“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you.”Anne Lamott
Energy is like any other resource.
You use it, and eventually it runs out. So you need to stop every so often, to refill the tank. You need to manage your energy better.
As we all, in different ways, slowly emerge from the inertia and stress of lockdown into whatever our new normal will be, this is even more important.
We’re all going to have to be even more creative and adaptable than usual in the next few months. None of us will be equal to the challenges ahead if we’re running on empty.
We know this, of course.
- We know that anyone who works in front of a screen needs to take at least a five-minute break every hour.
- We may even vaguely remember a traditional work schedule with tea-breaks mid-morning and afternoon, plus an hour for lunch.
- We know that we’re almost always more creative, more productive, more able to focus after we’ve taken time out for a walk, to grab a coffee with someone interesting or fun, or just to do something different from our norm.
- We know that small children get tired and tetchy without an afternoon nap. And that teenagers sleep till lunchtime, given the option.
- We also know that animals are never embarrassed to be caught napping in the middle of the day, or basking in the sun when they could be off hunting, or foraging.
Yet we’ve decided we are different, somehow immune.
We are self-employed, you see. Or we have demanding jobs. We are parents. We are juggling family, work, a side-hustle and a social life. We have mortgages, bills to pay. We have responsibilities.
We are superman or superwoman, able to do it all. We don’t need rest and relaxation. Or even sleep, if deadlines are looming.
When our energy dips, we just push on through. We don’t need a break, for we have caffeine and chocolate, biscuits and wine.
And then – surprise! – we burn out. Or we just feel grey and uninspired, and wonder why we no longer seem to have any good ideas. Why everything feels so damn difficult.
Manage your energy better and you’ll work better, and enjoy that work more. You’ll cope better with challenges, think of solutions faster, and maybe even be able to laugh when things don’t immediately go your way. You’ll also enjoy life more. You’ll have more fun, work more efficiently, make better decisions.
All just by giving yourself a little more down-time.
Take regular breaks
Get up from your desk. Stretch. Move a little. Go get a drink. Play a track you love and have a little dance to it. Go outside.
Research has proved that the most we can sustainably do is four hours of intense work.
Sometimes, when I’m up against a deadline, I can still manage 10-12 hours of writing – more, if I really have to. But it’s exhausting, and it comes with a cost. I’ll inevitably produce far less, for days and even weeks afterwards.
That’s why a day in which I write for two hours counts as a good one for me. That doesn’t feel like much. Which is why I know I can do it, day after day, week after week.
Try structuring your day so that you clear space for your creative work, then use the rest of your time on tasks such admin, marketing, meetings, calls, research or planning. Schedule in recovery time to rest, exercise, play or otherwise replenish your energy.
Consider a nap
If you work from home, in a studio or space of your own, or in an especially enlightened workplace, a 20-minute nap can really help with that mid-afternoon slump.
Set an alarm, and if you don’t have a sofa or a bed in your workspace, create a corner where you can snuggle up under a blanket with an eye mask on, and rest.
You don’t have to sleep (I never do). But you will feel refreshed and ready to go again.
Exercise is always good. Especially when you have a lot to do.
If you’re not convinced or feel too busy or stressed to begin an intense exercise programme, even a daily walk can work wonders.
It gets the creative juices flowing, replenishes energy and you’ll often find that a brisk 20-minute walk is the best way to solve a nagging problem. And.. it’s good for you.
Put quality fuel in
Drink lots of water. Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit and wholegrains. Be aware of how much sugar and processed food you’re eating. Your body is a 3D printout of the decisions you made six months ago. And better choices lead to more energy.
Again, this won’t be news to anyone. But it’s easy to reach for chocolate or crisps when our energy is flagging, to forget to drink at all, or rely on coffee to get us through a long day. Changing your environment can help.
Try having a glass or bottle of water near you at all times while you work, and get into the habit of sipping at it regularly. Have healthier options such as a bowl of fruit or a bag of almonds handy in your work area, and keep less healthy snacks somewhere less accessible.
And feed your mind
Put quality stimulation in, and you’ll get great creative ideas out. There’s nothing wrong with a night of escapist TV, but make it intentional. And don’t make it the only way you ever relax.
Make time every week to talk to people who are interesting, to read a stimulating book, to watch a film, go see an exhibition or museum, walk in nature – or simply to experiment, and do something you’ve never done before. (A weekly play date can help with this.)
It’s easy to get stuck in our own creative groove, and not even notice that it’s turning into a rut. We need fresh inputs to energise us, creatively.
Keep a list of books you want to read, films you want to see, TV dramas and documentaries you’d like to watch, music to listen to, talks and podcasts. Refer to it and make conscious choices, rather than slumping on the sofa and channel hopping (while also surfing on your iPad and/or flicking through a magazine that happened to come in the mail).
If you’re interested in this, there’s a strong argument for it and detailed suggestions on how to structure your creative routines in Todd Henry’s book, The Accidental Creative – How To Be Brilliant at A Moment’s Notice.
Get enough sleep
Find out how much you need, to feel on top form. (Clue: it will almost always be more than you’re currently getting.)
Be curious. Experiment with the time you go to bed and wake up, until you find a rhythm that works for you.
Invest in a comfortable bed and bedding (you spend a third of your life there!), and make your bedroom cool, dark and uncluttered. Turn off your phone and any other screens at least an hour before you go to bed, and try not to even leave them in the room.
The world looks different when you’ve had enough sleep. You’re sharper, brighter, you work more efficiently and you’re nicer to be around. Sleep is definitely not for wimps.
The law of distraction
A stimulating, absorbing sport or hobby can distract your mind from work, allowing your subconscious to come up with creative solutions to problems.
The Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman was also an avid bongo player. Writers from Steven King to William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens all made long walks a regular part of their working day.
Winston Churchill liked to paint, finding it a welcome break from politics and war. “Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future,” he said, “once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them.”
The great escape
A weekend away every now and then, and regular holidays are also important. Remember, even if you don’t feel able to travel far, exploring your own area and going to new places nearby can be just as stimulating.
Also consider the idea of sabbaticals, every couple of years or so: a month or so to travel, to study or learn new skills, or just do something completely different will bring you back to work energised and with a fresh perspective.
Back to reality
You might be reading this and thinking it all sounds great, but impossible for you right now. If so, get out your journal, and answer the following questions:
- What people, places and habits fill you with energy?
- What people, places and habits drain you of energy?
Then slowly, start to cut back on the people, places and habits on your second list, and replace them with ones from the first. It’s amazing how your energy and inspiration increases, once you do more of what you love, and spend time with people who inspire you. And what new possibilities open up.
All of this is pretty obvious, but if you’ve read this far, you’re probably not doing it. So how are you managing your energy? And what could you improve?