Though we’ve never met in person, Toni and I became acquainted through a Facebook community back in 2013. Since that time I’ve learned loads from Toni about time and business management, and have been inspired to dive into more hands-on projects than ever before. She is also the one who originally introduced me to the bullet journal. Need I say more?
Toni is a kind and generous woman who studies hard and thinks deeply, and I am so excited that we get to learn from her today!
I’m tucked into bed and staring up at the ceiling, eyes open in the darkness, mind still running, reviewing the 14 or 16 (or 18 or 20…) hours just past and how they flew by.
I knew I’d been busy all day, and while I did manage to knock a few things off my to-do list, I felt scattered and stretched and as though I was hopping from chore to project to appointment all day.
Putting away baskets of clean laundry after breakfast was a necessary inconvenience, and working on technical bits of my website in the afternoon felt like pulling teeth. Everything took longer than I’d expected, and at the end of it all, I laid in bed feeling harried, overwhelmed, and like I had no choice but to climb out of the pit and then fall into it again the next day.
The tools for staying out of the sleepless pit of unproductivity and frustration, I’ve discovered, are within anyone’s reach. There’s no special training or expensive software or magic caffeine-laced pill involved.
Keeping free of overwhelm and a jumbled calendar is neither an inborn trait possessed by the lucky few nor a happy accident upon which some people are fortunate enough to stumble.
Productivity is a skill that anyone can learn, and it can be honed to a sharper and sharper edge. It requires taking stock of the resources at hand— time and energy—and strategically arranging them to maximize potential. (I know those words sound like they came straight out of some dusty business handbook, but they’re absolutely true!)
Here are four crucial things I’ve learned about time and energy that enable me to go to bed at night knowing that I’ve optimized my day and done the things I’ve needed and wanted to do.
These four strategies build on each other in a specific order, so let’s take them one by one and talk first about time.
Keep a time log.
It wasn’t until I could spell out exactly how I was using my time by writing it down every 15 minutes, all day long for an entire week, that I could take an accurate measure of my situation. It’s tempting to run out and look for “time management solutions” but without taking stock of what’s really happening (and not just what you think is happening), you can’t choose the right strategies for your specific situation.
When I looked at my time log at the end of the week, I realized that some things did take longer than I’d estimated, and others were quick tasks that nevertheless ate away at my focus and derailed me from larger goals.
That bit of writing I thought I could knock out in an hour? Turns out it takes two. Sending a birthday card? Only takes a few minutes, but stopping to do it right when it came to mind (in the middle of that writing assignment!) made my train of thought hop the tracks and I had to work hard to get it moving in the right direction again.
Seeing in black and white exactly what I was doing and when was incredibly enlightening. And observing my behavior changed it, too: knowing that I had to write down “checked Facebook” a dozen times each day curbed quite a bit of time wastage!
Decide and plan in advance.
Like unbudgeted money, time that’s not spoken for is much more likely to be spent on things that may not be serving a higher-priority goal. For me, having an undesignated $5 in my pocket means I’m likely to detour through a coffee shop. A fancy drink may not be much of a drain on my financial goals now and then, but when I spend “only” $5 ten times in a month… well, suddenly I’m down fifty bucks.
There are many ways that time and money can be budgeted as similar resources, but the one major difference is that time is not renewable. I can earn back lost money, use investments to make money grow into more money, or borrow extra from someone who has more money than I do. I can figure out a way to plug that $50 hole I blew in my budget.
With time, however, I get the same amount as everyone else, it can’t be stockpiled, and I absolutely cannot get it back (at least, not until some scientists figure out a way around the laws of the universe!).
Grasping that truth shook me and transformed my perspective on everything I did. I can’t look back on last week’s time log and see where I had a few poorly-spent hours on Wednesday and go back to use them now because poof, they’re already gone.
This harsh reality convinced me that the main strategy I had available to prevent lost time was, indeed, prevention. I realized I had to decide in advance how I would use my time, and plan to make it happen.
Deciding in advance not only prevents lost time but it’s also less stressful and leads to more satisfaction than choosing at the last minute, so I’m really doing my future self a favor. Read Gretchen Rubin’s fascinating books, The Happiness Project and Better Than Before for lots of insight into this strategy.
Pre-planning does not mean that I am compelled to be in go-go-go mode during all waking hours. I make plans that include rest and play, and you should too! Once you get in the habit of tracking your time, you’ll have fresh eyes to see pockets of time where you can do fun things or take a break without throwing off the bigger chunks of your schedule such as work or school.
Now let’s talk about energy.
Like time, human energy isn’t something that can be stored in advance. I can’t sleep all weekend and then not sleep all week because I banked it earlier. Our human bodies and energy cycles just don’t work that way.
And unlike time, energy isn’t universally distributed to everyone; some folks have a fairly low baseline level of energy, while others have the capacity to operate like the Energizer Bunny. Often this individual energetic capacity can be stretched and exercised like a muscle. We can make sure we’re supporting our health, we can push ourselves in the direction of growth. These are long-term strategies.
But what I can do right now is pay attention to the energy I presently have, and how I’m putting it to work for me.
Thanks to my time tracker, I knew how long it took to accomplish certain tasks, but over time I also saw some interesting fluctuation. A brain-draining project that might take me an hour to knock out in the morning might stretch into two in the afternoon. I’ve never, ever been an early-morning exerciser, and there’s absolutely no point in me pulling all-night study or work sessions because after dark I simply won’t accomplish anything worth mentioning.
Why was this? Because human energy is not a constant. And though they are intertwined, there’s a difference between mental and physical energies as well, so we’re dealing with two variable resources. How can we use these resources to capacity?
Learn to hack daily energy cycles.
Surprise: I’m not a battery that can be charged up at night and then run at a constant rate all day. Through observation, I’ve realized that my mental energy is highest in the morning hours, and then tapers off through the rest of the day. At the same time, my physical energy climbs to a peak around the middle of the day, and then tapers along with my brainpower toward bedtime.
Because I’ve tuned into my energy levels, now I know that my morning hours are best spent using my brain when it’s sharpest and when my physical energy is relatively low. I can plan active tasks such as exercise or labor-intensive work to coincide with my physical energy peak later in the day. I can take tasks that don’t demand much of either my brain or body and put them at the end of the day when both resources are near spent. In terms of energy usage, it’s downright cruel self-sabotage for me to waste prime morning hours on folding laundry when I can easily do it on autopilot after supper.
Some of the best advice I’ve read on energy hacking comes from Scott Adams (yes, the Dilbert guy!) in his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. I highly recommend it for anyone, but it should be required reading for entrepreneurs or anyone interested in business, personal success, and productivity. Bonus: it’s a very humorous read.
There’s a second aspect to energy hacking that can take your optimized schedule up to the next level.
Learn to hack monthly energy cycles.
Ancient farming tradition says that plants take root and grow under the dark of the new moon, and they grow, bloom, and produce their hearts out for harvesting and then rest and regroup under the light of the full moon.
This lunar cycle of root-grow-produce-rest repeats itself every 28(ish) days and you don’t have to be especially “woo” to observe, appreciate, and benefit from it. Moon cycles aren’t inherently astrological in the occult sense, and using them to our benefit is no more superstitious than calculating the tide schedules. It’s simple predictable science, not a crystal ball into the future nor a condemnation to doom if you ignore it. But going with the flow instead of against it sure does lead to more ease and less struggle!
Start by getting out your yearly calendar and marking 24 dates on it: 12 new moons and 12 full moons. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you can use this reference. (I also look up and plan for eclipses and other significant lunar phenomena because I’ve observed that they tend to increase my energy and disrupt my sleep.)
Now think about the big projects you want to take on. Not the everyday routines, but the kinds of things that span larger chunks of time, like weeks, months, or even years. If you have the flexibility to decide your own dates (or you have authority over the entire office’s schedule!), then you can begin projects on your calendar around the new moon, and plan for harvest and reflection around the full moon. Launch a product or start a new habit or class with the nourishing new moon, and do performance reviews or take a short retreat with the reflective full moon.
Working in concert with lunar cycles can ease the way for anyone, but one half of the population also has a distinct hormonal cycle to observe, and it’s very similar to the way the moon works. I’ve learned to expect an energy peak around ovulation, and then a significant dip immediately before menstruation, and I strategize around these fluctuations. Knowing that I’ll be twice as productive on some days than others means I can pack my schedule accordingly, and be gentle and less demanding of myself on others.
Practicing these four strategies has honed my productivity to a sharper edge than I’ve ever had before. By combining time tracking with energy hacking, I’ve created space to start and grow new businesses, I’ve made time for significant hobbies and friendships, and I fall asleep at night without wondering if I truly did the best I could with the time and energy I had.
Other recommended resources:
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Greg McKeown)
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Mason Currey)
Lunar Abundance (free moon calendar from Ezzie Spencer)
Do you see why I love Toni so much? And she’s not just an amazing communicator. Among other things, Toni creates an original line of hand-crafted leather traveler’s notebooks, which I will be reviewing for you soon. (If you’re impatient for pictures, click the logo on the right.) You can also find her at tonigatlin.com.
The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. If you’re curious about any of the resources Toni shared, please order using these links as a thank you to Toni for creating this amazing article just for us. There is no extra cost to you, but Toni receives a small commission from the purchase.