up, you’re good to go.

Quality sleep comes down to the three following elements. (Writing this feels a bit like Inception, but I promise, this is the last time I break down yet another sub-topic into three bits):

1. Good sleeping environment

A good sleeping environment is dark, quiet, and not too hot and not too cold.

If your sleeping environment is regularly only half-dark, it might be worth investing in better curtains, or an eye-mask. (I personally hate eye masks and prefer to cover my eyes with a rolled-up t-shirt when sleeping somewhere light. But I hear they’re great especially when you’re traveling and need to sleep sitting up.)

As for noise, you can get a bunch of earplugs ridiculously cheaply off amazon. This is one of the most cost-effective purchases for improving the quality of your life. I make sure to always carry a few pairs of earplugs when traveling, or when going to a concert. (As a bonus, most earplug sets come in individually wrapped pairs, so you can offer some to your friends. They’ll love you if you end up having to sleep in a noisy environment.)

And finally, I’m pretty sure having your sleeping place the appropriate temperature is self-explanatory.

2. Long enough sleep at regular times

As much as I’d love to believe a regular sleep schedule doesn’t matter (since mine is often rather erratic), a regular sleep schedule has been shown to lead to better rest, since your body gets used to the time you sleep.

Funnily enough, the reason people working night-shifts often end up sleeping not-too-well isn’t because daytime is a bad time to sleep. Any time is fine, if you do it regularly. But they tend to sleep in noisier, lighter environments (see above), and even worse, sometimes get disturbed by other people!

3. What you do before sleep

What you do right before falling asleep has a big impact on the quality of your sleep.

Avoid eating large meals, or consuming stimulants. And just as importantly – avoid screens in the hour or so before you go to bed. Although you might have experienced falling asleep at the TV yourself (or do it regularly), it leads to shallow, low-quality sleep.

Sitting at a computer before bedtime is also likely to push back the time when you go to bed, because the flickering frequency of a computer screen has a stimulating effect on the mind. Read a book instead, or talk to someone, or do a bit of meditation.

2. Using your energy effectively

Now that we’ve covered increasing your overall energy levels, let’s talk about using that energy effectively.

Because no matter how big your water bottle is and how well you can refill it, if you spill half of it on the ground every time you try to take a sip, you won’t get much use out of it.

Using your energy effectively takes a two-fold strategy. Firstly, using your energy on the right tasks, as opposed to burning it on things that don’t advance your goals in life. And secondly, using your energy efficiently during the tasks themselves.

Using your energy on the right things

It doesn’t matter how efficiently you use your energy if you use it on the wrong things. You might have become an expert at worrying over the years, to the point where it takes you very little energy to have each worrying thought – but it’s probably not something you want to be spending energy on anyway.

Most people burn up a lot of mental energy on things that at best don’t improve their life, and sometimes even have a detrimental effect! Worry is a good example of that.

Here are a few ways to make sure you use your energy effectively:

Indecision is when your thoughts run around in circles, without making any progress towards what you’re trying to make a decision about. It usually happens when you’re facing a large, or complicated decision.

It’s like an acid that burns up your mental energy, because decision making is one of the most energy-hungry processes in the brain.

Click the link above for a more detailed explanation, but basically, annihilating indecision comes down to making every moment you spend pondering a problem counts towards the solution. This means going through the four main steps of decision making – first figuring out what information you need to actually make a decision, then gathering that information, then writing it down so you can see it all clearly in front of you (which frees up mental space for the decision making itself), and then finally making a decision, at a time when you have enough mental energy to handle it.

  • Eliminate procrastination

Procrastination is another way to burn up your mental energy (or stop yourself from recovering it), without getting anything useful from it in return.

In general, you want to be always doing something productive, something fun, or something restful. Those are all parts of a happy, healthy life.

Procrastination is none of those things. It’s a way to deflect from things that are hard, or overwhelming, or boring, and make you feel like you’re accomplishing something when you’re not.

I’ve actually put together a 7-day anti-procrastination course some two years ago. I don’t advertise it anymore these days (I’m planning to turn it into a free e-book when I get the time), but it’s still there and full of useful content. If you struggle with procrastination a lot, I suggest you check it out.

But in general terms, eliminating procrastination is reasonably easy. Just notice when you’re deflecting to doing something that’s neither productive, nor restful, not fun. Figure out what’s causing the procrastination. Then tackle the root cause, rather than trying to tackle the symptom.

  • Do mentally intensive tasks during your high-energy times

As I mentioned before, you have high-energy and low-energy times during each day. And different tasks require different amounts of mental energy.

Figure out what are the most mentally intensive tasks that you want to get done, and make sure you schedule them during your high-energy times. These tasks include decision making, creative work, and more.

And make sure you do them while your mind is still fresh, before doing moderate-intensity tasks like checking your e-mail!

(If you’re not sure when your high-energy times are, try heatmapping your day.)

Using your energy efficiently during the tasks themselves

Once you’ve eliminated the energy-draining tasks that don’t accomplish anything, it’s time to tackle using energy efficiently during the tasks you do want to get done.

Because even when doing something productive, there is a huge variation in how much energy you use to accomplish it.

Here are 4 ways to ensure you don’t waste energy getting things done:

There are two main types of tasks you do – creative tasks (like writing) and focused tasks (like editing).

The first requires a broadening of attention, and creating connections between things that aren’t obviously related at first glance. The second requires narrowing down your attention and cutting away unnecessary things.

These two modes of thinking are actually measurably different in your brain, requiring different chemicals to work best. And they’re diametrically opposed to each other.

This means that switching from creative mode to focused mode (and vice versa), takes time and energy. And if you keep trying to switch between the two too often, you won’t be able to enter either of them properly. You will get stuck in in-between land where you can’t get either task done very well, and you will waste a lot of energy on it.

The solution? Separate creative and focused tasks. And get them done in chunks that involve the same type of task, so that you build on the brain chemicals you release to get each type of task done, rather than trying to work against them!

  • Write things down

Your conscious mind has very limited space. You can hold a maximum of 4 to 6 items in your conscious mind at the same time, and it takes a lot of mental energy.

By writing down everything you don’t need to immediately hold in your mind, you will free up your mental space. You will see things more clearly, remember things better, and you will save a lot of energy that you can the use to get things done!

  • Single-task

Multi-tasking is a myth. Unless you’re trying to do two things that don’t require any conscious attention (like walking and chewing gum), you’re much better off single-tasking.

Multi-tasking is one of those things that feels as if you’re being productive, because you feel very busy, but when you look at the results, you will find that you get much less done, and get tired faster. Focus on one thing at a time when working.

  • Get periods of uninterrupted focus

Related to the point above, find a way to get periods of uninterrupted focus.

If you’re doing a task that requires focus, interruptions can easily throw you off for several minutes before you regain your mental state. That’s time when you’re spending mental energy without getting much done.

Yes, some people need to be constantly on alert (like firefighters). But most people can set some time to get uninterrupted work done. Just turn off e-mail notifications, instant messaging, and any other things that might try stealing your focus. And mention to other people that might interrupt you that you need some uninterrupted work time to get stuff done.

It’s worth it. Trust me.

3. Recovering your energy quickly

And finally, let’s talk about recovering your energy quickly once it’s depleted!

This is just as crucial as increasing your energy reserves and using your energy effectively. Because you can either have one burst of quality time in the morning, followed by an on-and-off wave of alternating low-energy and moderate-energy time. Or you can have one burst of high-quality time in the morning, some moderate-quality time, and then recover your energy effectively for more high-quality and moderate-quality time later in the day!

We’ve already covered your core night sleep. But there are two more important ways to recover your energy quickly:

  • Power naps

How would you like a way to recharge your energy in the middle of the day? One that makes you feel as rested as a full night’s sleep, and takes only 20 minutes?

Well, lucky you, there is such a thing! It’s called a nap.

The recipe for a successful power nap is very simple. Lie down. Set an alarm clock for 20-25 minutes from the moment you lie down (but definitely no longer than that). Relax.

If you think a nap leaves you feeling groggy and more tired than when you lay down, you’re thinking of a nap where you sleep too long. When you sleep, you go through various sleep phases. Including deep sleep phases, during which your body releases chemicals to relax your muscles. If you wake up during this phase of your sleep, you will feel groggy and a bit out of it, until the chemicals wear off in some 15 minutes.

Deep sleep phases usually kick in around 20 or so minutes after you fall asleep. So the solution to waking up from a nap full of energy is simple – keep it shorter than that!

You might feel slightly disoriented for a minute or two upon waking up, but it passes quickly, and you will be left rested and energized.

Taking a nap this fast might seem tricky at first. But know that even if you don’t manage to fall asleep in those 20 minutes, you will get up rested and refreshed. Just take those 20 minutes to relax and let your mind wander.

With practice, I have personally got to the point where 80% of the time, I get up from my naps before my alarm clock even rings. Sometimes I fall asleep during that time, sometimes I don’t. But I always get up refreshed!

  • Taking quality time off

Do you know those times when you have a task to do, but your mind is too tired to do it, so you deflect to being busy without getting anything useful done?

In other words, procrastination?

Yeah, we all know those times. The trouble is, though… procrastination is neither productive, nor fun, nor restful.

You’re busy for the sake of being busy, because it feels like you’re doing something… without actually getting anything done.

Now, I don’t know where this habit comes from. Maybe you learned it at school (I know I did). Maybe you learned it at a workplace that pays you by the hour, as long as you look busy. But in any case, being busy and getting stuff done are two different concepts.

Once you become tired, you can’t get quality work done. But if you keep busy, you won’t recover your energy either!

You get stuck in the trap of low-energy, barely-functioning behaviour.

The solution is quite simple, actually. Allow yourself to take quality time off.

When you’re productive and getting stuff done, work. When you get too tired for that, take quality time off. Forget having to look busy. Instead, shut your eyes for a moment, or go for a short walk. Let your mind rest properly, and you will recover your energy much quicker, and will be able to get back to work sooner!

(Yes, maybe you have a job where you can’t take a break when you need it, and have to pretend to be doing something even if you’re too tired to get anything done. That sucks. But here I’m sharing the principles of effective energy management, and they are what they are. You recover your energy much faster by taking a proper break when you need it, rather than the sort of half-break web-browsing procrastination most people take.)

Summary of everything we’ve covered here

I know that’s a lot of content to cover in one go.

That’s why I’ve prepared a nice big summary for you. Either as the image below (click for a larger version), or as a PDF file for printing out.

A summary of energy management

Most likely, not everything here was new to you. But if there’s something that struck you especially strongly as you were reading above, make a note of it. (Write it down!)

As you look over the summary, do you see some points that you think are especially applicable to you?

Then note them down, and figure out how and when you will next apply them in your life! It would be no good if you read all this information and did nothing with it.

And finally, if you found this post valuable, I would much appreciate if you could share it with others, by tweeting, or “liking” it on facebook, or printing out a lot of the summaries above and duct-taping them together into a fancy shirt to wear at parties, or any other way you prefer. Thanks!

Check out other parts of the Personal Development Basics series:

  1. Energy management
  2. Habits
  3. Your Mind-Body Connection

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Gayle April 25, 2012 at 00:01

Good points! I especially liked the idea that being busy and getting things done are two different concepts.
A few points since I just notice this type of thing naturally:
1.Under “Quality Diet,” the 5th paragraph down, you say “I have one more trick to help you recognize foods that are YOU personal high-energy foods.” Should be “your” of course.
2.Under “Separate Creative and Focused Tasks,” 4th paragraph down, you say “You will get stuck in in-between land (should put a hyphen between “between” and “land” because all 3 words describe that fictional place) where you can’t get either TASKS done very well….” Should not be plural “tasks” there.
3.Under “Recovering your energy quickly,” in the 2nd paragraph, you say “Because” to start the second sentence; this should not be capitalized but just added to the first sentence.
4. Same sort of thing under “Summary of everything we’ve covered,” in the second paragraph the word “Either” should not be capitalized but added to the previous sentence to make one whole. Hope that makes sense…i.e. not two sentences in either case 🙂 but one longer one.
5. Sentences beginning with “And” or “But” bug me because they’re not really stating with what you want to say in the sentence and most English teachers find them “wrong.” They’re really saying more about the previous sentence or sentences and should start with their own subject, etc. You guessed it — former teacher here! 🙂
Thanks for helping me to see the world through different eyes. Have fun!

Reply

Vlad Dolezal April 25, 2012 at 10:53

Hey Gayle!

Cheers for the feedback :-). I’ll stick with some of the things you mentioned (like starting a sentence with “because”), because I like them that way. But thanks for pointing out everything you thought was wrong!

Reply

Gayle April 25, 2012 at 16:41

Thanks for the affirmation, Vlad. And I applaud you for “being you” and starting a sentence any way you like. When I go back and read some of your writing and say it out loud it makes more sense to me. I’m wondering if you’re “talking” out loud or in your head as you type maybe? That would explain some sentences. Keep up the good work of challenging the rest of us to slow down and think about what we’re really doing. And (!!) thanks for correcting the typos!

Reply

Vlad Dolezal April 30, 2012 at 08:54

Yeah, I tend to write as I speak. Except for the pauses, mis-spoken words and mumbling 😉

Reply

davbol.pl April 6, 2013 at 04:14

What’s up i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anyplace, when i read this article i thought i could also create comment due to this good piece of writing.

Reply

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