Manage your diary according to your energy, not time. Here’s how

One of the most game-changing shifts I’ve made in my life was to stop managing time and manage energy instead. To start, we need to call out two fundamentally unhelpful mental anchors. The first: that idea that “life is a marathon, not a sprint”. Whoever said that evidently was not working and living in the new millennium. It’s absolutely both: it’s a marathon made up of lots of shorter sprints. We are dealing with a world that requires us to exist in constant high-intensity interval training: spurts of high effort followed by short periods of downtime before we have to do it all again.

Yet I meet CEOs and leadership teams all the time who are struggling to manage ‘change fatigue’ and yearning for things to ‘slow down’ because they desperately need to come up for air. The only method for being match fit for this world is learning to cultivate productive downtime and to manage our energy efforts to get the highest return possible.

Holly Ransom was blown away by the difference managing her diary according to energy made.

The second unhelpful phrase we need to ban is “I’m too busy”. Somewhere along the way, we stopped responding to people’s inquiries about how we were feeling with a description of our mood and instead chose to describe the state of our calendar. We started wearing busyness as a badge of honour, and then a shield of excuses for why we can’t try something new or spend time doing things we love. I’ve been there, done that and bought the T-shirt, believe me. But none of us wants to be that ‘busy’ person. Not for your family, not for your colleagues and not for yourself.

By reconnecting with ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, we can manage our energy. We all know that our energy levels change throughout the day; you may have even heard of this process called the circadian rhythm. If you’ve ever had jetlag, you certainly know how persistent circadian rhythms can be!

As researcher Christopher Barnes observes, “This natural – and hardwired – ebb and flow in our ability to feel alert or sleepy has important implications.” There’s a large body of research that suggests most of us follow a standard energy arc on a given day. A few hours into the day we hit our peak, we sit there for a brief moment, and then things begin to taper off at lunch, bottoming out at around 3pm. After this dip, alertness tends to increase again until hitting a second peak at approximately 6pm. Our alertness then tends to decline for the rest of the evening and throughout the early morning hours until hitting the very lowest point at approximately half past three in the morning.

The caveat to my description of that general energetic arc is that genetically, some people have a circadian rhythm leaning in one direction or the other. People referred to as “larks” (or morning people) tend to have peaks and troughs in alertness that are earlier than the average person, and “owls” (or night owls) are shifted in the opposite direction. We also experience shifts across our lifetimes; we are generally larks as very young children, owls as adolescents, and then larks again as we become senior citizens. What’s important is knowing whether we’re a lark, an owl (or a different type of creature) and factoring that into the way we plan our days and weeks and manage expectations and deadlines.

So, to audit your own energy, ask yourself: what’s your own, unique natural rhythm?

When I was first posed that question, I was so used to forcing my energy to fit my work schedule, I’d completely disconnected to how it naturally flowed. I was conditioned to a routine of forcing myself to get up at stupid o’clock, packing my day with as many meetings as possible and consuming too much coffee so I could do all my actual work late into the evening. Out of curiosity, I spent a week not changing anything in my schedule and just becoming aware. What times of the day was I reaching for caffeine because I was flatlining? When was I bouncing off the wall? I realised I, Tigger-like early in the morning, seemed to max out my focus every 90 to 120 minutes, when my body begged for a brief reprieve, and hit a mega wall in the mid-afternoon.

Then I experimented for a week. What time did my body wake up when I didn’t set the alarm? What time did I naturally fall asleep? When I intentionally put something that energised me at what would otherwise be a low point for me energetically, could I re-energise myself? Did I do creative or planning activities better in the mornings or in the evening? I noticed that not only was I naturally a very early riser but I was also much more creative either in the morning or late at night. When possible, I inserted exercise into my day as opposed to putting it at either the start or end because I found it made my mid-afternoon wall disappear.

I was blown away by the difference managing my diary according to energy made, not just to achieving professional success but in the way I showed up for the relationships in my life. I’ve also opened up conversations about energy management with people closest to me, so I can be mindful of their natural rhythm and they of mine. It’s allowed me to set new routines, like morning reading time with my partner before we start our working day or afternoon walk- and- talks with friends.

I’m not concocting a utopian view of the world that says you’re entirely in charge of your own energy. Most of us have bosses, clients, mothers, children and even that knob from the compliance department who need us to dedicate our energy on demand. But I am going to challenge you on the fact that you’re more in control of your energy than you think and that you can get significant returns for small tweaks.

Edited extract from The Leading Edge by Holly Ransom, published by Viking on July 20, 2021, RRP $34.99.

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