Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

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In the sixth century BC, Lao-tzu, the Chinese sage, said he had just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion—citing these three as our greatest treasures. In our lives (one-third of which we spend at work), we’re continually learning these things.

Last week, a client asked me, “How do I get my teams to manage their time better? And how do I manage my time better in turn?”

The answer to this doesn’t feel simple to most of us. I’m a working mom with small children, a traveling spouse and a whirlwind of responsibilities. Each of these precious pieces of our lives demand our time and our energy.

So, to answer this question, I channeled Lao-tzu’s words. We shouldn’t be managing our time, as much as we should be managing our energy.

Why? Energy is a renewable resource—time is not. Time is the great equalizer: We are all given a finite amount of it. No matter how wealthy I become, how many awards I collect, how perfectly healthy my body, I cannot buy, earn or guarantee any more time. But energy is infinite when you can tap into its source.

At work, this manifests in the difference between feeling “energized” or “busy.”

We feel energized and alive at work when we use our natural strengths and pursue our inherent curiosities. These things drive our confidence and productivity.

Being busy all day long without feeling fulfilled is a red flag that our energy reserves are being slowly depleted — task by task, meeting by meeting, and email by email.

The good news is that we have complete control over the choices we make all day long.

Here are a couple of ways to begin managing your energy instead of your time.

Reflect on what gives you energy and brings you joy.

List those things. Pay particular attention to the things or people that drain your energy and steal your time. List those too. Then, identify one change you can make right now so that you’re doing more of what gives you energy and less of what doesn’t. You’ll get instant gratification from this quick change.

Consider your values.

As leaders, the environment you allow is the environment you create. Get clear on what’s important. We can’t do everything that comes our way and maximize our productivity. Think about your own values here. Protect the few important things by saying “no” to the trivial many. This will liberate you and put you in control of your life.

Bring more of who you are to what you do.

That starts with knowing who you are (assessments can help here). We get energy from work that aligns with our inherent motivating needs. If the performance requirements of my job align with my human needs/drives, I am more confident and productive. If I’m in a role that doesn’t meet my needs, I have to adapt. Adapting is a choice—we can all do it, but it drains our energy over time and may result in burnout. How might you leverage more of your natural strengths at work? Is there a new project you could take on or one you can delegate?

The golden rule doesn’t work at work.

Don’t manage folks the way you want to be managed. Instead, invest in understanding where their energy comes from so that you can foster an environment in which they can renew it. This is compassionate leadership. Couple this with openness and acceptance about our personality differences and things get simpler.

Managing our energy is an exercise.

I love what Mark Nepo writes on this topic: To be simple “holds the reward for living directly, which is that things appear, at last, as they really are. … Nothing else in nature is indirect. The leopard trying to scale the mountain strains and shows his effort… The wave mounting toward shore saves nothing as it bows and spreads itself over and over against the shore… Only humans say one thing and mean another. Only we go one way and wish we were somewhere else.”

Managing our energy is an exercise that allows us to step into the fullness of who we really are and align our personality to our purpose. Time is the manmade container for this sacred work.

Examine your environment.

Are your team members in roles that allow them to renew their energy? Do they have simple clarity around their purpose? Are they being led according to their inherent strengths? When the answer is yes, you won’t need to manage their time.

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal on April 15, 2019.