The key to productivity: it’s all about energy, not time

We live and work in an incredibly fast-paced world, often racing through our days without pausing to reflect on recent experiences, or to take the time to consider if our actions are still aligned to our core values and key goals. To avoid drowning in bulging to-do lists, we may feel tempted to take shortcuts which may involve cutting down on sleep, eating lunch on the run or while working, and relying on coffee and other stimulants to keep us alert enough to deal with the constant onslaught of demands and expectations. But no matter how much we dial up the speed, we never seem to be able to get comfortable or truly on top of things. Our mobile phones, emails and tasks seem to own us, not the other way around. If only we were better at time management!

Does this sounds familiar?

Let me offer a different perspective: neither working longer, nor working harder will fix the problem. Time will always be a finite resource, and you cannot “outrun” the clock. Your energy, however, is a different story and may hold the key to achieving both higher productivity and increased wellbeing levels. As Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy from The Energy Project explain: “Defined in physics as the capacity to work, energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind, and spirit.” In the book with the descriptive title, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal, Schwartz and Jim Loehr ( a leading performance psychologist) further argue that energy is the fundamental currency of high performance. In their view, it is only the number of hours in a day that is fixed, but not the quantity and quality of energy available to us.

With this in mind, how can you protect and increase your energy levels throughout the day? Below are some suggestions that can help you to regain control of your days by prioritising your energy levels:

  • Plan for the start and end. How you start your morning will set the tone for the whole day, and how you end it will determine the quality of your evening (or other rest period between working days). Make sure you have a strong start with an intentional morning routine that sets you up to feel energised, calm and focused. For some people, going for a run or doing a yoga session may achieve this, or starting the day with a reflective practice such as journaling or meditation. Find something that works for you, but avoid the “rolling out of bed and logging straight into emails” scenario which can seem tempting at first when working from home. Our brains thrive on (positive) routines including a regular transition time between different periods of the day and their associated tasks and priorities. Similarly, have a wind-down routine towards the end of your work day, including bringing today’s tasks to an end, rescheduling them if necessary and leaving yourself reminders for tomorrow. This may be helpful to enable you to detach from work mentally and emotionally after you leave your desk for the day, so that you can come back next time refreshed and rested.
  • Leave white space in your calendar. Protect your energy levels and personal effectiveness by making sure you have breaks built into your day, as well as opportunities to work productively and creatively for uninterrupted stretches of time. This is not achievable if you spend all day running from meeting to meeting, get distracted by an endless stream of emails, chat messages and calls, and become fatigued from lack of restful, nutritional breaks. To take control of your diary, consider booking time for various priorities throughout the day, e.g. give yourself space for successful “power-up” and “power-down” periods and avoid having meetings in the fist and the last hour of your working day if possible, block out time for lunch (even it is just 15-30 minutes for yourself), and ensure there is time to focus on important projects. Ideally, your daily or weekly time budget also needs to include room for reflection and planning activities. It may also be helpful to let your team know about your preferred methods and times for communication.  This will ensure that you are not just passively reacting to things as they happen, but are proactively shaping your work day with intent. 
  • Do not ignore signs of mental or emotional fatigue. When things get busy, unexpected challenges keep emerging and we can feel the weight of other people’s expectations heavily on our shoulders, we often tend to supress our own needs and discomfort. Even though we are physically exhausted, emotionally drained or have lost our ability to concentrate, we try to power through, forgo breaks and recovery time, ignore headaches and the time we had planned to spend on priorities in our personal lives. This is a trap. Our ability to maintain high productivity levels, make good decisions and manage ourselves well in interactions with others will invariably suffer at some point. There is a Buddhist saying, “Meditate for an hour every day unless you are too busy. In that case meditate for two hours.” The wisdom we can take away (if we meditate at all or not) is this: if we do not take the time to replenish our depleted physical, mental and emotional energy levels, we will have to pay the price of decreasing performance, productivity and effectiveness levels.
  • Check our inner voice. What are your beliefs around taking regular breaks, listening to your physical and emotional needs, and saying “no” to requests that you have no capacity to take on? Do you measure success in numbers of hours sitting at your desk, or in terms of quality and quantity of output?  If you believe that you cannot afford, or don’t need or deserve, time for rest and recovery, that you can train your body and mind to deny its basic needs, or that you must not disappoint others by saying anything else but “yes” to whatever they ask you to do – you are setting yourself for an energy crisis. Sometimes our inner narratives can cause us to get stuck in unhelpful behaviours that deplete our energy levels and undermine our wellbeing over time. Empathy and compassion starts with yourself, for yourself.
  • Role model good energy. If you are a leader, think of yourself as the Chief Energy Officer, a phrase coined by Jim Loehr. Consistently demonstrating and role-modelling positive behaviour – such as taking active steps to protecting and increasing your own mental and physical energy levels throughout the day – is one of the most powerful tool you have as a leader to shape culture. Your team members will look at you for behavioural cues and are likely to start to emulate them. Also keep in mind that energy levels are contagious, for better or for worse: if you are tired and drained, it will be very difficult to energise and inspire your team to action.

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

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