Time Management? Manage your energy, not your time

“I’d like to go on a time management course, please”

You’ve probably been on one end or the other of a time management conversation. It’s a lovely topic for the year end appraisal. Either you ask for one because, well, it sounds like a safe course to ask for, or you are sent on one because your boss thinks you could be more efficient and doesn’t want to deal with the underlying reasons that made them think that.

I’m fortunate enough to have never been on a time management course. And yes, I’ve sent people on them. But it took me a long time to realise that Time Management might seem like the right solution when you can’t get everything you need done. But you won’t get everything done if you’re exhausted. If you’ve put aside the morning to get an important report done, but you can’t get your head in the game because you slept poorly and can’t focus, your time management skills haven’t helped much.

I spent a lot of time as an engineer working odd shifts, sleeping in hotels and travelling at ungodly times of the day and night. Even when I started to climb the “management ladder”, all of that didn’t seem to bother my productivity much until I got married and had kids, and suddenly my batteries were running on empty by “hump day”. Too many decisions, to many energy draining activities at work and at home, and often by the time I go home to see my family and I could barely string two words together.

Constant distractions, information overload and decision fatigue make being or staying in high performance states a real challenge. Learning to manage your energy levels is more important nowadays than time management.
Constant distractions, information overload and decision fatigue make being or staying in high performance states a real challenge. Learning to manage your energy levels is more important nowadays than time management.

And I wasn’t alone, many of us are tired and overwhelmed by the constant demands of life. We all know that we need to get more sleep, eat better and get more exercise, and yet most of us are too busy and too stressed to do anything differently. After a while low energy becomes the norm, and before you know it you’re counting down the days to Friday, hoping that you can survive the week.

Stressful living causes the release of the stress hormones  adrenaline, cortisol and catecholamines. Elevated cortisol levels are known to affect memory forming and storing in the hippocampus, whilst catecholamines deactivate the prefrontal cortex, which is the higher cognitive center for concentration, planning and decision-making. Effectively, being stressed makes it harder and harder to make wise decisions, leaving us more stressed and with less time to deal with the fallout from poor decisions.

The typical personal development book answer

When I first started to notice my energy levels, I diagnosed it as a lack of motivation. I needed to go on some motivation weekends, to find my purpose and all that business. And to be fair I learnt a lot of interesting stuff about motivation and life goals, but being super motivated only works if you have the energy to follow through on all those SMART targets. If you are tired on a physical level, you don’t have the energy for intellectual or emotional challenges. It’s easy then to self-medicate with caffeine and other stimulants, but these wear your adrenals down and reduce your ability to recover. It wasn’t until much later that I started to consider the energy part of that equation, and becoming aware of what recharges my energy, and what (and who) drains it.

Physical recovery is a science that nobody talks about. Only professional athletes really understand how important it is. Sports scientists know that to recover properly, the hormonal recovery has to be active.  Think of your body as a car that moves you through life . It’s the only car you have, or will ever have. You can’t sell it and get another one. Where you get in life, how quickly you get there, and how much fun you have getting there depends on how well you look after your car. If you’re not scheduling regular oil changes and maintenance, you’ll find yourself in disrepair. For all but light stress, sitting on the sofa watching TV is unlikely to rejuvenate you, particularly if the shows you watch are stressful experiences in themselves, such as dramas and soaps that build a lot of tension through sadness. If you have a stressful and busy lifestyle, it’s likely that your recovery needs to be similarly active.

Active recovery recharges your batteries. Activities such as gentle walks (particularly in nature), swimming, golf and other gently active social activities will recharge your batteries and rebalance your nervous system
Active recovery recharges your batteries. Activities such as gentle walks (particularly in nature), swimming, golf and other gently active social activities will recharge your batteries and rebalance your nervous system

If you feel tired, it only means one thing. You have to give yourself chance to recover. Now when professional athletes “recover” between periods of intense exercise, they don’t sit on the sofa and watch TV, because this kind of rest won’t give your body what it needs. Typical active recovery activities are:

  • Swimming – Gentle exercise which also stimulates the Mammalian Dive Reflex, which is shown to have a calming effort on the autonomous nervous system
  • Walking – Particularly in green spaces or by large bodies of water
  • Walking sports – Such as golf and walking football which have the added social element
  • Mobility – Such as Yoga \ Pilates; there’s a huge body of research to support their impact on stress hormones
  • Deep tissue work – Massage \ Sauna \ Cold exposure all have a positive impact on the balancing your autonomous nervous system
  • Balanced breathing techniques – Meditation \ Pranayama \ HeartMath are all proven to reduce stress hormones

Activities of this kind provide you with the sort of maintenance that deals with the physical and mental stress caused by busy lives.

"Constant work gives rise to a certain kind of dullness and feebleness in the rational soul.” Seneca
If your life is full of hard, stressful events, then your recovery needs to be just as active to balance out your nervous system

Building your own energy practice

The active recovery activities listed above is not exhaustive; there’s a good body of research to support their inclusion in the list. But please don’t feel the need to do all of them! Trying to fit all of that in to your life will be stressful enough to probably cancel out the benefits!

A key part of developing and sustaining your energy is to understand what drains you and what invigorates you. So consider the following questions:

  1. What situations \ triggers cause you to feel stressed, and what actions or reactions do you take that cause your “inner battery” to drain?
  2. What activities or interactions recharge your batteries?
  3. What could you do differently to avoid or lessen the impact of situations in 1.)?
  4. How would your life be different if you were able to do more of 2?

Answering these questions will give you a good grounding for improving your energy levels, which will give you the energy you need to get the job done right first time. Much more effective than time management when your batteries are flat, I’m sure you agree.

Further reading

Mohamadkhani, A., Ghiasvand,Naderi, M., Tafreshi, M., Ahmadi, F., Hosseini, M., Relationship between time management skills and anxiety and academic motivation of nursing students. 2017. The Electronic Physician.

Sasse, S., Nyhuis, T., Masini, C., Day, H., Campeau, S., Central gene expression changes associated with enhanced neuroendocrine and autonomic response habituation to repeated noise stress after voluntary wheel running in rats. 2013. Frontiers in Physiology. Link here.

Reinecke, L. Hartmann, T., Eden, A., The Guilty Couch Potato: The role of ego depletion in reducing recovery through media use. 2014. The Journal of Communication.

Nabi, R. L., Prestin, A., So, J., Could Watching TV Be Good for You? Examining How Media Consumption Patterns Relate to Salivary Cortisol. 2016. The Journal of Health Communication. Link here.

Panneton, M., The Mammalian Diving Response: An Enigmatic Reflex to Preserve Life? 2013. The American Physiological Society. Link here.

Nichols, W., Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do. 2014. Little Brown. Link here.

Otto, M., Smits, J., Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being. 2011. Oxford University Press. Link here.

Woodyard, C., Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. 2011. International Journal of Yoga. Link here.

Li, A., Goldsmith, C., The effects of yoga on anxiety and stress. 2012. Alternative Medicine Review. Link here.

Caldwell, K., Adams, M., Quin, F., Harrison, M., Greeson, J., Pilates, Mindfulness and Somatic Education. 2013. Journal of Dance Somatic Practice. Link here.

Sengupta, P., Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review. 2013. The International Journal of Health Psychology. Link here.

McCraty,R., Barrios-Choplin, B., Rozman, D., Atkinson, M., Watkins, A., The Impact of a New Emotional Self-Management Program on Stress, Emotions, Heart Rate Variability, DHEA and Cortisol. 1998. The Journal of Integrative Physiological and Behavioural Science. Link here.

Jacobs T., Shaver P., Epel E., Zanesco A., Aichele S., Bridwell D., Rosenberg E., King B., Maclean K., Sahdra B., Kemeny M., Ferrer E., Wallace B., Saron C., Self-reported mindfulness and cortisol during a Shamatha meditation retreat. 2013. The Journal of Health Psychology. Link here.



Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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