A meaningfully productive life depends on how we manage 3 key finite resources: time, energy, and attention.
Time, energy, and attention are indispensable (and finite) elements of productivity
Making a life that matters is about making the best possible use of certain key but finite resources: time, energy, and attention. These are what we need in order to accomplish anything. The challenge is we have a finite amount of each. Each of them can be used up, wasted, or invested–we get to choose.
This often is the first thing we think of when we think about productivity–in our minds, productivity might be synonymous with time management. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but making good use of our time is essential to a productive life. Time is finite: Everybody gets the same amount of time in any given hour, day, week, month, year, regardless of age or status. No amount of money can buy more. At the same time, none of us knows how much time we have left. We seldom think about that when we’re young, more often as we get older, but the truth is, none of us is guaranteed the next day, or even the next minute after this one.
A crisis can bring this to the forefront of our minds. As Cheryl Richardson says in her book, Take Time for Your Life,
“In an instant, life as you know it can disappear forever. All the things that were so important just one minute before–like the big project that must be completed by 5 p.m. or the deal you’re trying to close–are rendered meaningless in a matter of seconds. Instead, you immediately turn your thoughts to the people in your life.”
The uncertainty of life makes it all the more important to use the time we have wisely. This doesn’t mean we should plan every day down to the minute, but it behooves us all to pay attention to how we’re using the hours and days of our lives and make sure we’re satisfied.
- There is no one right way, it’s very individualized, specific to our personality, our stage of life, our goals, and our vision for our own life.
- Nobody can tell us whether we’re using our time wisely; we have to decide that for ourselves.
To make the best use of our time, we need to think deeply about what matters most to us, and then measure our results to that, to make sure the way we’re using our time is effective, moving us toward achieving our goals and consistent with the life we actually want.
Effective use of our time requires first awareness of how we’re actually using our time. I recommend we all periodically do the exercise Laura Vanderkam talks about in her thought-provoking book, I Know How She Does It: keep a time log for a week. Then take a close look at how you’re actually using the time you have and evaluate how you feel about it. Identify time-wasters (social media? trash TV? traffic jams?) and develop strategies to eliminate, or at least minimize, them.
The purpose of time management techniques and tools isn’t to be able to cram more and more into each day. It’s to be as efficient and effective as possible at the essential tasks to leave more time for what matters most. Busy is not productive if you’re spending your time on things that don’t matter to you.
What does it mean?
en·er·gy| ˈenərjē | noun (plural energies)
1 the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity: changes in the levels of vitamins can affect energy and well-being.
In physics, energy is defined as the capacity to work.
Synonyms: vitality, vigor, life, liveliness, animation, vivacity, spirit, spiritedness, fire, passion, ardor, zeal, verve, enthusiasm, zest, vibrancy, spark, sparkle, effervescence, exuberance, buoyancy, perkiness, sprightliness; strength, stamina, forcefulness, power, might, potency, dynamism, drive, push; informal zip, zing, pep, pizzazz, punch, bounce, fizz, oomph, go, get-up-and-go, vim and vigor; North American informal feistiness.
How is it relevant to productivity?
Our energy is what determines how much we can actually do in the time available to us. As the authors of The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal have said,
“The ultimate measure of our lives is not how much time we spend on the planet, but rather how much energy we invest in the time that we have.”
Another writer, in a blog post that quoted those same authors, notes:
“Energy is a renewable resource, but only up to a certain point. Scheduling every minute of free time to increase productivity may seem like a good use of time, but it doesn’t account for the need to replenish energy. . . . Over time, a lack of energy can cause a dip in productivity, even when there’s more than enough time to get the required tasks done.”
To use time the most effectively, we need to identify what saps it, how we can conserve it, and what we can do to boost it.
What can sap our energy?
- Physiological causes (illness — e.g., hypothyroidism or COVID; poor diet; lack of sleep)
- Environmental causes (stress of our jobs or personal situations; negative or complaining people; clutter;
As on writer puts it in a post in the Harvard Business Review,
“To recharge themselves, individuals need to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances they’re facing.”
Learn how to replenish your energy, and take the time to do it. This is different for each of us. I love how one writer talked about this:
“The “right” way to recharge your tank is with yoga and meditation … unless you hate yoga and meditation! If you’ve been taught that a recharge must involve deep cleansing breaths and a mantra, you’re not alone. And if said breaths and mantras do indeed recharge you, then, by all means, lean into them. But we’re all wired differently. There’s nothing universally right about yoga. For an introvert, watching a quick cat video (no shame) or listening to a song or two might do the trick. An extrovert may prefer a quick stop at the water cooler to pick up some dish. For some it’s reading a brief article or checking a simple to-do off your list. [Whatever it is for you,] Often an investment of a few minutes can put hours back on your personal battery.”
Rest and recovery should be part of your regular schedule (rather than waiting until you crash).
Learn to understand your own internal energy rhythm. When are your energy levels best for certain types of tasks? Can you schedule your day accordingly? When you work for someone else you can’t always do that, but still, as one writer puts it, “knowing what tasks you’re most productive working on at certain times throughout the day helps you make good choices when the choice is yours to make.”
Take care of your body and your mind, as the health of both directly affects your energy levels. Fuel your body well; drink plenty of water; get a reasonable amount of regular movement; do what it takes to make sure you get enough sleep; feed your mind and spirit with uplifting and motivating content; minimize the negative inputs into your life.
What does it mean?
1 the issue clearly needs further attention: observation, attentiveness, intentness, notice, concentration, heed, heedfulness, mindfulness, regard, scrutiny; contemplation, consideration, deliberation, thought, thinking, studying, investigation, action.
2 he was likely to attract the attention of a policeman: awareness, notice, observation, consciousness, heed, recognition, regard, scrutiny, surveillance, attentiveness; curiosity, inquisitiveness.
How is it relevant to productivity?
We are most efficient and effective when we are fully focused on what we are doing in the moment. Multitasking–which really is just switching our attention back and forth between two (or more) things–impairs our productivity, usually resulting in more mistakes, and tasks taking more time. To make the best use of it we need to understand what interferes with it and how we can strengthen it. Much has been written about the difficulties we face in this 21st century in focusing our attention when we need to. So many distractions, both internal and external, in our noisy world. As Cal Newport talks about in his fascinating book, Digital Minimalism, even the tools we acquire to boost our productivity are designed to pull at our attention.
To be fully productive, we need to nurture the skill of focusing our attention on one thing at a time:
“Practicing attention management is about maintaining control of where your attention goes, and recognizing when it’s being stolen, either by external distractions or internal errant thoughts, rumination, or anxiety. The more you become aware of your distractions, the easier it becomes to manage them. For most of us, distraction has become a habit, and the first step of habit change is awareness, because you can’t change a habit that you don’t realize you have.” [from a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, Is It Even Possible to Focus on Anything Right Now?]
Like everything else, managing our attention well starts with awareness. Maura Thomas, author of Attention Management (which we talked about in episode 271 as part of our recurring Productive Reading series) talks about different “brain states” or, as is noted in an article called Forget Time Management – Attention Management Is the Better Path to Productivity, the “‘four quadrants” of attention we occupy and move between in any given point of the day”:
- Reactive and Distracted
- Focused and Mindful
- Daydreaming or Mind Wandering
Being aware of where we are on that spectrum at any given time is important. So is being aware of what helps us enter the more focused states (her Focused and Mindful state, or even the Flow state, which to me is similar to author Chris Bailey’s hyperfocus we talked about in episode 383). Important, too, to know how we can enter the unfocused time–the Daydreaming or Mind Wandering State. As Bailey talks about in Hyperfocus, and as we discussed in episode 383, downtime–unfocused time–is essential to our ability to focus our attention when we need to. Interesting to note that just like rest is necessary to maximize our energy, it’s also necessary to manage our attention and enter into that hyperfocused state we need in order to produce results in any area of our life, whether it’s work, learning, or relationships.
This episode is not meant to be an exhaustive examination of these three areas, but just to get us all thinking about the importance of each of these finite resources that are essential components of a meaningfully productive life. We’ll be revisiting each over the months to come, digging in a little deeper. In the meantime, check out the articles, books, and other resources listed in the show notes. In her book, Take Time for Your Life, author and coach Cheryl Richardson says:
“Making the decision to change your life starts by making a personal choice.”
“Creating a life that you love takes courage, commitment, and hard work.”
What do you think?
Which of these components–time, energy, or attention–do you struggle with the most? Post your suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Links
- Time is limited: How do you spend it? | by Pablo Ramos | Medium
- Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time
- Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time: How to Work Smarter and Faster
- Why Managing Your Energy Is the Key to Maximum Productivity | Inc.com
- How to Increase Your Productivity by Managing Your Energy | Get-It-Done Guy
- Optimize Your Day For Maximum Productivity With Personal Energy Management | by Prakhar Verma | Mission.org | Medium
- Selective Attention: The Most Important Concept in Cognitive Psychology
- Why focus is the key to productivity in the attention economy – Go1
- Productivity Isn’t About Time Management. It’s About Attention Management. – The New York Times
- How to Focus Your Attention and Improve Productivity with 7 Simple Tips – Lifehack
- Attention Management: Productivity Skill You Need to Take Control of Your To Do List | Real Simple
- Is It Even Possible to Focus on Anything Right Now?
- 6 Simple Steps to Keep Your Mind Sharp at Any Age
Books and TPW Episodes
- Take Time for Your Life, by Cheryl Richardson
- I Know How She Does It, by Laura Vanderkam
- The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
- Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport
- Attention Management, by Maura Thomas
- Hyperfocus, by Chris Bailey
- TPW271 – Productive Reading: Attention Management, by Maura Thomas
- TPW383 – Making the Most of Time Off
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