Code Monkey
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Think Energy Not Time


Time. It always seems like there is never enough of it. It is the great equalizer. If only we had a little more time we could get all of these amazing things done! I've talked endlessly about making efficient use of your time. Deliberate practice, deep work and minimizing context switches are key areas which I continue to strive to improve.

However, the other week I ran into a strange roadblock. I batch my meetings together in order to minimize context switching and make efficient use of time. This particular afternoon after a handful of back-to-back meetings I was done for the day and I could finally get to writing some focus work done. I sat down but surprisingly nothing. I was absolutely drained. Looking for a boost I went to grab a coffee and some fresh air. "Okay, now I'm ready!" I told myself. I sat down and still nothing. I couldn't focus or bring myself to get working. Was I burnt out? I felt like I wanted to keep working and was looking forward to doing it but something was off. It wasn't like today I had more meetings than other days nor was I not excited to do the work (in fact it was the opposite, I was looking forward to this quiet time.). I eventually gave up, called it a day and went to go hit some tennis balls to turn my mind off.

It wasn't until I heard Sam Corocs talk about the emotional cost of an activity that it clicked. He mentioned that the "feeling" of time spent depends can vary depending on it's emotional cost.

Work that is fun, easy, or energizing feels like it takes up less time, while work that is demanding or emotionally taxing feels like it takes up more time than it actually did. 1

That's where it clicked that time is not the metric of interest it is energy. It is not about how much time this activity will take but rather how much energy it will drain. Energy is the resource we care about. It is what controls what we can and can't do.

Energy Expenditure

Whenever you do anything it takes up energy. However, not all tasks are made equal. If you ask me to play a tennis match versus hitting against a ball machine these will drain an uneven amount of energy. Let's call this energy

Energyμ×Time\begin{equation} \text{Energy} \approx \mu\times\text{Time} \end{equation}

where μ\mu is the energy expenditure multiplier. That is, every second you spend doing an activity there's a hidden multiplier in play that may result in a non-even drain of energy.

This simple framework explains what happened that day where I couldn't bring myself to work. I was giving feedback which has a μ\mu of closer to 2. When compared to my typical problem solving which I give a μ\mu factor of 0.5. That meant, even though I spent only ~2 hours in meetings it ended up being equivalent in emotional energy drain as ~8 hours of coding. No wonder I was drained for the day!

When scheduling your days, be sure to understand the energy expenditure.

Energy Capacity

Energy, unlike time, can be increased! That dream of always wanting more time might not come true but it is definitely possible to get more energy!

The most obvious example is sleep. Sleep is the energy replenisher. Those overly focused on time can boast working 80-90 hours with little sleep but end up depleting their energy faster than they can use their newly gained time. They end up doing low-energy activities, as their reserves are stripped dry, and try to make up for it with spending more time.

There are other energy replenishers such as going for walks, eating well and everything you already know that is good for you. With an energy focused model these activities no longer feel like a "waste of time" but instead are framed as "increasing energy"! Taking some time to do some painting is replenishing your emotional energy to make you more effective.

Energy Axis

The energy formula above is of course an over simplification. A better model is to look at the different axis of energy.

Harvard Business Review article "Managed Your Energy, Not Time" 2 categorises energy into "physical, mental, emotional and spiritual" energy.

Each activity has a different energy expenditure multiplier for each axis. A simple example is running, it is going to take a huge amount of physical energy for little to no mental energy. In fact, it likely can replenish mental energy by giving your brain a rest!

Your energy capacity for each of these axis is different too!

Energy Efficiency

A unique aspect of energy is the energy expenditure multiplier μ\mu is not necessairly constant. You can modify it and make your energy efficiency more expensive.

However, this will be an investment and will not come for free. In order to improve your energy expenditure multiplier you must spend your energy.

The easiest example is fitness. Running 5km might consume an exhorbent amount of physical and emotional energy at first. However, with due time this factor starts to drop and running 5km becomes closer to being effortless.

This means you should not just avoid all activities with a large μ\mu. Some activities just due to their nature have high energy consumption but working at them will help drop μ\mu.

Energy Crisis

We know when we think about physical energy that it makes no sense to push our bodies 80-90 hours a week nor is it efficient. However, we seem to forget that when it comes to mental, emotional or spirtial energy.

The glorification of overwork has been more harmful than beneficial. I care about hardwork as much as the next person. Working hard is the key to growth. However, it's the mischaracterisation that hard work is purely translated to time spent. Emphasis on pure hours instead of efficient energy usage has resulted in an energy crisis. Ignoring our energy reserves and draining them dry is a surefire way to burnout.

Everyones energy coefficients are different. Find what is an efficient use of your energy. Sourround yourself with those who replenish your energy. Do things that align with your energy.

Think energy not time.