When it comes to wringing every last drop from the day, you’d probably consider yourself an efficiency machine. You’re all about managing the hell out of those 1,440 minutes to jack up productivity. The technique of breaking out time—whether into 25-minute blocks or four-hour work weeks—instills a sense of urgency to your tasks so you don’t squander a single minute.
This strategy makes sense in our hyper-frenetic, overscheduled life, but it’s not as simple as that. The issue isn’t just about managing our time, it’s about paying equal mind to managing our energy.
Think about it: Time is a fixed resource; there is only so much in a day. Energy, on the other hand, is renewable—if we prioritize its replenishment. Without sufficient energy, we’ll never be focused and fired up no matter the time frame we choose.
Evidence suggests that when you organize your day to work, study, think or train in timed segments followed by—and this is the key point—a period of rest, you’re supporting the body’s innate rhythms while limiting general fatigue to a level of easy recovery. The science behind this cycle of energy expenditure and renewal honors the natural circadian and ultradian rhythms of a 24-hour day. While circadian rhythms guide nighttime rest, ultradian rhythms—shorter cycles of energy peaks and valleys—impact the hours you are awake.
If you force yourself to power through periods of low energy or fatigue, productivity all but dies. Syncing to the body’s natural rhythm, however, allows you to more efficiently use those periods when energy is high in a focused, creative and engaging way.
Everything you do has an energy consequence. Eating, sleeping, working, training, even maintaining relationships, all require energy—often more than you have to give. But when you move rhythmically between using and renewing your energy stores—many experts suggest 90 minutes of game-on activity followed by a 25-30 minute break—you create a cycle of replenishment that gives you the inner strength to push yourself to work harder and more efficiently.
In other words, you work hard to hit optimal productivity. Now you have to rest “hard” to keep the cycle going. Stepping away from a challenging task for a few minutes to answer emails or return phone calls isn’t going to yield much in the way of energy benefits. A truly restorative break is long enough in duration for a workout or walk around the block, meeting a friend for coffee or a 25-minute power nap. The day should also be punctuated by periodic longer breaks, ideally in the afternoon when energy ebbs for most people. In one study, when employees at a national accounting firm were encouraged to efficiently manage their energy and renew themselves intermittently, they accomplished more in less time, with a higher level of engagement and sustainability.
There is a theory that personal energy comes from four core energy sources: physical (health), emotional (happiness), mental (focus), and spiritual (purpose). Establishing a self-perpetuating cycle of efficiency and greater reserves over time is the goal. To do that, you have to feed the beast. It’s like this: An athlete builds a lean, shredded six-pack through repeated bouts of core body workouts followed by periods of rest and recovery. Over time, the abs get stronger, the workouts become easier; before long he’s increasing his goals and creating new challenges during his workout time.
Banking energy works in exactly the same way.
Plus, building energy reserves makes it easier to head off some common productivity killers.
According to Roy Baumeister, Ph.D. and author of the book Willpower , the wherewithal to set boundaries, to say no to distractions from larger goals, is drawn from energy pools that fluctuate throughout the day as they’re used and replenished. (I.e., you’ll have less willpower when you’re depleted, and run down.) Learning to say no [is] the only way to reach the level of focus and productivity that allows you to become great, writes marketing strategist and Duke University professor Dorie Clark in the Harvard Business Review.
Ever wonder why some people are able to bounce back from negative events quickly, while others get stuck in a rut? Resilience—the ability to pick up the pieces and move on when things don’t go as planned—is not a trait you’re born with. It’s a skill that needs to be exercised and practiced over time. All of which takes energy. Simple fact: when energy levels are depleted, resilience is low. This lack of fortitude can leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, none of which will do much for your productivity goals.
When you’re feeling too much of it, you’re less engaged, less productive, and at greater risk for any number of health-related setbacks. And while you can’t always control the cause of your stress, you can control how you respond to it. Stress is not the enemy, but the key to growth, says Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project and a leading expert on energy management. “Too much stress causes burnout and breakdown; too little stress causes weakness and atrophy,” he says. “The trick in life is to balance stress with recovery. To build a rhythmic relationship between [the two] valuing both for the part they play without over-relying on either one.”
So if you’re looking to hack your productivity, or set new project goals, think about this: By focusing as much attention on energy replenishment as on doling out time and working hard, you can do more, and do it better, in the exact amount of time you have.