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Wrangling your best energy

Fact: you have more things to do than you have time to do them. Another fact: you have more things that require your best energy than you have time in your best energy zone.

We’ve all been in a situation something like this: there’s an important thing you need to write, and you spend your day running around while thinking of all the things you’re going to say in the piece you’re writing. Then when you finally sit down with the important thing, you’re out of energy and your brain is empty. And not only are you in this stuck situation; you’re also resentful because you remember all those other moments during the day when you DID have energy. And what you don’t remember is all those busy-work things you need to do to move the piece forward. All you know is that you don’t have what your brain needs to actually write a thing.

Everyone has times of day (and week, for that matter) when certain kinds of work come more easily than others. For instance, Berkeley starts off with busy work in the early mornings, before the caffeine has set in ☕. The thinkier work starts in the mid to late mornings. By late afternoon, he’s looking for something more kinetic or conversational to fight off “afternoon wooze.”

Consider what’s your best brain for different activities throughout the day. How—and when—does your mental energy change? Are there tasks you need to do that you can align to those different energies? Are there ways to segue from one type of mental energy to another effectively? For example, sometimes busy work’s a great mental warmup for more creative thinking later on. But that busy work can also be really compelling when you’re staring down the transition to your manuscript, or you can get stuck on the infinite loop of “one more thing and this will be done.” So it’s often a good idea to set time limits on “warmup” type work.

In some respects, your best energy is your most important personal resource, so treasure it and try not to squander it on undeserving tasks.

Toward that end, we’ve got some basic tips for you plus some more advanced ones.

Energy-channeling 101

This is so basic that it almost goes without saying … except that people forget it all the time. Including us. So here it is:

Think of when your best energy most reliably occurs. Then assign what you most want to get done with your best energy to that period of time. That’s often not the most urgently demanding task, but the most important one. It’s your research, not that shouty email.
  • For most people, that’s some time in the morning.
  • Even if you can’t work right away upon waking up, many folks find it helpful to do what we call “waking up to your scholarship.” That means that when the DVD player of your brain opens up, you load up what you want to work on, not your email (or Twitter or whatever). You want to be holding that DVD in your hand—and just as crucially, not that other one. And don’t be flipping around trying to find the right DVD when you’re barely conscious.
  • Along the same lines, once you let the other stuff in, you might be stuck with it all day.
  • All other things being equal, it’s usually nice if that energy can be timed or nudged around so that it’s not during regular work hours, when people expect things from you.

Conversely, what’s stuff that you’ll do just fine at times when your energy’s not so great? Relegate it there from the beginning. It’s a uniquely sucky feeling to realize that you just expended all your best energy handling a bunch of things you could literally do in your sleep, or at least while nodding off at night.

Boss-level wrangling

For a lot of us, the suggestions above are all it takes to get us in the right mindframe for planning effectively. But here are some next-level thoughts:

  • A critical point to remember: when you have good energy, your mind often wants to do All The Things. It’s enthusiastic, and will just dive for the closest thing. This initial dive can end up taking most or all of the time you want to devote to your research. If you’re vulnerable to that problem, train yourself to keep an eye out for that moment where you feel energized and your brain reaches for things to do. Catch yourself there and direct your attention to the most important thing.
  • Think not just in terms of speed but also in terms of momentum. What activities energize you more? Which ones deplete you? Are there tasks that are energizing if you do them at certain times of day, but depleting at other times?
    • Can you mobilize the energizing activities to your advantage? Can you make sure to do the depleting stuff right before dinner, or the gym, or another kind of break, so you can re-energize in other ways?
  • This is one of our favorites, from a Studio Scholar who has spent a lot of time as an administrator: how can you compress your spread-out tasks so that they take up only as much time as they actually take up? She probably said that more straightforwardly, but we’ll make it real with the key example of these tasks: email. Let’s say you face an hour’s worth of email every day. The challenge is to spend an hour on that hour of email—not to let checking your email leak in small drips into every hour of your life so that when you add it all up and account for all the interruptions and the time spent trying to get back to what you were doing and the mental fuss that went into thinking about each email separately rather than knocking them all out in one or two sittings, it has swollen to several times its required size. Everyone’s had a day stolen by email—and not even a lot of email, just a crappy regular amount of email—so you know what we’re talking about.

Finally, back to that issue of energizing vs. depleting: don’t forget the most fundamental thing about energy. To get it, you have to feed yourself, whether it’s with food, water, sleep, family, pets, exercise, being outdoors, meditation, or even just enthusiasm—or any combination of those things. Make sure to put the good stuff into you.