The quarterly planning session in January 2021 was one of the first where I tried a new model for the planning class.
Instead of focusing on all the things participants may need to fit into their plans for the next few months, I talked about managing their energy. We looked for crunch points. We looked for places where they could recharge.
I encouraged participants to think of the energy (and time) they put into their work as a wave with peaks and troughs. Ideally, you would recharge before a crunch. Whether you can do that or not, you will need to recharge *after* a crunch. For some people that waveform is shallow. For others it’s almost spiky.
We also talked about ways to manage energy on a smaller time scale. The energy needs and energy effects of your activities vary, even when they take roughly the same amount of time. You can organize your work over a day or a week to break up energy draining activities with energizing activities.
This was a new perspective for some participants. Some hadn’t really thought about which activities were draining and which were energizing. This differs for everyone.
If this is you, the first step is to start noticing.
It may be frustrating that you can’t use this information to make your life better right away. Making the effort to notice, even if you don’t change anything, will pay off.
Think of it in research terms: you are observing and making notes. When you have collected enough data, you can start to make hypotheses and design experiments to test them.
A well known example of energy variation.
One example of what I mean by energy draining and energizing, is introversion and extroversion. Although these terms get used for a lot of things, one of the primary definitions is about energy management. Introversion and extroversion are on a continuum. As with most things, only a small proportion of the population are at the ends, but describing the poles helps you figure out where you might be.
I am a pretty extreme extrovert. If I’m having a low energy day and I walk into a lecture theater with 100+ students in it, I will perk up within the first few minutes. I hate working in libraries. Too quiet. Too few people. I sometimes resist going to my sewing room to work on creative projects on the weekends because I’d rather be in the room with my partner, even if we are not interacting. Although online engagement is not the same, I am such an extrovert that I have noticed that online engagement helps. It’s like a low voltage recharger that takes longer but still recharges me.
If you are closer to the introvert pole, being in a place with lots of people drains your energy even when you don’t need to interact with them. If you are a parent, you may find the constant demands of children particularly draining and really crave time alone even though you love your partner and children dearly. You might be a really good teacher, but you need to recharge before you walk into the classroom and are drained afterwards. You might discourage students from asking questions at the end of class because walking back to your office alone gives you some vital recharging time. Your commute, especially if you do not use public transport, might be an important recharging time in your day.
What to notice.
This example suggests some things to notice about all of your activities.
You may have a noticeable feeling of being energized or being drained. You have likely been ignoring this feeling because it’s just how things are for you. If you can notice “I feel drained” or “That seems to have perked me up”, that’s a good place to start.
Identify what’s happening when you have that feeling. No judgement. No need to decide whether it’s correlation or causation yet. Just observe.
Emotions have physical sensations. There’s a lot of science about nerves and hormones and things that explains this but for our purposes, just knowing that emotions and physical sensations go together is enough. It’s a lot easier to notice and name a physical sensation than an emotion.
Stopping to do a quick body scan throughout your day and making some notes will give you useful data. If it’s hard to articulate you can try drawing/doodling something that expresses the sensation.
- Notice where there is tension.
- Notice where there is pain, tingling, or other sensation.
- Notice a “funny feeling” and where it is in your body.
- Notice your breath without trying to change it:
- Quick or slow?
- What part of your thorax is moving (shoulders, ribs, etc)?
- Nose or mouth?
- Are you sighing?
You can combine those 2 types of noticing.
- When you notice that you are feeling drained, what bodily sensations go with that?
- What bodily sensations do you associate with perking up or feeling energized?
Notice the stories you tell yourself.
The “without judgement” part is hard. Humans are natural storytellers. You may have been noticing physical sensations for years. You have probably “made sense” of them in some way. The stories you tell yourself are probably not untrue. However, they may not be the whole truth. There may be other ways to interpret this data.
It is important to notice the stories so you don’t dismiss important data. If you notice a physical sensation, note it and what’s going on when you feel it, even if you think you know what’s causing it. Don’t tell a new story about how Past You is wrong, just notice so you can check whether there is anything you might have missed.
Sometimes the stories you tell yourself are actively unhelpful. As Devon Price pointed out in this interview about their book Laziness Does Not Exist, the “laziness lie” encourages us to doubt the physical sensations in our bodies. We learn to dismiss feelings of fatigue. This is a powerful cultural story, with deep cultural roots, so it’s not easy to counter. It is, however, important to notice it when it comes up.
There will be other stories. You are doing the same thing with the stories that you are doing with the sensations.
Noticing. No judgement. Just noticing and making notes. Collecting data.
Do not rush the process.
With practice, your observations will improve. Your observations will become more nuanced. You’ll develop a larger vocabulary to describe the sensations. As frustrating as it is, there are real benefits to taking time to notice. Giving yourself time also allows you to do this badly.
I am a terrible record keeper. It’s okay if your notes are incomplete. It’s okay if you are really good at noticing *and* taking notes for a while, and then you are not. Noticing without taking notes is useful. It’s hard to do this when you are really overwhelmed, even if it would be really good to know what “really overwhelmed” feels like in detail.
You also want to give yourself time to notice patterns. This very personal data will help you make better decisions about what strategies might work for you. You want to collect enough data about the sensations (what’s going on when you feel them) and the stories you are telling yourself, that you can figure out what the problem is that you are trying to solve – before you start trying to fix things. It doesn’t matter if 80% of people find a particular strategy helpful if you are in the 20% that don’t.
That said, you can form some preliminary hypotheses and test them as you go along. Perhaps just by paying closer attention to particular situations to get better data on them. Perhaps by experimenting with changing something to see what effect that has. The goal of an experiment is to learn something. If you try something and it doesn’t have the effect you’d hoped for, look for what you learned. That will help you figure out what to try in future.
Managing the energy you use to make decisions (this post was the beginning of the series that resulted from this same planning class.)
Managing your energy (this is a more general exploration of energy across longer periods of time.)
You are not lazy (this is self-explanatory.)
This post was originally written using discussions and notes from the Planning Class in Spring 2021. It was edited and sent to the newsletter on October 15. Sign up to the newsletter below to receive first access to new content and make sure you don’t miss a post!