As a culture, we’re obsessed with managing our time. Our desktop calendars are synched to our BlackBerrys, we tape weekly schedules to the fridge, our bedside tables buckle under the weight of time-management tomes — but at the end of each day (which, in spite of our best efforts, still arrives), we simply can’t complete everything on our to-do lists.
A billion-dollar industry has grown up around the notion that we can reduce our stress by getting a grip on our schedules. But this solution overlooks a surprisingly simple truth, says Jon Gordon: “You can have all the time in the world, but if you don’t have the energy, you can’t get anything done.”
Gordon, author of The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy (John Wiley and Sons, 2007), counsels us to focus less on our time and more on our energy. Time, he and other experts point out, is finite — no matter what you do, there are only so many hours in a day. It’s also a constant: The clock keeps right on ticking whether you’re daydreaming, commuting or exercising.
So, in practice, you can no more manage time than you can control the weather. What you can manage are the activities that fill your time — and the energy you bring to them.
That’s good news for your stress levels and for your to-do list, says psychologist Jim Loehr, cofounder of the Human Performance Institute (HPI), and coauthor of The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal (Free Press, 2003). “If it’s all about time, we’re done: It’s a zero-sum game, because you cannot expand time,” he explains. “But the human system can expand its energy capacity in a powerful way.”
The Four Types of Energy
Loehr, now a leading researcher in the area of energy management, first became fascinated by the topic while working with top athletes at HPI. “We observed that it wasn’t so much the amount of time the athletes spent on practice, it was the energy they brought to the time they had,” he explains.
Using this insight as a starting point, Loehr and his colleagues began to quantify exactly what kind of energy improved the players’ games: spiritual (the level of purpose and passion we bring to our lives), mental (the quality of attention we bring to a task), emotional (managing negative and enhancing positive emotional states), and physical (the product of basic nutrition, exercise and rest). That physical energy, however, can be fully harnessed only with the help of positive emotional, mental and spiritual energy.
Here are some expert tips for making the most of all of the above:
Spiritual Energy. Start by articulating your highest purpose — whether it is to serve others, or to be an extraordinary father, or to create spectacular works of art. Then try to structure your day as much as possible around the activities that serve this purpose, says Loehr. You will have more energy for your most meaningful tasks by virtue of prioritizing them.
Mental Energy. A simple way to align your spiritual and mental energy is to pay attention to what Marcia Ramsland calls your daily and weekly “prime time.” A consultant and author of Simplify Your Time: Stop Running and Start Living! (Thomas Nelson, 2006), Ramsland suggests tracking when your mental clarity and effectiveness are highest and then scheduling your most important brain-intensive activities accordingly. You’ll accomplish more in less time — with less frustration and more satisfaction.
Emotional Energy. Emotional energy arises from a different segment of the brain than either mental or spiritual energy. “There’s a complex chemistry associated with this primitive architecture of emotions, and it defines the quality of the energy we bring to bear on a task,” Loehr explains. Depression, anxiety and fear can all keep us from using our mental and spiritual energies effectively.
One powerful way to cultivate positive emotional energy is simply to express gratitude for what is. Try shifting your perspectives in more appreciative directions. For example, says Gordon: “You don’t have to work out, you get to work out.”
Physical Energy. The most obvious component of energy management relies on healthy eating, exercise and rest. “It’s one of the biggest issues for many people,” says Loehr. “They’re sedentary, and we were designed to move.” Even when you’re short of time, you can mobilize physical energy simply by eating a healthy snack (providing a stable supply of glucose to the body), and taking a short walk or stretch (to deliver oxygen to the cells). “We’ve trained some of the most brilliant chess people in the world to improve their game simply by managing their oxygen and glucose levels,” Loehr says. (For more advice on maximizing physical energy, read “Energy Crisis” in the December 2004 archives .)
You’ll get the best results by combining energy-management strategies in all these areas, then paying close attention to your personal energy patterns. Once you begin actively managing your energy, you’ll feel happier and more engaged in the world, says Loehr. “There’s a clear connection between energy and feeling alive,” he notes. “When all of our energy is flowing in a way that’s aligned with our deepest sense of purpose, that’s joy.”
Joseph Hart is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Utne Reader. He lives in rural Wisconsin.
Harness Your Energy
By managing energy, you can learn to be more productive and engaged in all areas of your life. Here’s how to get started:
- Know what matters. Yes, we all balance work, family and other priorities. But if you don’t know which priorities are most important to you and why, you’ll have less success focusing on the goals that bring you the greatest satisfaction. Spend some time clarifying your life’s mission, vision and values, then evaluate how well your energy and talent are aligned with them.
- Get positive. “A big part of energy management is not allowing negative energy to bring you down,” explains Jon Gordon, author of The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy (John Wiley and Sons, 2007). Use gratitude to counter frustrations and fears: When you’re feeling stressed, list things that make your life worth living. Next, turn complaints around with what Gordon calls the “but/positive.” For instance: “I don’t like that I have to go to work today, but I’m thankful I have a job.” By training yourself to move quickly past negative energy, you free your resources to focus on the job at hand.
- Be quiet. Whether you meditate or just spend a little time zoning out to music, be sure to set aside a few minutes of every day for some all-alone downtime. Regular relaxation helps balance our biochemistry and increases our resilience when facing challenges. Think of it as a daily topping off of your energy reserves — a great way to guard against running out of the fuel that lets you get other important things done.