This coming week will be my last in Vancouver this co-op work term. A reflection on the last four months will be forthcoming – stay tuned to hear what I’ve been learning!
Until then, let me start with a story:
I was making coffee in our office’s lunchroom a few weeks back and struck up conversation with the co-worker that was waiting for the kettle with me. Well, waiting isn’t quite the right word. It was more like she was mentally somewhere in Thailand while her body patiently awaited her return. We talked briefly and turned our thoughts briefly to what she referred to as “energy management”. I liked the term so much that I’ve been using it since, and maybe you will too. Let’s dig in to the concept a little deeper.
(Want all of the wisdom but without the narrative? Skip to the TLDR section here.)
Many of us go through our day vested with the expectation that we should expect 100% efficiency from ourselves, without ever stopping to consider the magnitude of that expectation.
I lay part of the blame at the feet of the modern world in which we work. If you’re a professional, the expectation is that you come in to work everyday, sit at your desk at 9AM, and work through solidly until 5PM. Of course, anyone that has ever worked a day in their lives knows that this kind of expectation is completely unreasonable, and yet we persist in mentally holding ourselves accountable to this kind of energy expenditure.
We are not robots – we’re inefficient humans, with quirks, emotions, digestive systems, and energy that correspondingly waxes and wanes throughout the day. These are some of my own tips for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the negatives that arise from this fact.
Recognize that you cannot be 100% productive
This is basically what I’ve just finished writing. However, for many of us, it will be the most difficult hurdle to overcome. The subtle expectations that bombard us on a daily basis are legion – from the way our modern workday (and week) is structured to the desire to be a member of the group rather than not, there are plenty of subtle forces that tug at our psychology. Before you know it, we’ll slowly but surely start to beat ourselves up over the fact that we’ve sat at our desks for over an hour without managing to get a single thing done. Even an innocuous comment from a supervisor, such as “Hey, how’s the work coming on the Penske file?” can regress us right back to this mindset.
Recognizing that you’re not perfect and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be will be an empowering experience. Being aware of who you are and what your limitations are can free your mind up to work around those limitations and give yourself permission to be imperfect. Until you are able to let go of the fantasy that you can be productive all of the time, you will be hindered in your ability to maximize your potential.
I want to reiterate this last point, because it’s important:
An integral aspect of maximizing your potential is being aware of your own limitations.
If you aren’t cognizant to your own strengths and weakness, you may waste precious resources (time, energy, willpower, money, etc.) seeking to accomplish something unrealistic or beyond the scope of what you really desire. (..and most likely, something that you don’t actually care about).
I’m not advocating that you give up on a particular dream you may have, or that anything in particular you desire is out of your reach. However, if you’re forty-years old and dividing your energy between managing a career, a family, and trying to make it big in the NBA, you may benefit from understanding what your limitations are and applying the energy that you have available accordingly.
Be present to your energy at any given moment
Most of our time working, our self-awareness operates on auto-pilot. It’s rare that we’re actually present to how we’re thinking and feeling, because we’re focused on our work. If we’re not being particularly productive, we’re probably focused on our web browser and whatever YouTube video has currently gone viral.
Getting in tune with how you’re feeling and how much energy you have available is a process. It’s not a skill that you can develop over night, because most of us have become so good at setting aside the way we feel in order to get our work done. After all, that’s the expectation that comes with endless school assignments and 9 to 5 work, right? It doesn’t matter how you feel, because the time to work is from 9 to 5. You think about how you feel outside of those hours.
People that have made a positive change to their physical routine for the better will have an analogy to which they can draw. At first, you start exercising and your whole body aches. But over time, you start to get a feel for that type of pain, and eventually, you’re no longer simply feeling “back pain”.
Now you’re able to identify things like “hmm, my lower back is quite sore, and that feels like muscle pain… that’s probably because I’ve played four squash games this week”.
Getting mentally in tune with yourself is the same thing. When you are feeling frustrated at work because you can’t seem to get anything done, take a moment to check in with yourself and ask where your energy level currently sits. NB: Even if all you can do at first is recognize that you are feeling frustrated, you’re making progress.
Over time, you’ll get better at picking up on the cues your body naturally provides you with. The more you try to check in with yourself, the sooner you’ll be able to pick up on the fact that you may be sitting in an energy funk and address it.
Use your downtime effectively
Okay – hopefully you’re starting to gain a better awareness of your energy level and how it’s affecting your work. If you’re not yet able to make use of the previous tip, you’re not ready to move on to this one – the next question is what do you actually do once you’ve identified that fact.
Being a law student, I’m no stranger to people that take the attitude that they will hammer the work through no matter what. In some people, recognizing that they are low on energy almost presents a challenge that makes them feel defiant. ”Low energy? Nice try, we’re finishing this tonight”.
On the surface, this may appear to work for some people, but I personally do not feel that this is the habit or coping method that I want to develop. Is this approach to your body’s physical cue a sustainable practice? If not, ask yourself why you are continuing to behave in this manner.
How can you effectively make use of your periods of low energy? Simple:
Do something that doesn’t require much focus or energy
My own solution is to spend the time where my energy and focus are low to go on walks and pursue other distractions (browsing the web, tweeting, drafting blog entries, etc.).
By mentally giving yourself permission to take breaks, you will have scored a double-victory. First, you’re acknowledging your own limitations and working within them. Sometimes, you’re simply not going to be able to crank out high quality work – that’s okay!
Second, you’re allowing yourself a break from the exercise of your willpower. We know that we have a finite amount of willpower (see also here); as a result we can only exercise it so much in a day (like almost every other type of psychic energy, it would seem). Applying your focus to a task and ignoring distractions that may pop up is a small but constant strain on your willpower.
I can’t speak to your own mental state, but my brain seems to be constantly attempting to sabotage my efforts to focus by taking those moments to think up things that I haven’t yet read on Wikipedia (“Hey, I wonder what critics thought of Mortal Kombat?”). By making time for these kind of breaks (NB: this is different from having time), you give yourself a reprieve from the application of willpower and take your break at the most opportune time.
Maximize the way you use your periods of high energy
The Yin to the previous section’s Yang.. As the metaphor suggests, if you’re not balancing your application of this principle with the previous one, it may be worth taking some time to recalibrate. Balance is the harmony within which I strive to live.
Maximizing your periods of high energy is often best accomplished by simply allowing yourself to focus on what you’re there to do. Many of us have experienced moments of mode known as flow. Time falls away from your awareness and you hold a wonderful focus that allows you to plough through your work like it ain’t no thang.
While having a decent amount of energy is necessary to get into a zone, it is not sufficient. Meaning: you will not be able to enter flow every time you are experiencing the upper part of your energy levels. You will also need to sit, focus and work without distractions for a period of time.
Logically, it follows that our path to maximizing periods of high energy should be spent free of distractions, focused on the task at hand. As before, if you are able to recognize the cues that your body and mind are sending you, you will better be able to position yourself to take advantage of these periods of high energy. Regardless of what you want to do, your head and the people around you may not be willing to co-operate.
While there is not too much you can do to deal with co-workers (closing your office door is quite effective, though I’m generally not a big fan of closed office doors), I have two strategies you can employ to try and keep your brain in check.
The first is to employ a way to address the thoughts that pop up into your head without actually pursuing them. My way of achieving this is to write down on a piece of paper anything that is a distracting thought and holding my mind hostage.
If I’m trying to get myself into the zone and thoughts about Mortal Kombat pop into my head, I pick up my pencil and write “Mortal Kombat” on my note pad. I’m not actually pursuing this distracting thought, but I have addressed it in a way that allows my mind to go “okay, I’ve dealt with that – back to the work”.
If this sounds cheesy to you, think of it like another tool you can put in your toolbox. You don’t have to use it now, but if you’re sitting there feeling like you’ve tried everything and can’t break out of your habit, give this a go. It is simple and will not introduce a lot of overhead to your existing process (have a pencil and paper next to your workspace). The results can be quite surprising.
The second approach that I take is based on a recommendation that Seth Godin made on his blog (an excellent resource that I certainly suggest checking out).
Find some means to offload all of your distractions to something other than your main computer. Those of us that work on computers generally use the machines both for our productive work and our distractions. We like to think that we’re pretty good at dividing the two up (though most of us recognize that we’re not as good as we’d like to be).
Example: use a tablet computer as your dedicated “distractions device”.
Don’t allow yourself to use your computer for anything other than work. If you don’t have a tablet, try using your smartphone. No smartphone? Start reading instead of browsing websites for a break. (Believe it or not, we took breaks even before the Internet existed!)
This change too will have a rather profound result. Framing your computer mentally as the device that you sit in front of when it is time to do work will cause your psychology to naturally align itself within the context of this frame. When it’s time to work and you position yourself in front of your computer, your subconscious will take note and click you into a productive frame of mind. If you don’t believe me, prove me wrong by giving it a go. (The results surprised me when I did the same.)
TLDR? (Too long, didn’t read?)
That’s okay – you probably wanted to get back to being productive! (You can click any of the summaries here to be linked back to the corresponding content). Here’s the summary:
- Learn to accept the fact that you can’t be 100% productive. You’re not a robot; you’re not perfectly efficient, and; that’s just fine
- Try to get more in tune with your energy levels throughout the day
- Make good use of your periods of low energy
- (and give yourself breaks from exercising your willpower)
- Make the most of your periods of high energy
- (by reducing distractions and allowing yourself to focus)
- Two tricks to help yourself focus:
- Write down any mental distractions as they come to mind, then let them go (keep a pencil and paper near you)
- Offload distractions to something other than your computer, and let your computer be a machine that is devoted purely to productive work
As a parting shot..
If you like my writing and would like to see more, I ask that you show support however you can – leave a comment if something that I’ve said turns some gears with you, or help me out by mentioning this site to anyone else that you think might be interested in the same topics. If an article I wrote was especially meaningful to you, share it on Twitter or Google Reader.
Eventually, I would like to take these articles and compile a book (and release it open source, no less!), but in order to achieve that goal, I need the inspiration that comes from speaking to an audience and feeling some support. I love doing the hard work – you just have to help me out from time to time by telling like-minded individuals and communicating back. We all benefit in the long run. Thanks for the support and keep reading!