I have learned that the time it takes me to do a task can vary greatly depending on when I do that task and the mood or energy state I’m in when I do it.
Managing Energy for Peak Performance
As Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz point out in their book The Power of Full Engagement, managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal.
By paying attention to the factors that give me peak energy I can create the space — physical as well as the space in the calendar — that I need to do my best work.
But as much as we can do to impact our energy, there are simply days when we don’t have it, even in our peak energy time.
This was common for me when I was healing from a brain injury a few years ago, and again when I hit burnout last year. And I tend to overwork, and have days when I just can’t think.
When you’ve blocked off time for your deep work but can’t seem to focus on the creative tasks because your energy is drained, what do you do? If you’re like me, you might be tempted to push through. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Pushing through ends up taking more time and being less productive. And you’ll feel exhausted and burned out.
How can you still use that time productively?
How to Work With the Energy You Have
I’ve learned that these moments call for a flexible system that allows us to work with the energy we do have available to us.
An obvious response to low-energy moments is to rest.
It cannot be overstated that rest is often what we need most. A day of resting — of actually doing nothing and just being — is often the most productive solution.
But if you’re like me, and you feel you need to do something, what can you do?
Keep a List of Low-Energy Tasks
I like to keep a list of tasks that don’t require deep thinking work, but that are necessary to move forward on a non-urgent project. Often these tasks require a large chunk of time to make significant progress on that project. They require immersion, even if not “deep work.”
Consider tasks like creating photo albums, organizing and clearing out old files, reviewing content ideas, or reviewing old notes in my journals. 25–30 minutes often isn’t enough time for getting traction. By the time you’re getting into it, you’ve got to move on.
Often, this low-energy work may appear to be “unproductive.” It may even look like something that can be delegated. It might be something that appears to be fluff or wasting time.
They are the type of tasks that, if you did them as a way of avoiding something else, you would call it procrastination. But because you don’t have the brain power for higher priority tasks, they are perfectly suited to the moment.
And you might be surprised: these projects can yield a big payoff in either the immediate future or in the long run. Sometimes both.
How My Low-Energy Task Yielded an Immediate Payoff
I know it helps to have a tangible example, so here is a recent example of how my low energy work paid immediate dividends.
I’ve written before about My Daily Recap, a structured journal entry I do each evening. One component of this entry is a daily lesson. I added this part in 2015, so I now have three years worth of daily lessons.
Low-Priority Project and Low-Energy Task
Last year, I had an idea that I wanted to create a book with a lesson for each day of the year.
The process of doing this is something that will take some time, because I must copy and paste each day’s lesson into a stand-alone note or document. It’s fairly mindless, but it’s not really something I want to outsource, because the journal has a lot of personal content.
This is the type of task that would be a waste of my peak-energy time. But it’s a perfect low-energy task that will move me forward on this project. This project isn’t a “deadline” project. It’s an idea seed, which I might water and tend to as my time and energy permits.
Last week, I found myself in a low-energy state in my typically peak-creative time. Instead of forcing myself to do creative work, which wouldn’t have gotten far in that state, I started the copy and paste process. Within a few hours, I had extracted the lessons from the first three months of last year, each month in its own note in my Drafts app.
Once I had each month in its own note, the power of what I had compiled became more evident. I realized I had great material for shorter e-books, tweets, and Instagram posts.
In fact, I realized a payoff sooner than I expected when I got busy during the week and was still working on some other pieces that I was not quite ready to publish. I realized that if I want to publish daily, not everything can be full-length thought pieces. These wisdom bytes were perfect for publishing on my blog to keep my publishing streak alive.
I’ll be making that a regular feature here, using it during weeks when I know I have a tight schedule or when life swells up.
An added bonus: if you read them and tell me what resonates with you, I’ll know what topics to write more about this year.
I’d love to hear from you: how do you leverage your low energy periods to optimize your productivity? Please share in the comments.