How much time have you spent today, or this week, wrestling with your calendar? Moving meetings, juggling requests, hoping the 10th Zoom of the day ends early so you have a few minutes to actually get some work done. You’re probably thinking about it even as you read this.
There are too many meetings, too many commitments, too many fires to put out; and never enough time to do the truly important (and not necessarily urgent) work or spend time with the people that matter most.
All of us, myself included, have invested a ton of time learning how to better manage our time. What we’re really after is becoming our most productive selves. But if you’re thinking about productivity in terms of time management, you are wasting your time.
First, and I realize this is rather obvious but it needs to be said, because time itself can’t be managed. We can’t make it go faster or slower. It is fixed. Nor can any of us decide how much of it we ultimately will have. Therefore, framing any conversation about productivity or prioritization in the context of “time management” inevitably leads us down the wrong path.
While time may be out of our control, what is in our control is the energy we bring to each moment. By energy I mean the fuel we use at work to listen, think and engage at our best. To be more effective we need to understand how our bodies acquire, store and expend energy.
I learned about this years ago from The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. It’s worth a read as they do a much better job explaining the concept than I will here.
The basic theory is that the common metaphor we use to think about work – the marathon – is misguided. Take a look at your calendar. If you have 10 hours of Zoom calls today without breaks, you’re running a marathon. All of us know how exhausting those type of days can be. I don’t know anyone who feels like they did their best work consistently following such a schedule.
The problem with the marathon approach is it runs counter to human physiology. The vast majority of us are only able to effectively think, listen and engage (the skills we need most at work) for 90-120 minutes at a time. In this context work is not a marathon, but a series of sprints.
Practically speaking this means scheduling 10-15 minutes breaks every two hours following intense sessions of work. Get up. Move around. Change your scenery. Call a family member or friend. Do something that allows you to recharge. By doing so you will be giving your mind and body the time it needs to recover so you can work better.
The book includes valuable lessons about how our mental, physical and spiritual practices contribute to our energy levels. As we come to know ourselves and our bodies better, we learn about the optimal times of day to perform certain tasks and how to expand our energy reserves. Personally, I prefer to schedule more intense work or critical meetings in the mornings when possible as that’s when I’m at my best. At the same time through better energy management, we can learn how to improve our productivity throughout the day.
Thinking about our productivity in terms of managing energy means learning to say no, or not now, at times. Of course emergencies happen and need to be dealt with. But scheduling a challenging conversation with a colleague or client when our energy is low just to check the box is a mistake. In other words don’t think about your schedule in terms of maximizing time. Rather understand the windows in the day when your energy is at its best and schedule accordingly.
Check out the book if you can. It helps to remember that thinking about energy management first instead of time management is a journey, not a destination. But I think you will find just like anything else you manage, it’s much more satisfying to focus on something you can actually control.