Managing your personal energy – being more sustainable and avoiding burnout

Over the years, time management has been a pillar of how effectively we can work. However, time runs out, and it doesn’t matter what your experience level is or how much knowledge you have, there are always only 24 hours in a day.

Written by Ian Caldecourt

Senior Consultant

4 Minute read

22 April 2021

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Over the years, time management has been a pillar of how effectively we can work. Most of us will be familiar with the 4-box grid, which without doubt, has its place in the effective management of time - helping us to prioritize based on importance and urgency. However, time runs out, and it doesn’t matter what your experience level is or how much knowledge you have, there are always only 24 hours in a day (apart from that one day a year when we have 25 hours and yet most of us still spend that extra hour asleep!). We need to start combining tried and tested time management techniques with personal energy management to help us be more sustainable and avoid burnout.

Imagine one of those online games where the character has a finite amount of energy to complete a task in a finite amount of time. If you go too quickly, you run out of energy before the task is complete, and if you go too slowly, the clock runs down before your energy has expired. Along the way you can pick up ‘energy boosts’ to help you achieve the goal. Your working day can be thought of in a similar way, throughout the day your energy bar is draining - simply reordering tasks won’t give you more energy and you risk burnout. You have to find those ‘personal energy boosts’ that will help you get through the day and sustain you over time.

There is now research that suggests that high achievers are not always putting in ridiculously long hours. Never has the phrase "it's not the hours you put in, it's what you put in the hours" seemed more relevant. Tech company, The Draugiem Group, used a time tracking app to find out what set their most productive employees apart. Somewhat surprisingly, what they found was that it wasn't the length of time spent working, but for every 52 minutes spent on focused work, these high performers took approximately a 15-minute break.

If we have learnt one thing over lockdown and the past year, it's that we can take a break and still achieve. A colleague of mine said to me it took him three months to realize that he could take a break from work and sit in the garden to have a cup of coffee without negatively impacting his outputs - bizarrely, it increased them! Bill Gates takes this advice to the extreme and is known to have nothing scheduled in his day so that he can sit, think and recharge.

So, how simple is it to recharge and manage energy?

Let's use a well-known psychology idea around introversion and extroversion. You could say that introverts are battery-powered and recharge internally, perhaps reading, sitting quietly or relaxing. Extroverts are solar-powered and take stimulus from the outside world by doing things like talking to others, socializing with friends, going out for meals (some of this is a lot tougher to achieve in the current climate). You need to find out what helps you recharge your energy and make time for it. It's not the same for everyone, as we all have introvert and extrovert traits of varying degrees. Even if we lean towards one more than the other, it's still beneficial to develop and learn new activities. In short, we can all do both, but the likelihood is your energy bar will drain more quickly and therefore need more recharging by doing tasks and activities that less suit your preference.

A balance of doing and recharging will help you manage your personal energy. Using the example from The Draugiem Group, in those 52-minute bursts, you must achieve what is called ‘deep’ work. You need to set the goals in those times and do it. The energy boosts will come in the downtime. Start by creating a plan for these over the next month, focusing on what needs to be achieved without being too specific about daily goals. Once those goals are clear, protect them as you would your birthday celebrations!

There are also some simple energy hacks that you can use to give you a boost. Some of these will depend on where you gather your energy:

Music – it can stimulate, be it the latest tunes, sounds of nature, classical or memory joggers. When you feel ‘pumped’ your energy increases along with your motivation. Music can also have a calming and restorative effect too.

Sleep or nap  – 7-9 hours each night remains the goal, but this can be 'topped up' with a power nap during the day. Some people drink coffee and then nap so that the caffeine kicks in when they wake. Obviously, this is not advisable constantly throughout the day as caffeine can affect your sleep at night.

Breathing and meditation – perfect to help us regain focus, there are apps available such as Headspace or Calm which can help. If meditation doesn’t work for you that’s ok, park it and move on.

Walk – or just move, do something you enjoy physically. If you have a busy schedule just try to alternate standing and sitting whilst working.

Eat and drink well – drink water throughout the day, not a prescribed amount. Avoid the carbs that cause your energy to crash, although a small piece of dark chocolate to boost your energy can be a treat!

Gratitude and kindness – in 2021 we have perfect opportunities to do these things. Be grateful for what you have and not what you miss. Leave a good review, pass on thanks to a colleague or help a neighbour - these will all give you the boost you need and recharge your soul.

Do something different – anything! Ask yourself, "When was the last time I did something for the first time?" Even if you do something routine, look for something you have never noticed before.

Connect with friends and nature – perhaps obvious and easy, but the boost from sunlight and a smile from a friend can help us stay in a good mood.

Play – do something for fun and remember the joy of being a child.

Read – to learn or for pleasure. A friend of mine used to have two books on the go, one fiction and one non-fiction, to stimulate all parts of the brain.

Declutter – personally or professionally. The joy of an empty desktop, neatly filed paperwork or a clear inbox will do you wonders.

Trying some of these things will help you step back, recharge and be ready for the next challenge. That way you can once again enjoy your life and your job!