Managing Energy vs Managing Time

I've got a job that I enjoy, but working with customers at a growing startup does come with its share of draining, stressful times.

And with three kids 4 and under at home--I do often find myself getting less sleep than I would otherwise like to.

After a few particularly draining weeks I got to googling - how could I get better at managing my energy? Should I be drinking more water? Is there something I could be doing to better increase my physical energy?

In my search, I came across an older Harvard Business Review article the topic: Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time.

The key point: time is a finite resource -- you can't get back time once it's gone -- but energy is a renewable resource.

By paying attention to the four main sources of energy, you can create and use rituals aimed at replenishing energy levels and operate at higher energy levels, rather than feel like you are scraping the bottom of your energy barrel at the end of a long day. The four main sources? They are:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual

Managing Physical Energy

A lot of the physical energy stuff may be familiar: eat healthy, exercise, get enough sleep. Covering these bases not only helps you maintain physical energy, but also is the foundation for managing mental energy.

What was new to me was the concept of the "ultradian rhythm":

“Ultradian rhythms” refer to 90- to 120-minute cycles during which our bodies slowly move from a high-energy state into a physiological trough. Toward the end of each cycle, the body begins to crave a period of recovery.

The article recommends taking a break at the end of each of these cycles - leave your desk AND do something that is truly different from work.

For me, two things that I've found to be fairly refreshing:

One is taking a walk - around 20 minutes. Fresh air and sunlight get to be more rare around this time of year especially, as the days are getting shorter.

Another is going downstairs, brewing some tea, and playing guitar while the tea brews. (I'm having some fun recently with my new pedalboard). I belt some Grateful Dead tunes, do my best Jerry noodling, then head back upstairs with some kind of tea. Very refreshing.

These have been working well, and I think something that could improve the quality of my days would just be to schedule these in. Enshrine the rituals in my calendar, if you will.

Managing Mental Energy

Working with your ultradian rhythms is also key to managing your mental energy.

Other methods of managing mental energy that stood out to me, and that make a lot of sense, 1) are scheduling time for deep work (they don't call it that) and 2) make room for activities with long-term leverage.

I don't think the deep work piece is surprising - focus time helps and I think by now everyone knows the opportunity cost of constant task switching.

I really like the recommendation for focusing on activities with long-term leverage. It's easy to get caught up in the day to day--especially working in customer support. But there are some tasks you can do that have an outsize impact on your work or the work of your team, and making time for these every day or at least on a regular basis can help you feel like you are accomplishing important work AND it can also typically have wide ripples on the future of your work.

Lately I've been doing this on Mondays. Mondays have become low meeting days for me so I have open chunks of time to focus on longer term tasks. Being able to accomplish something that makes a meaningful difference in my work or the work of the team early in the week is a huge motivation.

Managing Emotional Energy

The older I get, the more I realize that a majority of life and relationships (business or otherwise) is about understanding and managing complex emotions.

Working in customer support / customer success, my surface area to other people's emotions is greatly expanded.

It's probably true that this is the place where I need the most improvement, both because managing emotions is hard and also because my current line of work exposes me to so many different people's strong emotions. (Side note: Did you know that software engineers have strong emotions about how your software should work?)

For managing emotional energy, the article recommends:

  1. Express appreciation to others.
  2. Buying time with deep breathing.
  3. Change the stories you tell yourself about the events in your life.

Expressing appreciation

At work and as a manager, expressing appreciation has a lot of benefits.

It is an opportunity to highlight behavior that you want to encourage in your organization and hold it up as an example to others.

It helps you solidify your organizational values.

It helps the people receiving appreciation feel seen, appreciated, and valued.

But missing from this is that just expressing appreciation to other people can help you feel better. What's more is that the more detailed you are about it, the more you'll feel.

Why not try scheduling regular time for expressing appreciation? As a manager, this really probably should be required, though I personally find it really easy for it to fall off the todo list.

Buy time with deep breathing

Stuff happens during the work day. It makes me mad, or frustrated, or anxious. These states of mind drain your energy and cause friction in relationships, which is just a vicious cycle of energy drain. Be honest - how many snarky Slack messages did you send today when something made you mad? How many did you type but then delete? :p

What you can do here is start to pay attention to the things that trigger these states of mind, and practice taking deep breaths. I also sometimes find that these triggers can be a good time for me to take my ultradian rhythm break!

There is a funny story here in the article about smoking, which I'll share:

When we began working with Fujio Nishida, president of Sony Europe, he had a habit of lighting up a cigarette each time something especially stressful occurred—at least two or three times a day. Otherwise, he didn’t smoke. We taught him the breathing exercise as an alternative, and it worked immediately: Nishida found he no longer had the desire for a cigarette. It wasn’t the smoking that had given him relief from the stress, we concluded, but the relaxation prompted by the deep inhalation and exhalation.

So my take away from this is that if you find deep breathing to be difficult - smoking might be a viable proxy.

Change the stories you tell yourself about your life.

There are a lot of benefits to identifying the stories you tell yourself about yourself, and a mindfulness practice can be a really helpful (though admittedly painful) way of confronting these.

Schwartz provides three reframing questions for changing your perspective:

  1. What would the other person in this conflict say and in what ways might that be true?
  2. How will I most likely view this situation in six months?
  3. Regardless of the outcome of this issue, how can I grow and learn from it?

The third question has been increasingly valuable to me in my work. There are so many things outside of my direct control--the state of the product, the emotional state of the customer, how fast we implement a resolution--that this has become my go to question for dealing with situations. How can I improve in the future? Could I or we have done something different? If yes, I'll identify that and often times communicate it directly with the customer. You can't change the past, but you can learn from it, and taking time to learn from it often is a sure path to growth.

Managing Spiritual Energy

Maybe a better way to think about this is less as "spiritual energy" and more as "energy of the spirit"? In any case, this area deals with living from your values--living the kind of life you want to live.

Core Values

What are your core values? A tool I thought was really helpful for identifying core values:

We don’t suggest that people explicitly define their values, because the results are usually too predictable. Instead, we seek to uncover them, in part by asking questions that are inadvertently revealing, such as, “What are the qualities that you find most off-putting when you see them in others?”

Identify the things you are offended by, and then work backwards to identify what value it is offending.

Once you identify your core values, then practice them every day!

For me at work, a core value is doing what I have committed to doing, and if something interferes with that communicate with affected parties. With a slack-first workplace, this can be so hard! You are having so many conversations all over the place, they are hard to track down, and you can't always remember the commitments you've made. For my part, I've developed strategies around keeping notes and tasks in a centralized location and attaching due dates to everything for when I need to follow up. This has gone a long way towards helping me feel like I am not letting others down when I commit to doing things.

Allocate time to the right things

The right things here primarily means what you do best and what you enjoy most.

A helpful tip:

When you’re attempting to discover what you do best and what you enjoy most, it’s important to realize that these two things aren’t necessarily mutually inclusive.

Ask yourself: When do I feel like I'm in my sweet spot?

I enjoy creative activities. I like writing--it might be drafting up rationale for a new team process or a summary of an article like this one. I like building things, shipping new features. I like being able to finish a day and say: "here's what I did today" and even better: "here's the impact it had or might have".

To increase your spiritual energy, identify those things and make an effort spend more time on them. For me, this will likely be a conversation topic in my 1:1s with my reports over the next few weeks. I'd like to help folks identify these sweet spots themselves and see how we can get them working more from there.