Manage your energy, not your time

…the pressure we put on ourselves by chasing time, by multitasking and working crazy hours may help us achieve our short-term goals, but it is not sustainable in the long-term.

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When I was working full-time as an HR practitioner, I often caught myself saying things like:

I’ve got to put in an all-nighter, or
I’ll take time off after I finish this project, or 
After next week, I will be able to breathe again.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably uttered the same words as you worked on a project or were trying to complete a task. You just hunkered down and worked harder.

Now that I look back, I realize that the pressure we put on ourselves by chasing time, by multitasking and working crazy hours may help us achieve our short-term goals, but it is not sustainable in the long-term. And if we continue down this seductive path, we may end up over-worked, frustrated in constantly chasing deadlines, and, God forbid, sick.

When I was diagnosed with one cancer, then another, and then a third cancer, I had to re-examine my relationship with time. No longer was I able to function on 5 hours of sleep (which I saw as a badge of honour). No longer did I have the energy to take on multiple projects and manage them all successfully through completion. No longer could I work tirelessly for weeks and then expect to function normally. At the height of my illnesses, I struggled with basic stuff like climbing up a single set of stairs or even getting out of bed. I had trouble with opening a bottle of jam when neuropathy struck my fingertips. Chemotherapy caused me to forget names, directions and instructions. From this place of immense loss, I was forced to figure out how to live productively and do more with less.

The secret antidote I found is not to manage time, which is a finite resource, but to leverage our energy, which is renewable. I stumbled upon this when I came across work done by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, authors of the Power of Full Engagement:

The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not.

They identify four dimensions of energy that we need to focus on for full engagement and high performance: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy.

Physical energy is about being mindful of our nutrition, getting enough sleep, and exercising. This was hard for me because my body was constantly fatigued. But I persevered with small changes like taking deep breaths and stretching a few times a day, then over time starting the day with a healthy breakfast, drinking more water throughout the day, slowly introducing weekly workouts and taking a 15 – 20 minute nap when I needed it. The other aspect of physical energy that the authors recommend is to do what elite athletes do to maximize their performance. It is about interval training: working in focused 90-minute chunks followed by recovery and rest. Their research shows that after 90 – 120-minute cycles, our body moves from a high-energy state to a state where we can no longer concentrate and it craves recovery (think yawning, hunger, lack of creativity, restlessness). Taking the time to go for a walk or doing something you enjoy for 20 minutes allows you to recover and rest. I am doing this with astounding results and finding that when my brain has a chance to rest and I totally unplug, I can get back to working with recharged batteries.

Emotional energy is about keeping a positive outlook in the face of challenges, obstacles and stressful situations. Negative emotions are draining and costly. My way of restoring emotional energy is to sit in a place of gratitude, connect with people and reframe situations to find the good within. I have had a lot of practice to do this over the past 5 years when my body, mind and spirit were so challenged. Now when I find myself down or stressed, I try and break out of that cycle quickly so I can focus on living life joyfully.

Mental energy is what we use to organize our lives and focus our attention. It is about challenging our brain and constantly learning. It is about feeding our mind a daily dose of good stuff and keeping distractions at bay. Having experienced “chemo brain”, I know what its like to be at the mercy of a non-functioning mind. Now I am super conscious about what I feed my mind. I am hooked on Stitcher (thanks to Shayne) and listen to one podcast a day on a topic of interest. I have become a voracious reader of non-fiction books. I spend dedicated time connecting and collaborating with like-minded individuals on projects. I push myself beyond my comfort zone. This has improved my ability to think rationally, make decisions and focus. I still need to limit the amount of time I spend on social media which can be a huge distraction, especially in these highly charged political times. And I am trying to cultivate a habit where I check emails at designated times rather than every few minutes.

Spiritual energy is fueled by our sense of meaning and purpose, it is the “why” we do what we do. It is about understanding who we are and where we are going. It is the life force that binds us to our soul. It is our personal way to connect to something beyond the physical world. I practice spiritual energy by living by the tenets of my faith. Sometimes I falter and fail, and then pick myself up and try again. Several times a day, when I have a moment to myself, I take out my Tasbih and pray – sometimes, only for a few seconds. When I am spiritually charged, my soul is happy.

Incredibly, it took cancer to help me appreciate how to live life fully by managing my energy. When we are physically active, mentally agile, emotionally stable and spiritually charged, we can balance the different aspects of our lives with ease. When we alternate between hard work and play, we give our body and mind the fuel to work better. Today I feel awesome most of the time by following rituals to manage my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy on a daily basis. So the next time you feel tired, drained, stressed, or even lethargic, bored or stagnant, focus on managing your energy.