The key ingredient to success
Read Time : 12 minutes
Modern research and business literature avers the vital role time management plays in goal accomplishment and in skill acquisition. Time management matrixes (Covey 1989) highlight the importance of focusing on high impact tasks and delegating or deleting the rest.
Fullan (2014) asserts that tasks of significance and complexity require extended, uninterrupted blocks of time, with laser-like focus, in order to ensure flow. Any interruption to this flow or attempt to multi-task will reduce both the quality and quantity of work produced and re-entry into flow state may take up to 15 minutes.
'Priority-Based Scheduling' is therefore of paramount importance and the repercussions and consequences of not scheduling appropriately are stark. As a result, the business world, athletes and high-class performers have all endorsed these practices. The proliferation of scheduling apps, time management diaries and professional development courses on this topic acts as a testament to the adoption of this research.
With the evidence so strong and adoption so widespread, why are individuals still reporting less than optimal progress and sub-standard outcomes? Time management, although hugely important, only accounts for one half of the formula; energy management is the key ingredient for success.
We begin each day, assuming optimal sleep habits, with a full bar of energy. Every task, decision and duty require energy and these chores drain the energy bar in proportion to the demands of the task. As the energy bar drops, so too does performance and subsequently discipline to adhere to the time management plan. If a time management plan is going to be effective, we must plan our time while also being cognisant of the energy requirements of each task.
With the energy demands of any activity being different for each person:
A 5km run for a trained athlete may deplete little energy but the same distance for a prospective runner may be a substantial energy investment
A public debate for one party may be an enjoyable hobby but, for another, a huge cause of stress and anxiety, thus, carrying a large energy requirement
A difference of opinions at work may be a substantial or negligible energy drain depending on the resilience and experience of the individual
self-evaluation, self-reflection and self-awareness must be employed to allow us to schedule our days appropriately and to avoid the Achilles' heel of effective planning - overscheduling.
If you find your meetings on a Wednesday draining and leave with the need to rest and recharge, scheduling important tasks for Wednesday evening is not only ineffective but extremely counter-productive. The chance of completing the task is very much diminished and even if you can muster the will to complete the task, the quality will undoubtedly be compromised. As a result, we must manage our time in the context of available energy versus the energy cost of the task.
In this fluid, rapidly changing, hyper-connected society managing energy has never been so burdensome. With informed strategies, sensible scheduling and self-awareness, however, there is light at the end of the tunnel and the real possibility of creating processes which improve outcomes. The strategies which have been most beneficial both in research terms and to me personally are discussed below:
Consistency > Intensity
By its very definition, undertaking activities with intensity implies that the enterprise cannot be sustained indefinitely:
the boxer who stays in camp too long gets injured,
the engineer who spends too long in the office burns out,
the student who studies for too long becomes resentful of the subject.
When managing our energy it is best to be consistent with our practice and only do as much work as is required to move the needle. Repeated marginal improvements lead to significant gains in the long term.
Take, for example, athletes embarking on a 'Push-Up Program' aiming to improve chest strength:
Athlete A decides to do 1 intense workout (for his ability) a week:
5 sets x 8 push-ups
Athlete B decides he'll do 10 push-ups every day
Athlete A does a hard session on his first day (40 reps of push-ups) and has muscle soreness which subsides just in time for his next session. As a result, he questions the process, the investment and the energy required to sustain the program and discipline faulters.
Athlete B, on the other hand, spends less than 3 minutes per day doing press-up (70 reps in total that week), has zero pain as his body recovers easily from these short workouts, and he feels the 10 press-ups become easier everyday with little investment in time or energy. He persists with the habit as a result and may even up his reps to 11 per day when he is totally comfortable with 10.
Research backs this approach and Ferris (2011) attests that we should seek 'The Minimum Effective Dose' when undertaking any task; a concept that suggests we should do the minimum amount of work necessary to move us towards our desired goal before stopping. This way we set continual improvement in motion and allow the magic of compounding to take over. This creates a climate where intuition, creativity, capacity building and innovation are central as we move towards a ‘not too precisely articulated vision of direction’ through, as Sir. Dave Brailsford pens it, ‘marginal gains’ (Walsh 2014, pg. iv).
With 'Minimum Effective Dose' the focus is on improving marginally over time with minimal energy requirements. Examples include:
Adding 1km to your long cycle every week for 6 weeks
Integrating one new system/ concept into your work life per year
Reducing your calories to the maximum amount that still allows weight loss.
Minimum Effective Dose allows for exponential growth over time while maintaining and managing the energy demands required. Next time you hear someone telling you to 'Go All In' or promoting the 'More is Better' mindset, it is important to reflect on the trade-offs and costs associated with such strategies.
Energisers and De-energisers
People hold the ability to energise, motivate and invigorate or to de-energise, making us apathetic, passive and detached. Ironically, the same message from two different people can have the complete opposite effect depending on the delivery of the message, the quality of the relationship and the (perceived) agenda of the individual relaying the comments.
It stands to reason that we should do all in our power to surround ourselves with those who invigorate, revitalise and rejuvenate us. Within such relationships trust is high, conflict (within the confines of conflict norms) is encouraged in the pursuit of excellence and all individuals are motivated, challenged and held to a higher standard than is possible individually. It creates a win/ win situation (Covey 1989, pg. 206) where individual and group capacity development are inevitable.
With modern research (Groth 2012) asserting that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, surrounding yourself with energisers is of upmost importance. In modern employment and family life, however, creating this environment is easier said than done. It is rare that we choose our colleagues, and we have little to no control over the family we have inherited or the friends we have accumulated over the years.
Dealing with De-energisers
Contrary to many business professionals who advocate dropping anyone, including family and life-long friends, who no longer serve your agenda, I feel that we should cherish these long-term relationships while minimising their deenergising effects. Afterall, these people have walked your journey with you, vehemently supported your endeavours and been your biggest partisans through thick and thin.
In the professional sphere you may have colleagues who take the wind right out of your sails; your best never seems good enough, every solution you offer is flawed and every e-mail or impromptu conversation leaves you irritated, irked or even infuriated. Within these confines minimising contact, as best as possible, while still fulfilling the collaborative work necessary to meet company targets is key.
The impact of regular contact with a de-energiser can be profound; decreased job satisfaction, decreased morale and decreased self-esteem, not to mention the detrimental effect it will have on both the quality and quantity of work produced. Minimising contact with de-energisers will not only have a positive impact on these key indicators of employment health but also open up more time for deep work, building relationships with others who energise you and investing in the opportunities that arise as a result.
Steering the Conversation
In the social sphere de-energisers tend to take on a different guise. Rarely is that friend or family member a de-energiser in all facets of life but they tend to have a specialist subject or belief set that when mentioned steals both your time and energy. Some of usual suspects are politics, news, sports, their job or anecdotes and stories from the past. It becomes our role to consciously and tactfully steer the conversation away from these topics. It is also our responsibility to intentionally refrain from speaking on issues that may de-energise others.
If you have a safety conscious aunt, it is probably best not to tell her about the sky dive
If you have an overprotective mother, it is probably best not to invite her to your boxing bout
If you have a political activist as a friend, it is probably best not to engage in an ideological debate
unless you are willing and happy to contend with the two-hour conversation that will inevitably ensue.
The data are clear; avoid or minimise time with energy vampires and avoid topics that have a negative impact on your energy bank balance. Not only will this improve your life experience but the relationships and conversations you do engage in will act as an energy elixir, giving you more energy for a more meaningful and fulfilling life.
Perssonn et al. (2019) describe decision fatigue as the ‘depleting effect of repeated decision making’ while Baumeister (2011) defines it as 'the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after continuously making decisions’. This premise suggests that each and every decision we make drains our energy, increasing the energy cost and decreasing the quality of subsequent decisions.
This phenomenon is widely recognised in the realms of sport, academia and administration work; it is the reason why an athlete makes questionable decisions at the end of a game, why a student makes simple mistakes at the end of an examination or why a clerical worker makes input errors towards the end of the workday.
Within each context repeated decision making increases the individual’s proclivity to turn to 'decision making heuristics, that is, mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions on the basis of simple rules of thumb without engaging in cognitively demanding reasoning' (Perssonn 2019, pg. 1194). In short, they 'rely on a default option or preference for the status quo' (Johnson 2003) rather than making a fully informed, data-driven decision. The implications above are a lost game, a poor examination result or a poor data set; relatively inconsequential situations, but the impact of decision fatigue in other professions can be the difference between life or death and freedom or incarceration.
Danziger et al. (2011) found that decision fatigue played a role in the likelihood of a prisoner receiving parole. Upon reviewing over 1000 judges' parole decisions, they found the prisoners who came up for decision early in the morning were granted parole around 65% of the time and that this rate steadily declined to 15% just before break. Surprisingly, after break and lunch breaks, the chance of parole was again high. The authors concluded 'that making decisions is depleting, and once depleted, judges start to look for the easiest and safest option, which is to stick with the status quo and leave the prisoners in jail'.
Statistics from other fields are equally as perturbing and perplexing with Perssonn (2019) attesting to a strong link between surgeons' decisions to operate and the sequence of patient appointments they face throughout the day: much fewer patients are scheduled for operations by surgeons who are nearing the end of their work shift. This position is bolstered by Linder et al. (2014) who avows that clinicians suffering from decision fatigue are more likely to make more conservative management plans and also to offer inappropriate treatment options, such as unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics, to take the path of least resistance.
With decision fatigue being a well-recognised cause of poor decision making, decision avoidance and as a precursor to burnout, we must do all in our power to protect our energy from this draining phenomenon. Some top performers go to extremes to minimise decision fatigue which allows them to focus all of their energy on their highest purpose.
Mark Zuckerberg, Barrack Obama and Matt D'Avella wear the same outfit every day, while Tim Ferriss and countless professionals and athletes follow the same routines, diets and protocols every day to minimise the need to make any decisions other than those connected with their goals. The results: better processes, systems and decisions within their domain coupled with less fatigue and better recovery.
Although we may not want, nor need, to go to these extremes in the pursuit of better performance, it is important to minimise decision fatigue in our lives to ensure we have the energy to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. The following strategies, along with well-defined boundaries and standards are the key to avoiding decision fatigue:
Distribute, Delegate or Delete
Distribute, Delegate or Delete
Although we sometimes find it difficult to fathom, our skill level at a particular task is not as unique as we would like to think. In fact, if we were to leave our current role today most of us would be promptly replaced with someone who would do the role reasonably well. In trying to do everything within our role or business we miss the opportunity to distribute leadership, empower others and build capacity across the company.
Find those tasks that are energy heavy but that are not your top priority and distribute those to others who are looking for opportunities to develop and improve. It is important to note that distribution differs from delegation in that the prime concern is not to decrease personal workload but to help build the capacity of others in your company.
For those tasks that you hate and that substantially eat into your energy reserve, automate or delegate:
You hate to do laundry, employ a company to do so
You despise cooking, employ a meal prep company
Doing the accounts creates anxiety, employ an accountant
Although an extra financial expense, these costs save time and more importantly energy to allow you to focus on your goals. More often than not, this increase in energy and time will allow you to make leaps and bounds within your career or business allowing you to recoup these outlays ten-fold.
As difficult as this pill is to swallow, the majority of the things you do don't matter to anyone other than yourself. The quickest and easiest way to regain energy is to delete the things in your career or personal life that no longer serve you.
You no longer enjoy that CrossFit class your friends all go to: Stop going
That advertising course you enrolled in is of no value to your company: Stop attending
The book you are reading isn't enjoyable: Stop reading
The data are clear: if we do not regularly and consistently evaluate our current habits, practices and scheduling we will end up depleting our energy reserves with things that do not matter.
For (non emergency) decisions, discussion with a friend or trusted colleague can reignite your energy, open up new perspectives and offer alternative solutions which may not have been clear during the heat of the moment.
Taking a break from the situation helps not only remove any fervour but also gives the opportunity for a better overview. This coupled with the external perspective of a trusted friend will help make the solution clearer and, as such, the decision better.
Few decisions in life need to be taken immediately.
Should I employ this interviewee?
Will I rent this office space?
How do I deal with the two colleagues who have had a conflict today?
Haste, in some cases, comes at the cost of a well-considered, non-emotional decision and the long term good of the company. In all likelihood the interviewee and office space will still be available after a few days and, if not, other candidates and workspaces will arise. Two conflicting colleagues will likely be less emotionally charged the next day or will have resolved their issues themselves having taken the space to evaluate.
Delaying decisions reserves energy by removing the imminent pressure to act and the stress and anguish which accompany it. Rarely will delaying a non-emergency decision come at a cost. In fact, it will allow you the breathing space and room for consideration which may prevent you from jumping headfirst into a terrible decision.
The data are clear; time management is only one half of the formula. If we are to make extraordinary in-roads on our goals, we must manage both our time, through priority-based scheduling, and energy impeccably. We must employ the principle of ‘Minimum Effective Dose’ religiously, be invitational to those who energise us and manage decision fatigue judiciously. The creation and implementation of these processes within your own context will undoubtedly lead to exponential growth within your life, career and domain of expertise.
Do you employ consistency or intensity?
In which areas of your life do you need to apply the ‘Minimum Effect Dose’?
Who are the people that energise you?
Do you protect yourself from decision fatigue?
If not, what strategies can you implement to improve this?
Allan JL, Johnston DW, Powell DJH, et al. Clinical decisions and time since rest break: an analysis of decision fatigue in nurses. Health Psychology. 2019
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Danziger, S. , Levav, J. , & Avnaim‐Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889–6892
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