It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.
Once upon a time, a very strong woodcutter asked for a job in a timber merchant and he got it. The pay was really good and so was the work condition. For those reasons, the woodcutter was determined to do his best.
His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he supposed to work.
The first day, the woodcutter brought 18 trees.
“Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!”
Very motivated by the boss words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only bring 15 trees. The third day he tried even harder, but he could only bring 10 trees. Day after day he was bringing less and less trees.
“I must be losing my strength”, the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologised, saying that he could not understand what was going on.
“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” the boss asked.
“Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been very busy trying to cut trees…” (1)
Managing Energy Versus Time
“ Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.”
Imagine this for a second— the “trees” in this short story represent your goals and the “axe” represents ‘you’.
What can we learn from this?
The secret to high productivity that actually lasts is not managing time or working harder—it’s all about managing yourself, specifically your energy.
We all have the same 24 hours every day. The main reason why some people achieve 10x more in any given day than most people do in a month, is not because they manage time better—it’s because they manage their energy better.
In the book, ‘The Power Of Full Engagement’, Jim Leohr and Tony Schwartz state that energy is broken down into these types:
- Physical: Patterns of breathing, quality of sleep, when and what we eat, recovery and level of fitness.
- Emotional: Managing levels of self-confidence, self-control, social skills, and empathy.
- Mental: Appropriate mental preparation, visualisation, positive self talk, effective time management, and creativity.
- Spiritual: Character, passion, commitment, integrity, and honesty. (2)
For example, after a night out boozing and little sleep the average person will most likely be less productive than otherwise—regardless of how well they planned to manage their time the next day.
Time management also fails to take into account our natural cycles of energy throughout day i.e ‘Ultradian Rhythm.’
Just like a sprinter, we perform at our best when working in sprints (approx 90 minutes) and then taking breaks in-between intervals to rejuvenate our energy.
Evidently, managing our energy plays a significant role in our short-term and long-term productivity.
Let’s explore some other reasons to focus on managing your energy instead of managing your time.
1. Time management systems are inhumane
Yes, someone had to say it and I just did.
Time management may be a great system for a machine, but for the rest of us who are emotionally driven human beings—we need to take account for our energy levels.
Plus your willpower and self-control reduces with every choice you make throughout the day. (3)
Clearly we perform at our best at different periods of the day.
Time management fails to take into account these emotional, mental and energetic factors that make us human.
SOLUTION: Schedule around your energy levels not your time.
Instead of scheduling around time, schedule around your energy and willpower levels. By matching the times of the day you have the most energy with your most important tasks, you can significantly improve your productivity.
As a rule of thumb, schedule your most important ‘domino’ and creative tasks at some point in the early hours of waking up when you have the most energy.
On the flip side, you could schedule your low creative tasks i.e emails, social media, phone calls in the latter part of the day when your energy and willpower is lowest.
Here’s a quick example of scheduling around your energy levels, assuming you are an entrepreneur or a creative.
Creative energy (best between 4 -11 a.m.)
Social energy (best between 6 -11 p.m.)
Communication energy (phone calls, email, texts) (best between 2-5 p.m.)
Learning energy (any time except afternoon)
Physical energy (exercise) (12pm-2pm)
2. Time management reduces happiness and creates anxiety.
Time management systems promote a ridiculously high standard of time efficiency and perfection that is simply unrealistic for any human being.
This idea that we should manage every millisecond to a tee is not only impossible, but it also puts an enormous amount of pressure on us.
What’s worse is that we often feel guilty or anxious whenever ‘tasks’ are incomplete or we have any ‘free’ time whatsoever. No matter how much we cross off our to-do list there always seems to be MORE things to get done.
This anxiety build up leads to more procrastination on our schedules and goals—apps and phone reminders don’t help either, we just ignore them.
This is why you may find yourself struggling to sleep, rolling in your bed past midnight worrying about things on your to-do list.
Instead of relaxing and winding down at the end of the day to enjoy time with family and friends, you’re overwhelmed and anxious. I know this too well, i’ve been there many times.
SOLUTION: Schedule regular downtime
It’s counterintuitive that periodically spending time away from crossing off our endless to-do lists to instead recharge our energy, can be much more productive than otherwise—but it’s true. (5)
I have personally been through a phase where my obsession with time management and ‘getting things done’ was causing massive anxiety, stress and chronic procrastination.
I finally made a decision to ‘sharpen the saw.’ Instead of filling up all my time blocks with ‘productive’ work, I set aside regular time to simply do whatever I felt like in the moment— go for walk, watch TV shows etc. In other words, just be human.
By doing this I’ve been able to alleviate my performance anxiety and significantly improve my productivity.
Shortly after doing this, I’ve launched several projects, travelled to deliver two keynote speeches, created and delivered a half day workshop, written and recorded 6+ articles and videos, built my personal network and so on.
This is not to brag, but to inspire you to make time for regular downtime to recharge your energy.
By doing so, you will practice letting go of control of the outcome and the obsession to be perfect with managing time, which in turn will help you become more productive.
3. Time management is literally a ‘waste of time’
‘Stop managing your time. Start managing your focus’ – Robin Sharma
We spend all of our ‘precious time’ planning, reading and plotting to manage our time.
Instead of taking action to actually get things done, we delude ourselves into a false sense of achievement because we simply planned our day with a time management calendar or app.
The irony is that this is a waste of time and often we don’t actually get much done. In the end, execution is all that matters.
I’ve personally fallen into the trap of spending hours on time management that could have been spent actually being productive.
What is more important is building a habit of consistent action which will in turn produce real results.
SOLUTION: Create Rituals That Match Your Peak Energy Levels
Consider these rituals of some of the most successful creatives and entrepreneurs:
Warren Buffett wakes up at 6:45 am and begins the day by reading over newspapers and books.
Maya Angelou would arrive at 6.30 am to a rented local hotel room to write until 2 pm, and then go home afterwards to do some editing.
Richard Branson wakes up at 5am, exercises and spends time with his family first thing everyday before working on his business.
Successful people don’t have to ‘manage time’, they execute habitually when their energy levels are at their peak—allowing them to perform at their best consistently.
You can create your own daily rituals to help you stay productive regardless of whether or not you use any time management system.
Your ritual can initially be as small as you need to help you simply get started and maintain consistency everyday.
I acknowledge that traditional time management allows for ‘planning’, but in truth for the most part they fail to account for crucial human factors that drive our productivity.
We’re not machines or robots, that can perform efficiently and perfectly 24 hours a day. Our emotions, energy and willpower moves in cycles, plus we don’t always ‘perform at our best’ every day.
Instead of focusing on time management, you can instead schedule your most important activities around your highest energy levels, schedule for regular downtime and create habitual rituals that you stick to consistently.
In the end you can’t manage time per se, but you can manage you.
If you’d like to get science-backed strategies that make it easier to prioritize and manage your time effectively, join The Productivity Academy.
- Original lumberjack story from Steven Covey’s, The 7 habits of highly effective people.
- Concepts from the book, The Power Of Full Engagement.
- Credit to Eric Barker for sharing this concept in his interview with Roy Baumeister here.
- Schedule inspired by Scott Adams blog post.
- Alternating periods of activity with periods of rest has been used successful by high performing athletes since it was first advanced by Flavius Philostratus (A.D. 170–245), who wrote training manuals for Greek athletes.
- Image source deeper dish.