Let's go back in time.

In 2008 I was barely out of college, seeking for real work experience. I've been doing things here and there, but nothing steady for more than 6 months.

Aside from work hours, I roughly had around 7 hours for social/family life, side projects and other misc stuff.

In 2011, my first daughter was born. At the same time, I started my own start-up and time went really fast. Not only that but how I was handling time. There were new responsibilities (like having to take care of a human being). Frustration was common, and in retrospective, I was working in a very dumb way.

At this point, my 7 spare hours got reduced to 3.5, which were mainly used to rest and kill some unfinished work to-dos (did I tell you I was running my start-up?).

By 2018, my second daughter was born. I just moved to a new country one year before and in the process, I was accommodating to this new coming life. I had some experience from the first one, but still, my time got reduced again to 2-3 hours a day.

10 years have passed and I realized the following:

  1. More time != More productivity
  2. Being busy != Being productive
  3. Habits do impact productivity

Time management is probably the easiest way to handle work. It serves the purpose of additional context to data that without this, it's either static or meaningless. And also, it gives recognition to people for certain tasks.

David Allen, the creator of the "Getting Things Done" system (GTD), suggested a nice framework to start handling time. In this methodology, there are certain rules and planning sessions to organize your tasks in different budgets or projects.

The problem though is when you start treating tasks as if they were the same. For example, write a blog and pay rent. The first one takes a lot of mental effort but the second, is very straightforward to achieve.

This system also relies heavily on your habits, therefore in executing planning sessions to get your tasks ready to start completing them. Sometimes even, the planning sessions could be a blocker, because you simply cannot find the next action for a project.

Time management gets even weirder when you start sharing the concept of time with others. Meaning, "meetings". Except for companies that do have a clear policy around meetings, resources and time, it's hard to get an agreement on what time means for a team of people.

You'd hope your week is 40 hours of non-interrupted time, but in reality, your calendar looks more like a Tetris game with few slots of time to actually crank some work.

With little spare time, few slots to achieve tasks and limited mental effort in the week, there's only one solution: work smarter.

Wouldn't it be better, that instead of focusing on time, we focus on our energy? That we organize our task schedule based on our mental state or energy level?

I've been reading some books and doing research, and along with my experience here are some factors that impact energy.

Technology

With artificial intelligence, everyone knows technology will play a huge role in our society in the coming 10 days. But it has impacted our lives too for the past 10 years.

Social networks have been helping each other to communicate in faster and easier ways, but in order to sustain their business models, they need our time and attention to justify their existence. They need more engagement and mental hacks to keep us addictive.

In "Digital Minimalism" (one of the best books I've read this year), there's a clear relationship being made between our primal instincts and our need to connect with other mates.

"Because our primal instinct to connect is so strong, it’s difficult to resist checking a device in the middle of a conversation with a friend or bath time with a child—reducing the quality of the richer interaction right in front of us."

This is what social networks are using (among many other things) to keep us attached.

I'm not against them. Certainly, I use Twitter actively to create conversations. But it's how we intend to use them. If these tools are used with the correct intention, then we could get some real value from them.

In the same book, there's an example from the Amish community and their relationship with technology. They do something radical and simple in this consumerism age. They start with the things they value most and then work backwards to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to their values.

On the other hand, I certainly thanked Apple when they released the "Screen time" feature for the iPhone. It made me understand how I was spending my time (and energy) in these applications.

Stress balance

I'm a developer and I spend probably 50% of my time doing creative work. That means either drafting a software architecture, coding or refactoring some feature. My mind isn't always at full to perform these tasks.

Stress plays a huge role in this. And we all live stressful lives. It's just, I wonder how well can we spare and enjoy stress-free moments to recharge our minds.

For example, we're all used to the idea that athletes spend long times training and afterwards, longs time resting. That same idea can be brought to our lives, and especially to our minds.

In "Peak performance", there's an equation presented which lays some more understanding of how our talent is built.

Stress + rest = Growth. This is the foundation upon which our talent is built, then our routines and environments help us to fully express that talent.

We're all used to the idea of resting. I just believe there could be certain break schedules that make our work better and can enhance tasks that need lots of energy to complete.

Pick your favourite. Is it going for a walk? Airplane mode in your phone? Spend quality time with your family?

Work environment

Probably one of the most important factors is how our work culture is impacting our energy. And how we respond to that.

From the way email is handled, how meetings are being scheduled, and how work is being performed in teams.

Culture and rules in work are the ones that define interruptions, ultimately carried by workmates or meetings. This impacts hugely in our energy and creative efforts.

I'm a huge fan of Basecamp and their culture. The main takeaway from them is how they see work from teams and people.

They give 8 straight hours, without interruptions and they established asynchronous communication. Meaning, there's no expectation to reply immediately from emails and direct messages sent by a communication tool (e.g. Slack, Telegram, Whatsapp, etc).

Based on these core rules and their experience, better and more work can be completed.

Team leaders do impact as well in our energy. The more conscious a leader, the better he/she is at handling energy. This means, keep the energy flowing in a team and prevent it from turning halted.

Mental states

Following our GTD example, tasks are not the same and they require different mental states from us.

On the other hand, we see our mind going into different states based on the day of the week. On Monday we feel fully energized, and on Friday we're almost drained and distracted.

While listening to this podcast episode from David Kadavy, it made sense to start categorizing tasks based on the mental effort.

He suggests following a list of mental states for creative tasks.

  1. Set priorities
  2. Explore and research
  3. Generate the creative content
  4. Do more research on specific topics
  5. Polish
  6. Administrate the work
  7. Recharge

If I relate this to my frequent tasks, 2 would be researching for a framework, reading an article or a book. 3 would coding or writing a document. And 4 would be doing more research on an edge case or specific bug I'm facing.

I cannot do these tasks in the evening or at night.

On the contrary, 5, 6 and 7 don't need too much mental effort. I can do these tasks pretty much at any time, but I avoid mornings because this is my peak creative state.

Some final tips

  1. I use Things for planning my day and workload. I've tried all productivity apps. This is by far the simplest and elegant I've used.
  2. I work 1 day, and sometimes 2 days from home. This provides me better focus for high mental effort tasks (and be close to my daughter).
  3. I choose mornings to do creative work. This is just how my mind works.
  4. I do some hard work on my communication skills. Redundancy is the best. Double confirm, make updates in all communication channels and never assume stuff.
  5. I choose to reduce my media consumption drastically. I've deleted Facebook and Instagram for good. I don't have Slack on my phone. I uninstalled social network apps from my phone (I use the Twitter browser version). I don't have my phone in my bedroom.

Happy energy management!