Energy Doesn’t Work That Way

For a while, I considered myself a productivity guru. I knew all the methods, all the tips, and all the tricks. I had read Allen’s GTD book back-to-back. My to-do app was open 24 hours a day. Friends would ask me for productivity advice. Except, it was a farce. The amount of things I was getting done was about the same as before. That is, until I finally understood how energy worked.

The most crucial element in productivity is not picking the right method. It’s not organizing your calendar. It’s not keeping a to-do list. The important bit is actually doing the thing you need to do. And to do the thing, you need energy.

Energy seems to be an incredibly scarce resource. Most of the times, we wake up and we have no energy. We sit at work without energy. Then we get back home, and we don’t have the energy to pursue our hobbies. How does it happen?

It happens because energy is, I think, generally misunderstood.

If you have three apples and give three away, you are left with zero. If you have 100 dollars and spend 50, you are left with 50. We see this logic around us and apply it to energy.

So, most end up thinking of it as if it were a tank of fuel. We start the day with a certain amount in the tank and use it until it’s depleted. To fill the tank, we sleep, rest, watch TV, or do anything that requires the minimum energy expenditure possible. For a quick cheat we consume caffeine, even though we know it will only make the lows even lower later.

And this is exactly how we end up completely devoid of energy in the first place, zombie-ing our way through life. How do we save ourselves? By looking at things from another angle.

Energy works unintuitively. To gain more of it, you have to spend it.

For example, to be more energetic throughout the day, spend a lot of energy in the morning. Ideally, in the form of exercise. Morning exercise might just be the best drug there is. Conversely, slouching on the couch expecting energy to come to you, while it may work in the short term, will reduce it in the long run, as you just get used to doing nothing. And when you’re used to doing nothing, doing anything takes a lot of energy.

Of course there is a limit to what you can do in a day. At some point, you will have to stop. Even God took a day of rest. What I am talking about here is not working 24 hours a day, but about being an all-around more energetic human being in the long term. In our money example, exercising is more like investing: you have 100 dollars and invest 50, which will return tomorrow with interest, and so on.

Scott Adams, in his book about his habits, dedicates an entire chapter to energy, which I highly recommend reading. Whatever you do, he says, optimize for energy. There are foods that take and foods that give energy, for example. He advocates for recognizing which are which and then preferring the energy-giving ones. This is only an example, but a good one to get the ball rolling on a more energetic life.

It’s hard. But if you constantly feel low energy, the best way to regenerate is to do high-energy activities. Once you have this figured out, you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish in a day.