The disruption of our familiar routines and loss of structure over the last several months has added a tremendous strain to the mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing of individuals across the globe. However, we do not need to rely on external guidance and obligations for the structure many of us are desperately seeking; we have the power to create new routines for ourselves that will help us successfully navigate through our days and effectively use our time.
This is the first post of a three-part series dedicated to equipping you with knowledge and strategies that will help you claim ownership of your schedule and feel like you are back in the driver’s seat of your life. The focus on this week’s blog is to help you better recognize the natural ebbs and flows of your energy throughout the day and week to better match your personal energy capacity with the demands of specific tasks. Mastering this balance will result in increased productivity as well as improved rest and recovery.
STOPPING THE CYCLE OF GUILT
Too often, we feel shame or guilt over what we think we “should” be doing but still lack the motivation needed to actually approach the tasks on our growing “to do” lists. Let’s pause for a moment to better understand what is happening in these moments…
- Our brains are wired to avoid discomfort! As long as passively marinating in a bowl of guilt and shame is perceived to be less uncomfortable than actually taking the steps needed to complete our work, we’ll continue to procrastinate and mentally berate ourselves for not taking action.
- Our beliefs about our own abilities will determine if we approach or avoid a task. For example, if we believe that we don’t have the knowledge, skills, or energy needed to complete a task, we are more likely to perceive it as a threat and procrastinate to avoid failure. Conversely, if we believe we have the ability to complete a task, we are more likely to approach those situations as opportunities to be successful.
- Our preferences have a huge impact on our motivation. Whether it is in academia, sport, work, chores, or something else entirely, we will naturally gravitate toward tasks that we actually enjoy or believe we do well! That said, we must remember that these pleasant or enjoyable tasks are not always the ones that need our immediate attention and can distract us from more urgent deadlines.
Looking back at what we just discussed, one thing we can do to make tasks appear less threatening (#2) and less unpleasant (#3) is to put a time limit on how long we need to expend energy to engage in that activity (#1). In this sense, owning our schedule means we are creating specific periods of time to be “off” and other blocks of time to be “on.” This idea is easy to understand, but it can be much more difficult to implement in real life. Moreover, it’s a key step to alleviating the guilt and shame of, “I should be doing X, Y, and Z.”
Work this exercise for a couple of minutes: When you get up and start your day, what do you feel that you need to spend time doing? What are your top five priorities that are “non-negotiable” for you? This might include things like school, work, exercise, spirituality, family, and/or friends.
The first step to creating an effective schedule is to honestly identify our priorities whether we like them or not. Schedule these priorities into your week as non-negotiable appointments, such as meeting with your boss, seeing the dentist, or going on a hot date. By holding yourself accountable to these appointments or schedule blocks, you effectively create boundaries for yourself to stay on task and increase productivity. In turn, you’ll likely find you have more space in your life for guilt-free rest and play.
In their book, The Power of Full Engagement (2003), Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe energy as the currency of high performance. However, before we can leverage the ebbs and flows of our energy to maximize productivity and complete the tasks that require our immediate attention, we must first understand the various types of energy we have at our disposal. Loehr and Schwartz describe four sources of energy that need to be tended to in order to fully engage with the various delights and demands that we encounter in all areas of life:
Physical energy is the foundation of engagement and includes our physical health, nutrition, hydration, recovery, and sleep. Successful management of our physical energy, or our ability to balance activity, nourishment, and rest, leads to increased productivity.
Emotional energy feeds our sense of security and allows us to react to a broad set of circumstances that impact our emotion and mood states, and it includes feeling competent, autonomous, and valued for who you are and what you do.
Mental energy is what fuels our attention span and focus. Overcoming mental stressors and challenges, such as learning new information or skills, helps to expand our capabilities and resiliency. However, we must also be careful to avoid overuse, such as marathon study sessions, which can have a detrimental effect on our long-term productivity.
Spiritual energy is not about religion, but rather, it refers to our sense of peace, purpose, connectedness, and belonging. Building our value systems and understanding the impact of our actions beyond our own personal needs helps to replenish this energy source, which fuels our passions, perseverance, commitment, and motivation to act.
Our routines, or energy rituals, create important boundaries that allow us to move from one activity to another with intention. In short, it is our process of full engagement or strategic disengagement. For example, let’s say you’ve created a schedule to be fully engaged in homework for 90 minutes followed by 30 minutes of strategic disengagement, which can involve any activity that helps to replenish one of your four primary energy sources. This might include a walk, run, or workout (physical), a mindfulness meditation (emotional), cooking a meal (mental), or connecting with a friend (spiritual). Once your time for strategic disengagement is complete, you can then choose to re-engage with your homework or move on to the next task. These rituals of change provide scheduled structure to cycle between performance and recovery. If an activity is not helping you achieve peak performance or replenish your energy, it might be worth considering if it is really worth doing!
MASTERING THE ENERGY-TASK BALANCE
Tune in to your flow of energy throughout the day and make your schedule work for you! If you are more focused and creative first thing in the morning, set aside a block of time to work on writing projects with a hot pot of coffee. If it is easier for you to read and comprehend textbook material in the afternoons or you are a late-night statistics wizard, play to your strengths! Reflecting back on what we have learned about energy, we know that smaller blocks of work that are completed consistently (each day) can often be more productive than a single, massive chunk of time once or twice a week. However, the best combination will depend on your unique personality and preferences.
Remember that we are working in two modes when it comes to our “non-negotiable” priorities, commitments, or obligations: intentional engagement or strategic disengagement.
The purpose of planning is to benefit YOU and hold you accountable to the commitments you have identified as most important. For example, if you had a doctor’s appointment on your calendar, you would not hesitate to tell a friend that you can’t grab coffee during that appointment. Similarly, you wouldn’t call a potential employer to reschedule an interview for your dream job because Netflix just released the newest season of Schitt’s Creek. With this in mind, protect the priorities on your personal calendar with the same care and intensity that you would commit to external obligations. Your workout or yoga class, study time, or even a tea party with your child is just as important as anything else; the difference is that we tend to value others’ time more than we value our own and, frankly, we don’t have time for that!
For school, it is critically important that we defend our time. We need to be able to tell others, “This is my time for school,” or, “I’m in class,” for about 6-9 hours per week, per class. Schedule your class and study time and guard it with ferocity. Most undergraduate and graduate courses require about 80-100 hours of work outside of any time spent in class. Whether we are participating in face-to-face instruction or are attending lectures over Zoom, these additional hours don’t just magically appear! Completing your education is like having another part-time or full-time job, depending on your course load. Believe it or not, family and friends are more accommodating than you think when you have a consistently scheduled time to do your homework and attend classes. If it is clear that you respect your time and your commitments, it is much easier for others to do the same.
This is the first of a three-part series addressing strategies to better manage our schedules and structure our daily lives. As we learned today, creating, managing, and maintaining a schedule is our responsibility. Identifying our priorities, approaching tasks in manageable blocks, managing our energy, and creating appropriate boundaries on our time can all help us to be more productive, resilient, and engaged. Strategically and consistently working toward accomplishing goals and meeting deadlines is truly the foundation of your academic success.