Most of us have a single benchmark for determining if our workday was successful: how much we got done.
If we managed to cross off every single thing on our to-do lists? It was a good, productive day – nevermind the fact that we're left feeling completely drained, frazzled and bleary-eyed at the end of it.
Surely, there has to be a better way, right? After all, you don't just want to get more work done – you want to get the right work done, all while feeling good about it. To do so? You need to learn how to protect your energy.
What does it really mean to protect your energy?
The phrase "protect your energy" might trigger visions of a sturdy shield or even some magical force field that automatically deflects anything remotely energy-zapping.
The reality is a little less flashy, but still important: Protecting your energy is the process of refining your approach to your work – that could include your tasks, meetings, relationships and any other obligation that plays a role in your work life – to minimize negativity and maximize both your output and your enthusiasm.
That's quite the mouthful, so what does protecting your energy actually look like in practice? It could involve:
- Planning deep, demanding or creative work for the times when you know you're most focused
- Avoiding or reducing time-sucking tasks, draining meetings and other commitments that deplete you
- Practicing and maintaining habits that help you feel alert, balanced and fulfilled
Put simply, protecting your energy at work is all about finding a healthy, rewarding and ultimately sustainable way to do your job.
Why is protecting your energy at work so important?
Particularly if you're already making it through your to-do list (even if the process feels a lot like trudging through wet cement), it's easy to tell yourself that your work approach doesn't need an overhaul. You're making it work – why bother changing?
However, implementing strategies to better protect both your time and your energy offers several advantages:
1. It boosts your efficiency
You've been there before: You didn't really feel up to tackling a task, but you had to do so anyway. The process was probably pretty painful and dreadfully slow.
When you better match your to-dos to your energy levels, your work doesn't have to be so agonizing. You can conquer your more harrowing projects and assignments at times when you feel hyper-focused and save more menial tasks for times when you feel more depleted.
The result? You'll be way more efficient with your work, as you're no longer slowly dragging yourself through tasks at inopportune times.
2. It improves your performance
When you learn how to protect your energy, you won't just get more work done – you'll get better work done.
You'll leverage the times when your concentration and enthusiasm are at their peak. That means better focus, more creative ideas and less mistakes.
3. You’ll actually enjoy the work you're doing
It probably goes without saying that fending off (or, at the very least, adequately planning for) energy-sucking responsibilities makes your whole workday far more enjoyable.
You can wrap up each day feeling satisfied and fulfilled, rather than completely stressed and spent.
How to protect your energy at work: 5 strategies to help
There are some real perks involved in protecting your energy. But here's the big question you need answered: How do you do it?
Do you part ways with anything that makes you even remotely irritated? Do you put up a snarky out-of-office response and leave your inbox behind? Do you build an impenetrable wall around your desk?
Well, not quite. Here are five practical strategies you can actually use – no hammer required.
1. Identify your most energized times of day
Maybe you've already noticed that there are certain times of day when you're locked in and ready to work and other times when you feel sluggish and sleepy. We all have certain peaks and valleys in our workday – our bodies are literally programmed to do so.
It all comes back to your ultradian rhythms. These cycles repeat several times throughout a 24-hour day and dictate those time periods when you feel peppy and energized, as well as the ones when you feel incapable of answering a single email.
The key here is to understand when those times typically happen. To do so, you could:
- Keep a simple daily journal to quickly note when you feel zoned in and when you feel lethargic
- Use a time tracker to keep a record of when you're productively working and when you're procrastinating
Those will help you get a better grip on your typical energy levels. However, one day won't tell you much. Plan to do the above for at least a week and then pull out the trends you see. That gives you a far more realistic understanding of what's "normal" for you, rather than making decisions based on assumptions or outliers.
2. Break down your tasks
It's not just certain times of day that can drain or energize you – specific types of tasks can too. For example, you might have an easy time zoning in on a creative project. But gathering your gumption to fill out an expense report or update a spreadsheet? That's an Olympic feat.
Your goal in this strategy is to look at the different work you're doing. What projects, tasks and meetings get you excited? What ones make you groan and lay your head on your desk? What ones are especially demanding and challenging? What ones are repetitive and mindless?
Try categorizing your work in that way. Once you have that sorted out, you can start to better plan it for certain times of day. Here's some basic information to guide you:
- Work that's exciting and fulfilling. Split this between times when you're energized and times when you're dragging. Rewarding work can capitalize on your existing focus, but can also reignite some enthusiasm at times when you feel depleted.
- Work that's groan-inducing. As counterintuitive as this seems, plan this work for times when you're at your most energized and tuned-in. You'll have a much harder time getting it done if you save it for time periods when you're already feeling listless.
- Work that's challenging and demanding. This work should also be scheduled at times when you're upbeat and focused. It requires creative energy, so it's not the best fit for periods of the day when you're already “blah” and out of it.
- Work that's menial and repetitive. Start by seeing if any of this work can be automated (like stopping manual time tracking, for starters). For anything that needs to stay on your plate, save it for times when you're low on energy and focus. This type of work is tedious, but still pretty mindless – meaning it's easy to crank through when you're not at peak performance.
It's important to realize there isn't a perfect system here. Try out a few different approaches to scheduling your work and see what works best for you.
3. Establish healthy boundaries
Effectively planning your own work is a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to protecting your energy. But what about the stuff that you have less (or even no) control over?
You can still put some guardrails in place to prevent distractions from swooping in and sabotaging your energy and focus. For example, you could:
- Close out your email tab or put your instant messages to "do not disturb" for a few hours to get into some deep work.
- Set and stick to a firm shutdown time each day so that you don't stretch yourself beyond your limits.
- Practice saying "no" to requests or obligations you don't actually have the capacity for, or work with your manager to identify your top priorities when necessary.
- Schedule plenty of breaks to reset and recharge (more on those in a minute!).
There will still be some interruptions and distractions that crop up throughout your workday. But, these proactive steps will help you minimize them – and maximize your focus and energy as a result.
4. Take plenty of breaks
Your energy is not a limitless resource. Regardless of how thoughtful and intentional your schedule and to-do list are, your brain and your body need frequent pauses to recharge.
Try taking a 10-minute break every hour or so. As strange as it seems, those brief steps away can actually boost both your productivity and focus – provided you leave your phone behind. Resist the urge to scroll and instead go for a quick walk, stretch, drink some water or even engage in some small talk. Research shows that your brain doesn't actually perceive scrolling through a device as a real break.
Worried your best-laid plans will fall apart and you won't stick with your regular breaks? Try a system like the Pomodoro Technique – where you work in timed intervals before pausing – to hold yourself accountable.
5. Refine your environment
If you've ever been stressed out in an airport security line or a crowded shopping mall during the holidays, then you know this much: your environment has a big impact on your overall mood and state of mind.
So, if you've retooled your schedule and your to-do list but are still feeling a little zapped of energy, it's time to look around you.
If your space is a cluttered mess, research shows it could be skyrocketing your stress levels while simultaneously sabotaging your focus. Clear out those used coffee mugs and sort through those towering stacks of paper that have been collecting dust. A fresh environment might just inspire some fresh energy.
Take control of your energy-zappers
Most of us define a successful workday by how much we're able to get done. But were you really that successful if you feel completely depleted at the end of it all? And, perhaps more importantly, can you really sustain that approach long-term?
Probably not. And that's why it's so important to think about your workday more holistically, focusing not just on what you get done, but how you feel.
When you do that, you're better able to protect your energy – and improve your efficiency, accuracy and mood in the process.