How & why to work less on managing your time, and more on managing your energy

Busy woman tracking her time in a calendar

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Sometimes it seems like being busy is a competition, with everyone bemoaning just how much they have to do each day. And while there are certainly commitments that take our time, underneath it all is the question of “Why?”

Why are our days so full that we feel exhausted by early evening? Why do we keep volunteering for the school/church/social group’s events? Why can’t we ever just say “No?”

It’s a hard question to answer, because there are many reasons. Some feel a need to fill their days with activities, others may be uncomfortable with downtime, while still others may need the validation that activities can offer.

Regardless of the reason, the reality is that we can only handle so much.

UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, uses the example of a cup of water.

“Imaging our energy like a cup of water. Depending on a variety of conditions – how we slept, our pain levels, what we ate or drank the night before, etc. – we will start the day with a cup full, half full, or almost empty,” she says. “Throughout the day, there is going to be a constant drain on that water unless we take steps to protect it.”

When that cup is full our energy levels are high. We are productive, efficient and can meet the needs of our daily activities.

But when the levels are low, we feel tired and distracted, tasks can take a long time to complete, we feel irritable and impatient, and we may not even have the energy to do those things we enjoy or that are good for our health, like meeting friends for coffee or going to the gym.

Managing your energy: Making the most of the minutes you do have

“People often comment that they wish they have more hours in a day to get things done,” Mirgain says. “But when we maintain our energy and manage how we use it, we can make the most of the time we have.”

Learn how to SOAR

Mirgain explains that energy levels can fluctuate throughout the day, but there are steps we can take to help keep the levels high — all we need to do is SOAR.

When you start to feel a dip or drain in your energy, try this simple practice as an energy boost.

S: Stop, pause and connect with your breath

O: Open up and soften in the body

A: Awareness of the moment, without judgment or identifications

R: Respond from this deeper, grounded place

“The SOAR technique is one of my favorites for a mini recharge,” says Mirgain. “It’s like plugging in your cell phone to charge the battery versus waiting until it is dead. You can recharge faster when you still have battery left.”

Track your pomodoros

We all have a natural rhythm for when we’re most productive. For some, it’s before sunrise, while others it may be the afternoon or even late evening.

Figure out what time of day you’re most productive and try to focus on completing the most important tasks of the day during that time.

“It can also be helpful to work in chunks of time to be productive – one method is the ‘Pomodoro Technique,'” says Mirgain.

She explains that the time management technique was created in the 1980s by a man with a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (hence the name “pomodoro,” which means tomato in Italian).

The concept, which has since been translated into apps and incorporated into software programs, was intended to be a fun way to help an individual stay on task.

The technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes — considered one pomodoro. When the timer goes off, put a checkmark on a page and take a brief three-minute break. After four pomodoros (or four checkmarks), take a longer 20-minute break.

Some people may find 25 minutes isn’t a long enough stretch to get into the flow (some research suggests it takes at least 15 uninterrupted minutes), so working in a 48-minute burst and then taking a 12-minute break might be preferable.

Managing your energy: Use food as fuel

Hippocrates may have been onto something when he said, “Let food be thy medicine.” We already know that eating a well-balanced meal filled with fruit, vegetables and whole grains is good for our health, and it’s also important for our mental and emotional energy as well.

Christina Gentile, PsyD, a UW Health clinical psychologist specializing in nutritional psychology, explains that our common eating habits — filling our meals and snacks with foods high in sugar, overly-processed foods, but lacking in fruits and vegetables — can create a roller coaster pattern of energy spikes and crashes.

“Not only are energy levels impacted, but the spikes and crashes can negatively influence mood, brain functions and the ability to manage stress,” she says.

Instead, Gentile recommends taking a mindful approach to eating and encourages people to select foods that are loaded with nutrients that build sustainable energy and nourish the mind and body, such as protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

“Be aware of what you are eating and drinking,” she advises. “And remember to stay adequately hydrated.”

Tough tasks - eat your frog

Eat the frog first

Procrastination is one of the biggest drains on energy. But, Mirgain says, when we get the tough stuff done first, it frees up our energy so we can stay focused.

“As Mark Twain [apocryphally] said, ‘Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.'”

What — a frog? She explains that when we start with the most difficult or dreaded task first, it frees us up to focus the rest of the time on more pleasant activities.

In a work setting, checking our emails first when our energy levels are high may not be the best way to start the day.

Instead, Mirgain suggests, review schedules, make a plan for what can be accomplished and tackle some of the difficult items first.

Watch out for energy drains

“Having to-dos and no plan can also drain our energy. Instead, taking the time to think about each task can help us schedule our days and ensure we’re intentionally focusing our time rather than reacting as things come up,” says Mirgain.

“It also gives us an opportunity to create intention around our day, to reflect on how we want to show up and what we have to offer and connect with our own sense of purpose.”

Because of the routine nature of our days, it can be easy to slip into auto-pilot. But even that can drain our energy. All we see are an endless list of tasks rather than any greater meaning behind what we’re doing.

“Even chores can be turned around if we connect with a greater meaning,” she says. “Washing dishes allows us to nourish our family at mealtime. Mowing the lawn or vacuuming the carpets means I have a home to care for.

“These are all ways we can cultivate gratitude in our lives and remain energized for the task at hand.”

Shilagh A Mirgain, PhD

Shilagh A Mirgain, PhD

Dr Mirgain Shilagh is a Health and Sport Psychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Her clinical interests include individual and couples psychotherapy with patients with mood, anxiety disorders and adjustment issues, sport psychology and peak performance training, pre-surgical psychological evaluations, and individual and group treatment of patients with a variety of health problems including pain, headaches, cardiac rehabilitation, diabetes, IBS, hypertension, TMJ and insomnia.

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