Are You Trying To Be a Robot?

“We all have times when we think more effectively, and times when we should not be thinking at all."

Daniel Cohen

While it’s true that all people are created equal, all hours are most definitely not.

The Problem with Time Management

The problem with “time management" is that time is not what needs to be managed. The implicit assumption of time management systems is that 7:00am-8:00am = 11:00am-12:00pm = 3:00pm-4:00pm = 7:00pm-8:00pm. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Throughout the day, your energy level naturally cycles up and cycles down. When it’s up, you’re capable of thinking deeply and getting a lot accomplished. When it’s down, all your mind and body want to do is rest and recover.

Nowadays, it’s popular to try to “hack" this cycle to get more done by resting less. Working 8-12 hours straight without a break is not uncommon. Most of us try to overclock our brains with refined sugar and large doses of caffeine. Some people even resort to abusing prescription or illegal drugs to work a little bit longer or faster.

The Robotic Ideal

Something is wrong when the ideal of human productivity is acting like a machine - tirelessly cranking out hour-after-hour of uniformly high-quality output day after day, week after week, year after year, with no recovery and no rest.

Like all biological organisms, humans need to rest and recover for peak performance. Taking a break isn’t a sign of laziness or weakness - it’s a recognition of a fundamental need that, by paying attention to it, will help you perform at your best when your energy levels are high.

4 Ways to Work With Your Body Instead of Against It

  1. Learn Your Patterns - use a small timer and notebook to track how much energy you have during different parts of the day, as well as what you’re eating and drinking. If you do this for a few days, you’ll notice patterns in how your energy waxes and wanes, allowing you to plan your work accordingly.

  2. Maximize Your Peak Cycles - when you’re in an up cycle, you’re capable of getting a lot accomplished, so plan your day to take advantage of that. If you’re doing creative work, carve out a 3-4 hour block of time during an up cycle to get it done. If your work consists of attending a lot of meetings, plan the most important meetings during the up cycle. (For more ideas, read Paul Graham’s essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.)

  3. Take a Break - when you’re in a down cycle, it’s better to rest than attempt to power through it. Rest and recovery are not optional - if you don’t rest now, your body will force you to rest later, either by cycling down longer than usual or getting sick. During a down cycle, go for a walk, meditate, or take a short 20-30 minute nap.

  4. Get Enough Sleep - sleep deprivation results in a prolonged down cycle, which gets in the way of getting things done. To ensure you get enough sleep each evening, set a timer to go off 1-2 hours before you’d ideally be in bed sleeping. When the timer goes off, turn off the computer / TV, go through your evening routine, make a cup of non-caffeinated tea, and spend the rest of the time in bed with a book you enjoy. When your reading comprehension starts to go down, you know it’s time to turn off the light and go to sleep.

What do you do to manage your energy during the day?

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Published: August 7, 2009Last updated: August 7, 2009

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