How To Manage Your Energy Instead of Your Time

Ryan Fan

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Since September, I’ve been balancing work as a special education teacher, graduate school in my Master’s, and side hustles of writing and editing. I have also been taking my running very seriously and have run over 10K a day, done 100 pushups, 100 sit-ups, and 100 squats a day for the past 92 days. I’ve also started studying for the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) to go to evening law school while I teach in a year.

It might seem like I’m good at managing my time, then, but in reality, I’m very bad at managing my time. The reason is that I’ve started to see managing my time as very overrated. Instead, I’ve been managing my energy.

Managing my energy doesn’t mean time doesn’t matter, but time is a finite resource. Energy is needed to get the most out of your limited time. And you can control your energy — you can’t control the onward march of time.

“Energy is a form of power. When it’s high, you feel like there’s no task you can’t tackle. When it’s low, you feel scattered, burnt out, and overwhelmed,” says Amanda Bucci at Fast Company.

In terms of managing my energy, it depended on not seeing myself as a bulldozer and superhuman. I, like everyone else, am a human being with needs. I started to finish tasks slowly, and just stop doing something when I couldn’t finish it in that moment. By working slower and working less, I’ve been able to get more done. Working more was not the answer for me — it was chilling out and working less.

One night this week, for example, I finished a Master’s assignment for Johns Hopkins University. I tried to write and do other things, and I just couldn’t find the capacity within myself. A younger version of myself would have just kept bashing my head against the wall until it stuck — this time, I called it quits and zoned out with TV and video games attending to my needs.

It was what I needed, not a waste of time. I woke up this morning feeling ready to be productive and engaged in all my meetings and classes, and I don’t think I would have had the same engagement had I forced myself to be productive last night.

I started to think about managing energy instead of time as a life lesson I learned from running. I use a mantra called “no surge” when I run which is exactly what it sounds like — I avoid forceful, unnatural surges. It conserves energy for me for the end of the race where I maximize my energy, optimize my pacing, and avoid dying early in the race.

Previously, I had an issue where I would make sudden surges whenever someone passed me or whenever the crowd roared in applause with cheering, and while those surges made me look good in the moment, they were terrible in the long-term.

That pacing mindset soon applied itself to life. By doing things slowly and not making abrupt surges in any sector of my life, whether it is work, faith, my hobby, or my personal life. By doing a task slowly and without surges, I maximize my energy and optimize my performance. Not only that, but I am much more productive without even trying to be productive. Slowing down and not trying to be a superhuman that takes life by storm led me to run 15:36 in the 5K, 33:03 in the 10K, and 2:40 in the marathon.

Energy management has led me to set better boundaries. It’s helped me focus on what’s within my locus of control, and not obsess over what isn’t in my locus of control. It’s allowed me to stop myself whenever I think I’m not working hard enough or should be doing more and say “this is exactly where you’re supposed to be right now,” and stop beating myself up.

As a Christian, it’s accepting I am exactly where God wants me to be, and I’ll take time to stop, pray, and more when I doubt whether I can keep going. Yes, we can all do better, but acknowledging how far we’ve come and the fact that we’re doing the best we can has been integral for me keeping a sustainable workload.

It is no secret that the pace of the modern world is fast. Hustle culture pushes us to try to go all-out all the time, but when we do that, our energy is sapped. Cramming as much as possible is not feasible, and bestselling authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz agree that energy management is the much better alternative not only for best performance but for better health, happiness, and balance.

According to the Harvard Business Review, managing energy is a better perspective to meet the rising demands of the workplace. Instead of trying to fit meetings in, maximizing meetings and being present in all of them is more important. Focusing and managing our energy on what’s important and what isn’t is essential. Knowing when we’re expending way too much mental, physical, and emotional energy on unimportant tasks can push us to redirect our attention to what matters, like relationships, health, and family.

Here are the steps I’ve taken to manage my energy instead of my time:

  • Pace yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually
  • Beware of energy sucks
  • Embrace energy boosts
  • Get rest however, whenever you can

Pace Yourself

You might think of pacing yourself as solely something you do in sports. But it’s not — pacing yourself is not just a physical phenomenon, but Loehr and Schwartz note it’s an emotional, mental, and spiritual phenomenon too.

There’s something to be said about getting out of your comfort zone, which all the self-help gurus preach, but getting out of your comfort zone is often not a plunge. Growth often doesn’t happen suddenly and miraculously — it happens gradually, like walking up a staircase.

For example, I pace myself by not forcing myself to get a heavy amount done in the morning. I use mornings to eat breakfast now and stay hydrated instead of diving deep into work and trying to catch up on things I’ll never catch up on. As a runner, I pace myself by listening to my body. If my body feels like it can run an “easy” run at 6:30 mile pace, I will go that pace. If my body feels like it can only go 8-minute mile pace as well, that’s fine.

The fact is not to beat myself up over how I naturally feel. It’s not like I don’t have goals or expectations, but if I feel like I’m over-expending myself on my exercise, I’ll stop. If it feels like I’m over-expending myself on my Master’s degree, I’ll do something else. If I feel like I’m over-expending myself on LSAT studying, I’ll also do something else.

Part of what the energy management perspective has done for me is embracing distractions instead of beating myself up for getting distracted. If I spent an hour or two watching Netflix or HBO instead of attending to my work at all times of the day, that’s my mind and body simply telling me I needed rest.

I’ll often feel more rejuvenated after watching TV for a bit or playing games on my phone and can work better and with fresh eyes after I’m done. If I feel like I’m so tired and stressed I can’t even think, I may lay down or just give up working for the moment — my tasks aren’t going anywhere.

According to Dr. Irvin Sulapas, an assistant professor of sports medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue issues often conserve energy and pace their energy so they don’t exert themselves.

“People with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue can expend all their energy quickly, and they are essentially ‘done for the day,’” Sulapas said.

It took running to realize what Sulapas says next. He says we should think about energy as a fixed amount, and look at each activity as a calculation of how much energy we’ll need. We shouldn’t exceed the fixed amount of energy we have, and if we do, we need to find some way to renew it.

As a runner, I listen to my breathing. If I’m breathing too heavily, I have to chill out. If my heart rate is above 180, I have to chill out and let myself slow down. In the real world, the signs I need to slow down include feeling disillusioned, cynical, unengaged, and uninvested. Slowing down does not mean absolutely stopping whenever you’re in a boring meeting or mandatory work activity, which leads me to my next point:

Beware of Energy Sucks

Everything we do is going to consume energy. But undoubtedly, there are some things that consume and suck our energy more than others. It can be some people in your life who are just exhausting. It can be procrastination. It can be an unclean house or apartment, or a disorganized inbox. It can be useless and unnecessary meanings. It can be a far too demanding boss or partner.

Whatever your energy suck is in your life, I’m not saying cut them out of your life entirely, because life simply isn’t that simple. Procrastination is a huge energy suck for me, but I’m not getting rid of it anytime soon.

But I did experience how miserable procrastination was this weekend when I procrastinated on three Master’s assignments of at least six pages long in writing. I thought, like last semester, I could just wait until the last minute and get a decent grade. I was very wrong. Sure, I had a lot going on, but it would have simply been much less stressful and less energy-sapping for me if my entire Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights weren’t drained by procrastinating assignments.

Now, I’m working ahead on my Master’s assignments because procrastination is such an energy sap. I know it’s easier said than done, but the pros of not procrastinating drastically outweigh the cons, especially when procrastinating made me so miserable early in the week.

Another personal example is family. I love my family, but they can also be energy zaps. My brother calls me once in a while to complain and vent about all his problems, and I’m usually just a sounding board that listens, validates, gives advice when it’s solicited, and more.

I would never cut off my brother, but he called me this weekend and I knew what the call was about — I just didn’t have the bandwidth to answer it. While I felt like a bad person momentarily, I had to be cognizant of the fact that I would be no use to my brother if I can’t even take care of myself.

What zaps your energy and what zaps my energy are different, but worrying about what is outside our control is also a huge energy zap. As a teacher, there are plenty of factors outside my control, including attendance. I can’t beat myself up over a student not coming to class because I don’t know what’s going on at home or with technology during virtual learning.

Also, too much talking tends to drain your energy — it’s easy to think that teachers are supposed to talk the whole time during the lesson like it’s a lecture — it’s not. Lecturing is not teaching to me since it doesn’t stop to make sure students understand what’s going on and makes them equitable partners in the process. Now, I talk less. The more my students talk during a lesson, the better my lessons are.

Energy zaps often have high impacts on our lives and stress us out. The fact that they’re stressors might be inevitably outside our control too. It’s not about making sure energy zaps are not in our lives at all because we don’t live in utopia. But it’s about setting boundaries — Bucci says saying no is a way of protecting our energy, especially if you have a people pleaser personality like I do. While there are energy zaps, there are also energy boosts.

Embrace Energy Boosts

According to the Harvard Business Review, energy renewal programs boosted productivity at the Wachovia Bank. The authors at the HBR took a group of employees through an energy management program and compared them to a control group. After going through the energy management program, the employees at Wachovia had more personal satisfaction, engagement at work, and better customer relationships. All performance metrics improved.

Part of that program meant renewing energy. And the program focused first on renewing physical energy. The vice president of the bank started taking intermittent breaks to renew his energy, and he had a more sustainable performance. They found that length wasn’t the most important thing, but rather the level you’re able to disengage from your work. It looks different for each person, whether each person likes to exercise, listen to music, or just play on the phone.

Renewing and boosting emotional energy manifested itself in more positive emotions and less time in fight or flight mode. Some companies gave “renewal rooms” where employees were given a chance to rejuvenate, while others subsidized gym memberships for employees.

Boosting and replenishing energy looks very different for each person. Some people need to eat a snack, others might need to talk with people, some might need to avoid the news, and other people need to get exercise. It depends on what works for you. As for me, I like to just tune out for a bit and play games on my phone. I also enjoy stretching or doing some quick exercise, walking outside for just a couple of minutes, or just mindlessly scrolling on my phone and disengaging from my work.

No guide is going to recommend you embracing your distractions, but I do myself. Being easily distracted means my mind and emotions are naturally gravitating elsewhere, and I indulge them a bit so I can come back stronger.

Get Rest Whenever You Can

Well, we can’t have an article about managing your energy without talking about sleep. I aim for at least seven hours of sleep a day per minimum. Anything less and I don’t function well. Some nights, I get eight or nine and I function even better.

For people in the military and parents of newborn children or toddlers, 7–9 hours of sleep might sound like a pipe dream. But I have, sometimes, a very unorthodox way of getting sleep.

If I only sleep five hours in a night working on assignments, studying, writing, or deadlines, I’ll sleep for three hours after work. Yes, that’s a luxury and privilege, one that might not be great for my sleep schedule. But it’s much better that way, at least for me, than powering through the day on no energy.

The Rehabilitation Research and Training Center also advocates for naps throughout the day for people who suffer from chronic fatigue. It recommends taking short naps as well as longer naps if they don’t interfere with your sleep schedule, and also having a comfortable space for your nap. It also recommends closing curtains or blinds, turning the phone on silent, and turning off other distractions.

Even people in the military are recommended to sleep whenever possible in the form of naps. According to Sleep.org, soldiers in combat might struggle to get a full night’s sleep, so any opportunity to sleep is recommended. When I worked in a Japanese lab, many of my labmates and I went to sleep whenever we were tired.

After lunch, people often took naps in their chairs, desks, or even on the floor. On the train, a lot of people would take naps, then magically have the ability to bolt awake the moment it hit their stop. I don’t know how, but seizing on an opportunity to rest any time you can was a lesson I took away.

Rest doesn’t only come in the form of sleep, but it comes in the form of being patient with yourself and determining what needs to be done and what’s optional. According to the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, it also comes by stopping doing something before getting tired.

The lesson, however, is simple — powering through is sometimes counterintuitive. Overworking and burning yourself out is also counterintuitive. Rest whenever and wherever you can to pace yourself and last throughout the day or week.

“Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance,” said Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in “The Power of Full Engagement”

Conclusion

Managing energy has changed the way I approach my daily routine and a seemingly insurmountable amount of tasks. Instead of assessing how much time each activity requires, I look at how much physical, mental, and emotional energy a task requires and proceed accordingly. I accept distractions, recreation, and midday naps as what I need in the moment, and I’ve been able to get by and flourish.

To recount the steps to manage your energy instead of time, here they are:

  • Pace yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually
  • Beware of energy sucks
  • Embrace energy boosts
  • Get rest however, whenever you can
“The simple, almost embarrassing reality is that we feel too busy to search for meaning,” Loehr said.

So being busy is OK — being too busy means we’re constantly bogged down and burnt out. Take care of and protect your energy, since it’s a much more sustainable way of moving forward than managing your time.

Originally published on Better Humans on February 23, 2021.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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