We are living in an era of peak self-development culture. Everywhere you look, countless articles and books are advertising how to “maximize your day.” We have fallen in love with self-development and time management has become the crowning topic of choice.
There is countless advice on how to create a daily checklist, how to get up early, and how to block out your calendar to get more done. We suck up all this information on the latest life hack and productivity tip to maximize our day. Unfortunately, all too often you end up falling back on the same routines of sleeping in, watching too much TV, and procrastinating on important tasks.
So why is it so difficult to stick to your goals?
Time Management’s Flaw
Time management advice would be the secret to unlocking your full potential except for one minor flaw―you aren’t a robot. Those checklists written from the night before or the early morning wake-up routine no longer seem so easy to stick with when life hits you in your stride. You end up feeling guilty because you think you are lazy for not following through with your scheduled plan. Your good intentions, along with your motivation, are quickly sapped as you revert to old ways.
So what can you do to help combat procrastination, lack of motivation, and uncertainty?
Consider changing your plan of action.
Instead of spinning your wheels trying to maximize your time, learn to focus on maximizing your energy. Your energy is the real fuel source which allows you to maintain focus, regulate your mood, and spur motivation. Learning how to manage your energy will let you take full control over your life so you can develop the life you want to live.
But before we dive into how to manage our energy, let’s define what it is and the key components that make it up.
Your total energy consists of four different elements: your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. Each one being of equal importance. To be fully effective, one must have all four in balance. Let’s take a look at each element to determine how you can improve them to lead a more productive life.
Your physical energy is how your body feels at any given time. You manage your physical energy by how well you maintain your body through how you manage your sleep, your diet, and your exercise. All three of these need to be in check for you to maintain a solid baseline of performance. If any are out of sync, then your entire system will suffer.
One of the most often overlooked elements in the average American’s life is sleep. Not only the quantity of sleep but also the quality. Unfortunately, American culture tends to undervalue sleep. Worse still, sleep deprivation in the workforce is often worn as a badge of honor to show others how hard you work. But this self-destructive mindset will only lead to a lack of focus, carelessness, and elevated stress levels. Instead, increase your energy levels by aiming to get at least eight hours of sleep each night.
Not only is the quantity of time you spent asleep significant, but the quality of those hours matter just as much. Just because you lay in bed for eight hours does not necessarily equate to a fully rested body and mind. Improve the quality of your sleep by following these three rules: abstain from caffeine at least 12-14 hours before bedtime, avoid blue light from screens at least two hours before bed, and sleep in a cold dark room. Your sleep should be treated with as much importance as your diet and exercise.
Diet also plays a critical role in your energy levels. As the cliche saying goes, you are what you eat. In essence, your energy levels are directly related to the quality of your fuel source. Eating a diet consisting mostly of natural foods from the Earth will allow your body and mind to run more efficiently. A diet consisting of highly processed foods and sugars will only slow you down, resulting in brain fog, bloating, and fatigue.
I experiment with a paleo and ketogenic diet quite regularly. The spike in my energy levels and mental clarity are significant compared to when I revert to the standard American diet. I have also found that intermittent fasting is useful for maintaining peak mental clarity for morning work sessions. Discover what works best for you by experimenting with different diets with a priority of eliminating processed foods and sugars. When it comes to nutrition, a process of elimination is often the best strategy.
Your physical energy levels are also heavily dependent on how well you maintain your body through exercise. Many Americans are overweight and sickly that if they integrated any form of exercise program into their daily routine, they would quickly witness an overall boost in energy levels. Spending a short amount of time in the gym will result in an increased energy capacity to be enjoyed throughout the day.
Lift weights, go for a run, or join a yoga or pilates class. Your goal is to introduce acute physical stress on your body by pushing it past its comfort level. Adding short-term healthy stress is necessary to combat the dangerous chronic stresses of a sedentary lifestyle. Increasing your aerobic and anaerobic capacity will allow you to be more focused and alert throughout your day.
Most Americans should prioritize improving their physical performance if they wish to see a rapid improvement in their overall energy levels. If you already live an active lifestyle and eat a healthy diet, I would focus your attention on the next three energy categories.
Your mental energy is how well your mind can remain focused on demanding tasks, analyze data, and produce creative work. Your ability to maintain a healthy mental state is essential in the modern knowledge economy where your mind is the most important asset. Most jobs require the use of your mind instead of your hands. Increase your mental energy by engaging in challenging mental tasks, forming in-depth learning sessions, and pursuing creative interests.
Think of your mind as a muscle. If you consistently work it out while gradually increasing the stress (working on complex problems) your mental energy will continually grow. Feelings of inadequacy and the desire to look up the answer are reliable indicators that you are pushing your mental state in the right direction. Like working out, there are no shortcuts to achieving higher levels of mental performance, only deliberate practice.
I’ve found it useful to work on the most difficult or important task first thing in the morning since I am most alert and less distracted. You can focus all of your mental capacity on the challenging tasks, thus increasing your chances of success through a more sustained effort. Your willpower is a finite resource that gets exhausted throughout the day, so use your mornings to your advantage to get the most out of your mental training.
Made famous by professor and author, Cal Newport, deep work is the ability to concentrate without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Also defined as being in a flow state, or a state of deep uninterrupted concentration with your task. Being able to reach a state of deep work is becoming essential for the knowledge worker in the ever-increasing competitive world economy. Reaching flow state may seem simple to achieve, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for many due to the countless distractions in the modern world.
Depending on your ability to focus on demanding tasks, it may prove challenging to achieve at first. Fortunately, you can train yourself to reach a deep work state. The most critical step in the learning process is to eliminate all forms of distractions. Leave your phone in a separate room, find a quiet place to work, and possibly turn off your wifi or get a browser blocker if you plan to work via computer.
It will take consistent practice to train your mind to ease into a deep work state. I recommend starting by setting small goals for yourself, such as blocking out one hour that is 100% distraction-free. I have also found it useful to use a Pomodoro timer (I use the Marinara Chrome extension) to help track your deep work sessions. The Pomodoro timer will prompt you to begin with 25-minute work sessions with a 5-minute break in between the work sessions. Once it becomes easier to achieve, start increasing your work session time blocks to build up your mental endurance.
Don’t be alarmed if it takes you a long time (30 minutes or more) to reach a state of full focus. You are training your brain to do something it’s not accustomed to doing. Once you have reached a deep work state, do your best to stay in the state until mentally fatigued. For most of us, that may only be one to two hours max. Do not let a timer decide for you when to quit, since returning to a deep work state after a break can eat up a lot of time.
Human beings are meant to be creative. Think back to how much you enjoyed dancing, drawing, and creating imaginary worlds as a child. Unfortunately, the rigid structure of the school system has zapped most of us of our creativity in exchange for a conscientious workforce that knows how to follow directions.
Everyone has creative interests, whatever they may be, but do not actively engage in them. We tend to undervalue our creative interests, so they are first on the chopping block over other activities and responsibilities. After all, most of our creative interests are hobbies that cost us money and not appreciated by a broad audience.
So why should they matter to you?
Pursuing creative interests will make you smarter. Giving yourself time to be creative will trick your brain into a “state-of-play” even though you are engaging your brain in complex tasks. You are engaging in work even if it doesn’t feel like you are. It allows your mind to reset itself from the mundane analytical thinking often required by your job to something new and exciting. Engaging in creative pursuits may even help you solve complex problems by allowing your brain to devise an innovative solution while running in the background.
Your emotional energy is how well you maintain and control your emotions. Having high levels of emotional energy is commonly expressed through qualities of positivity, enthusiasm, and happiness. People with high emotional energy are often well-liked by others, are not easily troubled, and live a healthier life. You can increase your emotional energy by surrounding yourself with positive people, maintaining your physical and mental energy, and showing gratitude.
Motivational speaker Jim Rhon famously said you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. We are impressionable beings that will imitate the actions and mannerisms of those close to us. So, if you surround yourself with negative people, you will start taking on a more negative outlook on life. Negative influencers can be people in your family, your close friends, or your coworkers.
So, how do you remove the negative influencers in your life if they happen to be a significant part of it?
There is no denying this can be difficult, but you must have an honest conversation with yourself about the value of your relationships with those close to you. If some of your relationships involve toxic people, then you need to consider cutting them out of your life. I know it sounds harsh, but realize you are the only one in control of your happiness. Cutting out the negative people in your life will allow you the opportunity to surround yourself with more positive and uplifting people. Having close family and friends who are positive and supportive will boost your emotional energy, leading to a healthy, happier future.
If you are routinely sick and in a low-energy state from having poor habits, then it will be difficult to maintain complete control of your emotions. Your baseline emotional state is a product of how well you are feeling. If you wake up well-rested with no mental fog or stress, then how much easier will it be to have a positive outlook on the day?
Improving your emotional state may prove challenging at first, but if you consistently put in the work to improve your health, you will soon see results. Making progress in your health can shift your mindset to having an overall more positive outlook on your future.
We live in an age of consumerism where ads bombard us with messages about how such-and-such product will help make us more beautiful, fit, and happy. Compound that with observing the curated highlight reel of other people’s lives on social media, and it is no surprise many of us harbor feelings of inadequacy.
I often find myself getting caught up in this type of thinking too. It’s a poisonous mindset to always focus on what you don’t have rather than appreciating what you already do. I combat the inner voices of greed and jealousy by keeping a daily gratitude journal, where I record three things I am grateful for each day. I recommend the 5-Minute Journal to help you practice the act of gratitude. Giving thanks and showing appreciation towards others also does as much good for your well-being with the added benefit of lifting others.
Not necessarily related to religion or any metaphysical variety, but rather a type of energy associated with a sense of purpose. Our spiritual energy is the driving force in our lives and arguably the most important. When you have a strong sense of purpose, it makes it much easier to accomplish your goals even when the other forms of energy might be lacking.
Spiritual energy is often the most misunderstood since it can be challenging to determine your purpose in life. Asking yourself, “What is my purpose?” can be overwhelming. You may not have a clue what your purpose might be, but I can help you start asking yourself the right questions to see if you’re on the right path.
What do I enjoy doing so much that I can tolerate the unpleasant times and personal sacrifices?
Because the truth is, everything has unpleasant elements and rough patches. You need to find something you enjoy pursuing so much that you will be able to persevere through the inevitable tough times. Being able to stick with your goals through difficult times with a determined mindset is a reliable indicator you are following your calling. You discover passion after you have put in the hard work, not before, so find something you would be willing to stick with for many years.
What do I enjoy doing so much that I would do it for free?
What do you find yourself doing in your free time that could apply towards your career? Start by observing what your root interests are in your activities. For example, if you enjoy playing video games in your free time, then you might enjoy the competitive drive for continual self-improvement found in your games. If you can determine what your root interests are, then you can apply them to more productive outlets such as writing, coaching, or building a website.
Developing a keen understanding of your energy cycles will allow you to optimize your productivity and become a champion of self-development. Like all worthwhile endeavors, this will take time but will pay massive dividends for your future self. Once you have your energy levels in check, those time management tips will become much easier to follow.