A 3-Step Plan to Manage Your Energy All Day

Don’t let your brain hijack you

Illustration: Sebastian Schwamm

Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert who wrote Off the Clock and Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is here to answer your scheduling questions. Check back every week for more advice, and send your own productivity problems to asklaura@medium.com. (Your name will not be used.)

Dear Laura: I start the day full of energy, but every afternoon around 3 p.m., I crash and lose intensity. I looked up at 3:30 p.m today and realized I had lost 40 minutes to comparing prices on couches that I don’t actually intend to buy. Is there any way to avoid this?

LLosing chunks of time down internet rabbit holes is a natural consequence of waning energy. After intense work, you need a break. If you don’t take a real break, your brain will take a fake one — which explains why you wind up at Pottery Barn’s website even though you don’t need a sofa.

But, sadly, finding a great deal for your imaginary living room isn’t all that energizing. Real productivity involves managing your energy alongside your hours.

Instead of working until your brain forces you to zone out for a bit, proactively plan real breaks in your day. This is a three-step process. First, assess when your energy slumps. Then, figure out what activities you find energizing. Finally, add in those energy boosters to your slump times. You’ll be unstoppable.

The first step is pretty straightforward. You probably already know roughly when you’re dragging, but if you’re not sure, try tracking your time and then giving yourself an energy score every 30 minutes. A 10 means you’re ready to run a marathon. A zero means you’re flat on your back. Most of the time, you’re somewhere in the middle.

Some of this is biological — most people have more energy in the morning and less in midafternoon — but some of it is situational. An intense, confrontational meeting is more draining than organizing your inbox. An extrovert might find a big group networking event energizing, an introvert less so. Once you monitor your energy for a few days, you’ll be able to see patterns. And that means, each day, you will be able to look at your schedule and pinpoint your deepest troughs.

Then you need to figure out what boosts your energy. Almost everyone finds fresh air and physical activity energizing. Your energy score will rise notably after a 15-minute brisk walk outside. If you can’t make it outside, walking the halls or climbing the stairs can work too. A healthy snack can help — aim for something with protein and fiber (like apple slices with peanut butter) to make that energy boost last. A quick phone call to a friend or family member energizes some people. An introvert might enjoy a quiet reading break; social people might want to grab a cup of tea with a colleague. Listening to a favorite piece of music can do wonders.

In any case, figure out your go-to boosts, then strategically deploy them in your schedule. Got an intense meeting from 9 to 10:30 a.m.? Build in a 15-minute interlude after that to go for a walk, read quietly, or drink a second cup of coffee. If you normally lose time to web surfing in the afternoon, budget 20 minutes to run an errand.

All these breaks from work might sound alarming in these productivity-obsessed times, but from studying time logs, I’ve learned that those unintentional breaks can eat up incredible chunks of time. We all know the feeling: You go down an internet rabbit hole and don’t look up until you realize you’re going to be late for your next meeting. It’s far wiser to take a 20-minute intentional break than waste a mindless hour.

Humans aren’t machines — and even machines get scheduled downtime for maintenance. It makes sense to schedule daily maintenance for your brain and body, too.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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