It seems like the most obvious way to increase your productivity would be to improve your time-management skills. If you could just get through those emails faster or stop getting distracted by social media, you’d have more time to power through your to-do list, right? Science suggests there actually might be a smarter way to boost your productivity: Manage your energy, not your time. And we’ll show you how to do it.
What Does It Mean to Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time?
The idea of increasing your productivity by managing your energy comes from a game-changing case study published in the Harvard Business Review in 2007. The authors (one of whom had previously co-authored a book on the subject) noticed that to meet the increased pressure and expectations of our professional lives, most people respond by working more, logging more hours at the office, and increasingly letting work bleed into our lives outside of the office. That is the logical response. If you want to get more accomplished, it makes sense that you’d have to spend more time working in order to get it done.
But there’s just one little problem with this way of thinking, the authors pointed out. Time is a limited resource. Even if you already answer emails at dinner and skimp on sleep in order to spend more time on your to-do list, you’re still working with a set number of hours. (Not to mention carrying around the frustration that you don’t have any time for, you know, life.)
Energy, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. Because you have a certain amount of control over your energy level and focus, you can use it to power a more productive day. In other words, it’s about working smarter, not harder. And that idea has pretty much set the tone of productivity theory for the past decade.
The Benefits of Managing Personal Energy
The benefits are big for your personal world (hello work-life balance, nice to meet you) and perhaps even bigger for the companies that employ you. Companies that have focused on helping their employees manage their energy, instead of their time, have seen a serious boost in the company’s productivity.
Here’s how: The authors shared the results of a study they conducted at a major US bank, where they took over 100 employees at 12 regional branches and put them through training to help them develop their energy-management skills. After three months, the branches that had benefited from the training had boosted one kind of revenue by 13 percent and another by 20 percent as compared to the group who didn’t receive the training. More important for your mental health, 71 percent of the participants said the training positively affected their performance and productivity. Impressive, right?
A separate case study of a large healthcare organization published by The Energy Project sheds light on exactly how managing your energy can help improve your workday. This study found putting energy-management practices to the test helped cut back on inefficient meetings (sign us up for that), improved team communication, and ultimately boosted employees’ work capacity by 30 percent.
So, how do you manage your energy to boost your productivity? It’s all about making tiny tweaks to your day to eliminate things that drain your energy and replace them with things that boost your energy instead.
Here’s how it works.
How to Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time
There are four types of energy: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. By working on one, a few, or even all of them, you can increase your productivity, satisfaction, and life outside of the office. Let’s take a look at each and dig into some personal energy management tips that work for your work life.
1. Physical energy
To manage your energy, not your time, the first thing you need to do is pay attention to your body. Why? Because physical energy can impact your productivity. If you’re totally drained from too little sleep, hungover from a night out, or crashing after having that donut, you’re not going to be much use at the office.
On the flip side, if you show up at your desk well-rested and energized after a workout and a nutritious breakfast, you’ve got gas in the tank to start tackling your most important work right off the bat.
How to manage it: One of the easiest ways to manage your energy is to get a better night’s sleep. (Which, by the way, is itself one of the best research-backed ways to increase your productivity.) Here are some ways to get better sleep tonight.
- Jot down a to-do list before you go to bed. A 2018 study found that people who spent five minutes doing this fell asleep significantly faster.
- Do a sleep meditation. Researchers theorize that meditation helps provoke a relaxation response in your brain, helping you get a better night’s rest.
- Set an email curfew. You know having your phone in bed is bad for you (all that pesky blue light and whatnot). But seriously—pry yourself away from emails or Instagram for at least 30 minutes before bedtime and you’ll thank yourself.
- Stick to one glass of wine. A couple of cocktails may help you fall asleep faster, but research shows, the more alcohol you drink, the longer it takes your body to reach restorative REM sleep.
2. Mental energy
It’s also not a secret that your mental energy can totally make or break your productivity for the day. Think about it. If you’re in a daze during your meeting, you’re probably not going to absorb the details of the report your boss wants you to put together, forcing you to have another conversation or waste time figuring it out on your own. Similarly, if you’re trying to tackle a tricky writing assignment when your brain is fried at the end of the day, it’s going to be more frustrating than if you were to do so with a fresh mind in the a.m.
How to manage it: One of the best ways to keep your mind focused, according to the experts, is to reduce the distractions that slowly leach your mental energy throughout the day. Here are some ways to do that.
- Embrace monotasking. Sending a “quick response” to an inbound email when you’re in the middle of another task costs you way more mental energy than you think. Research shows each of these interruptions derail you for an average of over 23 minutes.
- Turn off your phone alerts. While you’re hard at work on a task, silence your cell. Research proves all that extra buzzing is slowly draining your mental energy.
- Set email office hours. When those “distractions” do eventually need to be tended to, productivity researchers suggest blocking off set hours to respond to emails—you’ll use your mental energy more efficiently this way.
3. Emotional energy
It’s not so much about the amount of emotional energy you have but the type. Research shows you tend to perform better and be more productive when you’re in a good mood as opposed to feeling negative. When you’re angry, irritable, or nervous, you have more trouble thinking clearly and less control over your impulse to roll your eyes at your boss. While a completely normal part of the human experience, negative emotions can really drain your energy.
How to manage it: Short of convincing your boss to establish a puppy playroom in the office, there are several ways to inspire a more positive mindset at work.
- Have lunch with your coworkers. Research shows that relationships are a key driver of happiness. Besides, there’s nothing like having a friend in the office to cheer you up after a draining meeting.
- Say thank you. Adopting a gratitude practice has been shown by a growing body of research to put you in a more positive mood. It’s easy to do—once a week, jot down a few things you’re grateful for. You can use a notebook, a gratitude journal, or a Panda Planner, which has gratitude built into every day.
4. Spiritual energy
Okay, before you accuse “spiritual energy” as being too woo-woo, allow us to explain. What the HBR authors are referring to is your sense of meaning and purpose, which they argue (and back up with research) is one of the best ways to feel satisfied at your job. Studies show, tapping into this sense of purpose actually helps you perform better and faster. Hello, productivity.
How to manage it: Managing your spiritual energy basically means doing more of what you love. Best productivity hack ever, right?
- Volunteer for a project. Helping others—whether it’s signing up for a corporate responsibility day or just raising your hand to jump in on a team that’s understaffed—is a science-backed way to fuel your sense of meaning.
- Prioritize what’s most important to you. If being totally present with your family when you get home from the office is high on your list, sign off email 20 minutes before you walk in the door. This way, you give yourself time to decompress, so you’re present as soon as you get there.
To sum it all up…
- A big key to productivity is to manage your energy, not your time.
- The benefits include increased performance and a better work-life balance.
- To manage your energy effectively, focus on all four types: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
- Aim to build renewal activities, such as getting better sleep, monotasking, and spending some time with your coworkers, into habits.
- Once they’re habitual, so is your productivity.
- Enjoy the benefits of a more balanced life.
Your turn: How do you manage your energy, not your time? Tell us in the comments.
For more ways to work happier, check out our article on finding meaning in your job and your life.
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.