You wouldn’t run a marathon right before bedtime. Similarly, you wouldn’t take a nap right after you woke up.
Yet when it comes to deciding what kinds of activities to engage in based on our energy levels, the decision-making process involved doesn’t appear as straightforward.
We all have our energy ups and downs throughout the day, there is no exception to that.
But how often do we really think about optimizing our workday schedules in accordance to our energy levels? From what I’ve observed over the years in the personal productivity niche, energy levels are often overlooked. People tend to focus a lot on time management while neglecting energy management almost altogether or giving it way less attention than it deserves.
Let’s look at some essential steps towards optimizing productivity through energy management.
1. Discover recurring patterns in your energy levels
The first thing you need to do is to find out how your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day. They can vary from day to day, but unless your schedule changes constantly, you should notice a lot of recurring patterns.
Bear in mind that how your energy levels change is largely personal; however, most people’s energy cycles tend to follow the pattern depicted below:
This chart should be only used as a reference to give you a rough idea how human energy levels shift throughout the day. They can vary greatly from person to person, depending on your sleep schedule and diet. Also, if you take naps, your chart will definitely look different.
In order to really make this productivity optimization approach work for you, you should definitely measure your energy levels yourself. You can do so by simply rating your alertness level every hour on a scale of 1-10. I did just that for 4 days and this is what I ended up with:
I was definitely surprised to see how consistent my energy level patterns were. Chances are, you too would be very surprised to find out how your energy levels remain relatively the same from day to day, or week to week.
I really encourage you to try tracking your energy level fluctuations for at least a few days. In fact, I’ve made up a spreadsheet in which you can do exactly that. You can download it below:
2. Adjust your work according to your energy levels
Now that we have this valuable information about our energy ups and downs, we can start scheduling our work accordingly.
We can break down work into 3 groups (High, medium, and low energy), all of which represent different demands for energy, focus and alertness:
High Energy Tasks (8 – 10)
This is where your most critical tasks of the day will usually fall. Depending on the type of work you do, this can mean meeting with clients, writing an article, or practising the tuba. This is also when you have the most energy to solve complex issues and do anything that requires a lot of creative power. In my case, I wouldn’t tackle demanding tasks during times of the day when my energy tends to fall below 8, while I would definitely try to get all of them done during my peak energy times of the day – e.g., from 8 to 11 AM.
We only have so much of that peak time available during each day – usually no longer than 3 to 4 hours. Oftentimes less. It is imperative then that we’re smart about utilizing our highest energy moments. Because the last thing you’d want to do is undertake a challenging task when your energy is moderate or low. Not only will it take significantly more time to get the same kind of task done, but you’ll also produce sub-par results. It’s also plain discouraging to be already past your peak time, have lower energy, and still have lots of highly demanding, energy sapping work to do.
Medium Energy Tasks (5 – 7)
Now that the top priority tasks have been allocated to that precious peak time, scheduling the rest of the day is much simpler. Most people have more time when their energy levels are moderate than when they’re at their highest levels.
This is where a lot of tasks are going to end up, such as tasks that are communication-related, or tasks that require non-essential decisions (ordering products online, going through your inbox, or walking the dog). We don’t really want to do much work during our lowest energy level times, so it’s important that we do what we need to do during this phase while we still have the liveliness.
Low Energy Tasks (0 – 4)
This, by default, is where all of the mundane and least important tasks will end up such as: entering data, surfing the Internet, listening to podcasts, and also reading. It’s a good habit to peg your leisure activities to times of low energy. Nothing is more counter-productive than spending your moments of peak energy checking Facebook or watching YouTube videos for amusement. But after you’ve put in your work and done the most important tasks of the day, low-energy time is great for those passive activities like watching, reading, or browsing. Especially if it’s at the end of the day.
3. Work in 60-120 minute cycles
Because of ultradian rhythms (a recurrent period or cycle repeated throughout a 24-hour circadian day), the optimal time we can focus on work before taking a break is usually around 90 minutes. After that, we need to take a break and rejuvenate ourselves before we can get back to work and perform at our best again. Unfortunately, the only break that most people take during their 9-5 jobs is a lunch break.
To make the ultradian cycle work to your advantage, try this:
1. For the first 90 minutes of your work day, do nothing but focus on one specific task or project.
2. After 90 minutes, take a break. Have a snack, drink some water, make some tea, meditate, go for a walk, or write in your journal.
3. Rinse and repeat.
There it is! You’ve just set the rhythm for the rest of your workday. Just remember, after every meal, break, or long meeting; just re-start the cycle by kicking off with an amazingly productive 90-minute work streak.
If your schedule allows for it, there’s a time management technique that works great with ultradian cycles. It’s called Time Boxing – you basically set out blocks of time in your calendar/scheduler and commit to doing absolutely nothing but focusing on one project or on a group of tasks with mutual context. It doesn’t work for everyone, but if you can make it work for you, then it can really take your efficiency to the next level.
So let’s say that you took this article’s advice: you measured your energy level fluctuations, you assigned your tasks to different times of the day, and you’ve started acting on them.
Ideally, you would also want to track how you spend your time. This will give you tremendous insight into how you operate, especially when paired with your energy level charts (which you’ll hopefully have completed a few days after reading this article).
I personally find Toggl to be the simplest and most useful online time tracker out there. It works on any device, at anytime. It doesn’t even really require a stable internet connection because it automatically syncs as soon as you’re connected.
While tracking with Toggl is very simple because it is done manually – you have to input every single time log yourself. Also, while time reports are very accurate and you can filter them by project, they don’t really offer a visual timeline of the hours you were most productive on any given day.
If you like seeing insightful productivity reports, but would rather not have to track your time manually; then RescueTime is the right tool for you. While there are no time logs, only a breakdown of how much time you spent using your computer, it offers more advanced time reports, including bar charts broken down hourly and daily.
After you’ve tracked your activities and compared them against your energy level fluctuations, you’ll start noticing certain patterns. And once you have that data, it’ll be very easy to make certain corrections to your daily workflow. Eventually, you’ll be making precise adjustments to finetune your productivity instead of throwing a bunch of stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks. E.g., you might start seeing that you get more easily distracted during your afternoon slump, so instead of going down the rabbit hole of mindlessly browsing the internet while low on energy, you should take a longer break to rejuvenate yourself and hit the ground running when you get back to work.
This process of tracking and managing your productivity based on your energy levels definitely isn’t rocket science, but it certainly is effective! You just need to give it a try, and after you’ve done your tracking for 1 or 2 weeks, you’ll be much more conscious of how your energy levels impact your efficiency. In fact, suffice it to say that you’ll probably know more about managing your energy levels than most of the population!
That is going to wrap it up for productivity-energy management 101. I’ve just scratched the surface, but it surely is enough for starters. If you haven’t begun keeping a separate to-do list for each of your project or life category, I strongly encourage you to do so. It will not only help you maintain an overall higher level of organization, but it’ll also do a lot for your focus when you’re continuously working in those 90-minute blocks.
Hope this has been helpful, make sure to let us know how you’ve been managing your energy levels by writing us a comment! And if you haven’t done so already, download TaskLabels and start taking your productivity to the next level today.