The internet is full of opinions about how to manage your time. There are even whole books written on it. However, they miss an important nuance: it’s not the quantity of time that you are able to juggle, assign and manage that matters, it’s the quality of the time that you are able to spend on your tasks.
Regardless of where you work or how senior you are, you have a finite amount of capacity: there are only so many hours every day in which you are working effectively, and only so many of those hours that you can spend in a state of productivity and flow.
Everyone typically has the same amount of hours that they dedicate to their work. However, everybody is different in finding how and when they work best. Some people are better finding flow in the morning, whilst others are better in the afternoon. Some people thrive on long blocks of time spent on a single task, whereas others prefer to work in shorter bursts, switching to new tasks often to avoid repetitiveness. It’s likely that you already know what works best for you.
However, regardless of how much autonomy and self-directed time you accumulate, optimal allocation of your capacity is not a box packing problem where you must allocate every single minute of your day. This is an anti-pattern.
Instead, you should aim for allocating a default workload that is not your full capacity, purposefully leaving some portion of your time unallocated. This is because you need to leave space for the unexpected, such as escalations, meetings, and other interruptions that will inevitably arise.
It’s likely we’ve all worked with people — especially senior ones — that are impossible to get hold of when we need them urgently. They are always in meetings, or working on something seemingly more urgent, and are otherwise unreachable. This should be seen as a bug rather than a feature. These folks are not managing their capacity effectively. They are not leaving enough unallocated breathing room for the impromptu events that happen every single day. This is bad for their organization as they are not immediately available in times of need, and it is also bad for them as they are constantly living in a state of busyness and reactivity.
If we’ve been lucky enough to work with leaders that manage their capacity well, then we may have been surprised that when we reach out with something urgent, they are able to respond quickly and effectively: perhaps they’ve offered to jump on a call straight away. This isn’t luck or anything to do with you. It’s just good capacity management on their part. Make sure that you’re always available for your team when they need you.
Energy: Increasing and Decreasing Your Capacity
You are only able to allocate as much time to your tasks as your capacity allows. However, your capacity is not a constant: it is a function of your energy levels. On a given morning, if you are well-rested and feeling good, you will likely have a productive and effective day and also be stable in the face of unexpected events. However, if you are tired, overworked or stressed, you will be unlikely to be able to apply yourself in a measured and effective way.
Your energy levels effect your total capacity:
- Your capacity has a fixed upper bound, which is the number of hours in a day that you are able to work effectively. In a senior role, this may manifest as 3-4 hours in which you can dedicate to deep work such as writing, reading, or thinking. The rest of your time will be spent in meetings, 1:1s, and other activities that require your attention.
- Your capacity depletes when you are spending time on tasks that drain your energy. Exactly what these tasks are will depend upon the individual, but these are typically tasks such as production incidents, overwhelming input, repetitive toil, conflict, delay, blockers, and overwork. The more you find yourself here, the more that your capacity will shrink as the days go by.
- Your capacity replenishes when you are spending time on tasks that energize you. Again, this will depend upon the individual, but these are typically things such as finding flow in deep work, making progress on your projects, achieving goals, helping others, and, most importantly, getting good rest and balance outside of work time. The more you find yourself here, the more that your capacity will grow until it restores to the upper bound.
Therefore it follows that you need to be mindful of your energy levels as they directly effect the quality of your work. This requires introspection and regular reflection against your tasks and activities. In addition to being effective at managing your time and your output you also need to balance hard work with rest, reactive firefighting with deep work, and meetings with focus time. You will know what increases and decreases your energy levels: it’s up to you to ensure that you are spending your time in a way that keeps your capacity high.
Log Your Week
In order to better understand the relationship between your capacity and your energy levels, it is useful to keep a log of how you are spending your time and how you feel. Although this exercise may seem simplistic, trust in the process: it may be enlightening.
- For the next week, at the beginning, middle and end of each day, log what you feel that your energy level is on a scale of 1-10. 1 is completely drained, and 10 is completely energized. You can use a spreadsheet, a notebook, or whatever works for you.
- Alongside each log entry, jot down what you have been doing in the last few hours. This could be meetings, 1:1s, deep work, or anything else.
- At the end of each day, note how many hours of productive work that you did. This can be deep work or meetings where you thought you were effective.
- At the end of the week, take a look at your log. What patterns do you see? Are there any activities that are consistently draining your energy? Which activities increase it?
- How did you feel about your capacity by the end of the week? Was Friday an unfocussed slog, or was it a day of high productivity? Can you see a relationship between your energy levels, the type of tasks that you were doing, and your capacity? What can you do next week to improve your capacity?
You owe it to yourself and your team to work on keeping your capacity high. The more capacity you have, the better work that you do, the less reactive that you are, and, fundamentally, the more output you produce.
Don’t be the frazzled stress ball that struggles through each day. Understand the tasks you spend your time on, how you work, and how you can look after yourself to keep your capacity in check so you can do your best work. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.