My energy is a linear function, until it isn’t

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Growth

I’ve been thinking a lot about my energy levels at work this weekend, mostly because I’ve managed them badly over the last few weeks.

As a result, I am trying to be more mindful of habits or behaviours that I fall into in the hope that I can get better at managing them going forward.

In this article, I’ve tried to explore what I’ve observed in myself, in the hope that it might be of interest—or even of use—to those that read it.

Here’s what I’ve observed:: work generates energy and happiness for me, but only to a point, and I am very bad at identifying that point. I typically decide how much and how hard to work based on incorrect leading indicators, rather than the real, correct lagging ones.

Wonky predictions

Work is a core part of my life, much in the same way that my family is, and also my hobbies.

After all, why would I be spending part of my weekend writing this article? I am probably always going to be working in some way, shape or form, even if it isn’t for money. I just like making things.

I am also fortunate that I have a good job that I find meaningful and rewarding. When I am well-rested and in a good headspace, I know that my job is able to act as an energy flywheel: I do things, I feel good, and so I do more things to feel even better.

At the beginning of the working week—off of the back of a nice weekend—I know that I often work extremely hard, because there is a linear relationship between the effort that I put into my work and how good I feel about it.

It looks something like this.

This ideal represented by the graph is typically true for me on Monday through Wednesday. 

Monday is always a flurry of activity as people get a jump on the week ahead, and most of my 1:1s happen then as I like to have all of us aligned. This makes me feel good.

Tuesday is scheduled as a blend of meetings and focus time. I typically make a dent in whatever my big personal task is for the week on this day, which also feels good and feeds the flywheel.

Wednesday is no-meeting day at Shopify, so that day is characterised by a flexible schedule and an intense focus: I don’t have any meetings to attend, so I can have a full day of intense deep work that almost always makes me feel really good. This is usually the day where I’ll write that long proposal, or go deep researching something in the product or in our technology.

But, as Wednesday turns to Thursday, there seems to be an inflection point for me in terms of my energy, but I am rarely able to perceive it at that time.

I’ve come to the conclusion that because, subconsciously, I experience three days where intensity is linearly correlated with feeling good, and I then ignore the fact that I am tiring because I have failed to pace myself, slow down and rest more on the preceding days.

The data from Monday to Wednesday produces a model like the graph above: linear and limitless. I am then using that model to justify ploughing on through the remainder of the week at the same high intensity. 

However, not being more self-aware means that I typically seem to experience Thursdays and Fridays that look like this.

The issue is that I am making decisions in the present moment based on a model of how I am going to feel in the future that has been trained on data from the previous few days where my energy was high from the weekend. 

But this model doesn’t take into account lack of ample rest, my cumulative tiredness, all of the usual curveballs that a usual working week and family week will bring. 

On Thursday afternoon I know that I’m already starting to get a bit irritable and impatient, and by Friday I’m still working hard but I’m having to dig into my reserve tank of fuel, despite my best interests.

I write my weekly internal newsletter on Fridays, and I really enjoy writing, so it should—in theory—be a rewarding activity at the end of a long week. Instead, if I’ve managed my energy badly, I find myself bashing it out in haste just trying to get the damn thing done rather than taking any pleasure in it. 

This isn’t a pattern that can sustain itself over long periods of time.

Something better in the long run

What I want to aim towards is something more like this:

In this model, my intensity is purposefully kept capped—much like the speed on powerful electric cars—to stop me attacking my work too hard, even if I feel like I want to. 

This is because I think I’ve realised that my own subconscious mind can’t always be trusted to make the right long-term decisions when the short-term data suggests otherwise.

With that in mind, here’s a bunch of things that I’m going to be trying over the coming weeks.

  • Purposefully trying to work 10% slower. I have noticed that I have a habit of trying to work at breakneck speed. I think that this has something to do with my “Completer Finisher” personality (for what it’s worth, my Enneagram is type 3) and that I get a great feeling when a task is done, hence the intensity I generate to complete it. I’m going to try my best to mindfully work 10% slower to see whether treating the week like a marathon, rather than a race, leaves me feeling better and less stressed at the end of it. It’ll be interesting to see whether I get the same done, or more.
  • Being stricter with my input. I can’t deny that messaging applications feed the dopamine habit loop. There’s so much compelling discussion and information across countless Slack channels and mailing lists that it can become addictive to keep chasing inbox zero whenever there’s a spare moment. However I’m aware that context-switching can take its toll after several days in a row. I’m going to try to see whether I can limit checking messages to just a few intentional times every day, and then purposefully focus on input-free deep work—wherever possible—in between those times.
  • Limiting checking messages to within working hours. Related to the above, I’ve found myself falling into “busy waiting” behaviours with my input feeds because there is so much communication happening during the evening time in the UK (the critical mass of the company is in Canada). There’s no expectation for me to read any of it, but I tend to try to keep on top of it to “complete the task” of inbox zero. But this prevents me from recharging in my downtime.
  • Deferring non-essential requests and tasks into the following week. Another habit that I have is “cramming”, where I overestimate how much I can get done in a day, and underestimate how much I can get done in a week. This feeds a continual bin-packing loop where I try to clear as much as I can off my to-do list every single day to optimise all available time, even if some of those tasks could easily wait a little longer to get done with no ill effect. I’ll be trying to schedule less important things in the future using the Eisenhower matrix, giving myself more time to do the important work in a more considered manner.
  • Getting back on the tomatoes. When I was doing my Ph.D., I often used the Pomodoro Technique to make sure that I got enough breaks within my working day. It works by chunking your time into 25-minute sprints (pomodoros) with 5 minute breaks in between them, and then having longer breaks between contiguous blocks of pomodoros. I’m aware that often when I get deep into something I can work intensely for hours, but like the graphs above, too much intensity over too long a period can lead to irrecoverable energy drains. So I’ll try to pace myself more with some structure.

Let’s see how it goes. 

How about you? What sort of ways do you try to control your energy as the week goes by? 

Do you start strong, but fade towards the end of it? Are you checking your Slack messages on your phone whilst trying to relax in the evening because you think it helps you out tomorrow, or have you mastered a separation (or integration) of your work and your recreational time?

I know I’ve still got a long way to go, so I’d love to hear your tools and tips if you have any.

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