Balancing Time, Energy and Attention
I’ve been thinking about my productivity, since I’ve restarted blogging. Blogging takes perhaps an hour a day, an hour that I didn’t think I could easily find. Strangely that hour blogging seems to have increased my perception of available time though and this post explores why.
Blogging has provided me with a anchor routine, after swimming and stretching I head to Caffe Nero where I sit for an hour and write. This is a wonderful time, it’s nice and quiet first thing in the morning and I like the fact that I have some time to focus on myself. After an hour writing I’ve energised and focussed and in a reflective mood. Perfect conditions for my next hours work which is focussed on reading and other research activities.
As I’ve thought through the rest of my daily routine I’ve realised that what I’m doing is carefully managing my time, energy and attention to keep them in careful balance. Everyone will work in different ways, but the need to manage time, energy and attention is common to us all.
I don’t have a lot of time available for work (4 hours a day) and I don’t have a lot of energy, so I have to have laser like focus on paying attention to only the highest value activities. When I do work I need to be in as productive environment as possible, ideally in a state of flow. That’s where I am right now as I write this.
Most dysfunction in work seems to arise when people get these three areas out of balance. Lets look at the three biggest issues. Working for too long, drains your energy and weakens your ability to pay attention, to identify what’s important and focus on that. The more hours you work the worse it gets and the more the contagion spreads to those around you. Everyone is drawn into working longer hours, lack to attention means productivity is low and everyone starts to get drawn into busy work and meetings rather than getting their heads into a state of flow and doing high value work. The long hours and poor progress sap energy and the team heads for burnout. You can see how vicious cycles can quickly develop as progress stalls, project managers start demanding longer hours and more meetings and so the team inches even closer to burnout. I recently saw a presentation at work praising various individuals and teams for working 60 hour weeks, working every weekend for months as I read this I had to sigh that this would be considered praiseworthy. The manager concerned was intentionally promoting a dysfunctional culture. Personally I think a 40 hour maximum working week is a good idea, I think that when everything is in balance 25 hours hours would be even better.
Next up lets consider energy. Energy is perhaps our most precious resource, but it’s also a replenishable one. You can be totally drained by midday, but a lunch with friends, a walk in the sun and a run up and down the stairs gets you going again, mid afternoon a 15 minute walk and a drink of cold water does the same. Knowing what time of day you are naturally energised, what reenergises you and what saps your energy away is key. If you work in an office just having a good chair, good lighting, fresh air, a view and taking a mix of exercise and relaxation breaks will help no end. The busier you are the more focus you need on energy management. As they say “always meditate for 15 minutes every day unless you are busy, then meditate for 60 minutes”.
Finally attention, careful consideration of what you choose to work on and making progress on that work should be foremost in your mind. It’s incredibly easy to fill a long day with meetings and email and at the end of that exhausting day slump down in front of the TV and struggle to identify and real progress made. I’ve done it so many times that it makes me uncomfortable just to think about it, but there have also been other days when I went to work with full attention directed on a goal and worked solidly for 3 hours and did more than I usually do in a week. It’s a good idea to ask yourself at the end of the day which activities really delivered value, were those meetings needed? did you need to attend? did you need to receive all those emails? Then having reflected on today, spend 5 minutes writing down the top three things you want to achieve tomorrow and block out the time. At the end of the week do the same.
I’ve designed my daily routine around progress. By 7:30 I’ve done the most important thing in my day. I’ve prepared my 12 servings of fruit and veg so there’s no excuses, eased my sore body with a swim and stretched on the beach. By 8:30 I’ve made some concrete progress by writing a blog post, over the years those 1000+ posts are an invaluable resource to me that just keeps on getting better. By 9:00 I’ve walked to the Beach Terrace Cafe for breakfast and reading, I share all my reading via twitter @steveisreading which provides a very useful archive for me but also gives me a little satisfaction that I’m providing a curated stream of good articles for others to scan. By 10:30 I’m walking again or cycling listening to podcasts. Each week I have four working afternoons, two of these are reserved for 4 blocks of 90 minutes of creative work, the other two are for meetings where my focus is on helping others succeed by honing their attention.
All of these considerations apply as much to family life as they do to work. Making sure you have enough energy left when you leave work to spend time with those you love, making sure that you pay attention when your wife talks about her day, that you make time for one to one time with your kids and that you have the energy for date nights ….
The photo is of St Annes beach, viewed from the promenade where I like to do my stretches