Have you ever had days where the stars aligned, you felt amazing, and you were executing on important projects left and right? Have you ever had days where you’re left with a tension headache at the end of the day wondering wondering where all the time went? Today let’s talk about the difference between these two types of days, and how you can maximize your probability of experiencing the former.
Generally speaking, what happens to you NOW is a function of what your past self did (plus some random/external effects outside of your control). Since we can’t control those external or random factors, let’s just focus on what is in your control. In particular, let’s talk about the major factors that influence how much energy you have to do things in the day.
This should be a no-brainer, but so many “high-functioning” type A individuals pride themselves on working 16+hr days on only 5 hrs of sleep. Now, there is a certain small % of the population that actually can do this and be OK. But the odds are, you are not one of those special snowflakes. Most people need 8-9 hrs of sleep, maybe less as you get older. To achieve optimal sleep, make sure that your room is completely dark (unplug electronics and get blackout curtains if you need to), lower the room temperature so that it’s a bit chilly (or get a cooling pad underneath your sheets), invest in a comfortable mattress and pillow, and minimize loud noises (e.g. by playing a white noise soundtrack).
If you really want to see the impact of sleep on your energy levels and mood, run the following experiment: for 1 week, make sure you get 8-9 hrs minimum of uninterrupted sleep. Don’t do anything else different. Record your daily energy levels and accomplishments. Then for the next week, set your alarm clock and limit yourself to 5 hrs of sleep each night. (Don’t do anything else different.) Record your daily energy levels and accomplishments. Odds are, you’ll see drastic reductions in your productivity and turn into a stressed out shell of your former self.
Output is a function of input. If you put junk food in your body, it’s hard to expect top notch work product from your brain. Relatedly, most people will find it hard to concentrate if they’re starving, dehydrated, or fighting off a food coma.
Experiment with subtracting different food groups from your diet and record the impact on your energy levels. Different people might be genetically predisposed to digest and react well or poorly to different food groups. For example, my focus is strongest and my mind clearest when I follow Tim Ferris’s Slow Carb Diet* and when I don’t stuff myself to excess. As my grandma would say, eat until you’re 80% full.
I never believed what a big influence regular exercise has on your energy levels and mood until I started doing Crossfit. Before that, I had dismissed exercise as a thing jocks or body-image-insecure people did to show off. I thought that I didn’t need it and was functioning just fine. I wish I could tell my younger self to stop being such a judgmental pansy and go lift some weights.
If you don’t believe the magical energy-raising, stress-slaying, natural happiness drug that is exercise, then run the following experiment for a week: for 30 minutes each day, do a high intensity interval workout or yoga or weight lifting session at the gym (or running, if that’s more your style)*. Change nothing else about your schedule. Record your energy levels and accomplishments for the week. Once you get hooked on that natural high, you’ll never look back.
Sleep, diet, and exercise all influence your mood and stress levels, which in turn influence your energy levels. You might get more frantic frenzied energy from the stress of a deadline or seething range at some perceived injustice, but in the long run your energy levels are better served if you are generally happy (but not distractingly so) and eustressed**.
This means that if you know that you’ll be heading into a busy time, or have to deal with unsavory characters or situations, be nice to Future You and plan for some pick-me-ups in the day. For example, blocking out time in your calendar to take a walk outside to smell the flowers. Stake out an empty conference room and watch some cute cat videos.
Sleeping well, eating well, exercising regularly, and hacking your environment to improve your mood are all well and good, but at the beginning of the day you don’t know what your priorities are and what you need to work on, you’re still dead in the water.
So be nice to Future You and prep a list of the top 3-5 daily priorities to work on the night before. I’ve also found weekly priority/goal lists useful. If I know what I need to do by the end of the week, I can plan for some flexibility/wiggle room for what gets done on a daily basis. It’s much easier to wake up and just follow the instructions that your past self wrote down. Some days (some of my best days) I’ll write down to the half hour what should be done in each 30 minute increment. Then all my future self needs to do is just read and execute.
The last thing you should watch out for while setting your future self up for success is predictable distractions. If you know that your coworkers like to IM you throughout the day, or if your cube-neighbors talk loudly right after lunch, you should plan to circumvent these distractions from messing with your focused work time. For example, perhaps turn off IM for certain times of the day (your most productive times), create “no meeting” blocks of time in your schedule, and relocate to a quieter working space or put on headphones.
If you know you’ll find distractions for yourself (e.g. by surfing the web), consider downloading apps and extensions to block certain websites (or even the Internet entirely). It might also be effective to delete or avoid certain apps or sites entirely. (For example, Facebook is the only social media site I joined, and I consciously chose not to install it on my phone.) Also schedule break times for yourself so that you know you’ll be able to indulge in some constrained web surfing to zone out. You might find that as you minimize distractions and train yourself to focus on doing one thing at a time, you’ll be able to concentrate for longer periods of time and get more done.
To summarize, success tomorrow is dependent on greasing the wheels today. Be kind to Future You and set him or her up for success. Your future self will thank you.
What other “grease the wheel” activities do you do?