One of the most important lessons to learn in life, and one that often takes the longest - particularly for productivity geeks - is that we are finite.
It's appropriate to have big goals, ambitious plans and causes that we care so deeply about that we're willing to make considerable sacrifices to contribute towards them. But we are very very limited beings. We are limited in time, resources, health, youthfulness, wisdom, knowledge and skills, and it is a mistake to plan (or expect) that we will always be performing at our highest level.
Some of these limitations emerge slowly, throughout the seasons of life. However others of them fluctuate daily. Personally, I always have my highest energy levels from between 8-11am and from about 3pm until 5pm. But ask me to solve a complex problem during my post-lunch slump and you may as well be talking to a brick wall.
As I've reflected over the years on how my productivity has evolved, I am amazed at how poor I have been - and often still am - about choosing what I spend my time doing, based on how much energy I have.
At university, I must have spent countless hours stuck behind my desk or in the library trying to finish that assignment, when I should have known perfectly well that it just wasn't happening. In those situations, I'd have been much better off doing something else which matched my current energy levels. You can't flog a dead horse.
Over the years I've tried to practice the art of finding the right tasks for the energy levels I have at any point in time, and I've noticed that certain patterns have emerged. This is my personal 'Energy Map' if you will, but I imagine that similar kinds of activities would work for you too.
On a scale of 1 to 5 (where 5 is "I feel like I could write a book" and 1 is "I'm going straight to bed") here's how I try to assign activities.
Energy level 5
When you're feeling most energetic, most alive, most motivated, you want accomplish your most difficult tasks. These are usually those which are complicated, scary, risky or unfamiliar, and which require your full undivided attention.
These include activities such as:
- Designing a business model
- Conducting research for, and outline, a new article
- Pitching that new idea to your boss
- Fixing that software bug you've been ignoring
- Designing the architecture of your next project
- Taking a practice exam and looking for the weakest areas in your knowledge
Energy level 4
When you're feeling alert and active, you're best placed to crack on with the meat of your day job. In my experience, most people are at level 4 and above for a maximum of about 3 hours a day.
You are probably best placed to do activities such as:
- Planning the day to guarantee success
- Accruing some billable hours for the day
- Writing code for your current project
- Writing the content for an important article
- Calling a few sales and marketing leads
- Reading, learning and studying for well-defined purposes
Energy level 3
At this energy level, you are still alert enough to make progress at work, but you might need a bit of help. This is me right after lunch! Take a brisk walk, listen to some energising music or make a cup of coffee and that should bump you into a productive state.
Then you'll be more than capable of tasks such as:
- Responding to important work emails
- Continuing with billable work, if you have a clear plan to follow
- Proof-reading and sanity checking work
- Checking in with your team and supporting others
- Cleaning up your email inbox
- Checking off some administrative items on your to do list
- Nurturing professional relationships
Energy level 2
If you're anything like me, by the end of the day you'll feel pretty drained. But that doesn't mean you're good for nothing. At this energy level there's little point in trying to 'work', as such, but you can crank through some other chores on autopilot.
Try tasks such as:
- Doing domestic chores
- Spending time with your spouse, children or friends
- Reading an interesting book
- Review your personal finances
- Doing some exercise (if your work is mentally but not physically tiring)
- Going for a walk
- Writing in your journal
- Planning the next day
Energy level 1
If you feel at energy level 1 and your in the library or at the office, Just. Go. Home. You're not doing anything good by being there, and may actually be doing harm if you're not performing as you should to do your job safely or diligently.
The best thing you can do is rest your mind, body and soul, and try to regain some energy for the next day:
- Take a bath
- Watch a movie
- Read a novel
- Order a takeaway
- Sit by the fire
- Go to bed
If you're honest with yourself about your energy levels and aware of your limitations, as well as clear about what your most important activities are at each level, you'll be much more realistic about what can be achieved.
You'll likely also spend far less time kidding yourself that you're producing meaningful work, when what you should really be doing is kicking back on the sofa with a cold beer. Or a herbal tea, if that's your thing.