How To Manage Your Energy As A PM

As a project manager, one of the most important things you need to manage is your energy level. Energy level? Isn't it supposed to be time management according to traditional PM guide books?

Well, let me explain. The traditional mindset about project managers is this - they're dedicated and extremely detailed planners. They plan schedules and tasks per resource, right down to the minute at times.

All this is necessary, of course. But the project manager that goes beyond that - to manage his ENERGY - is the one who will stand out. Let me explain this in more detail below.

Traditional Time Management

Traditional time management techniques suggest that you identify tasks to do, then slot the tasks into a calendar or appointment book. Then simply make sure you're motivated and disciplined enough to execute and complete those tasks. You're given a fixed time period to complete a task and if you don't, everything else further down your schedule will get impacted.

Case study: I'll use my personal example to explain what I mean. I used to draw up schedules where I'd slot one hour to family, one hour to work, another hour to personal time and so forth. I learnt this technique from Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I first defined roles - family, personal, work and so forth, then set aside blocks of time per week to accomplish two or three goals in each role.

For many years (fifteen years in fact, I started on this system since I graduated from university here in Singapore). I tried to use this approach to manage my time. And you know what? I think it doesn't work out! Sure, I acknowledge that the definition of roles and goals is a good thing. It helps to clarify your priorities and get them down on paper. To visualize them. To remind yourself of them.

However, I found that over time, the EXECUTION of activities to meet my goals to be a problem. I was never disciplined enough to do my pre-defined activity from "10 pm to 11 pm" at night - be it to do some reading, write an article or review my kids' homework.

I then went on to try another system about four years ago. This was David Allen's Getting Things Done or GTD system. What this does is the reverse of the Seven Habits approach. The Seven Habits advocates a top-down, helicopter view of your life, then drills down to the detailed planning.

The GTD system, on the other hand, advocates a bottom-up approach. This means that you go to the greatest level of detail first - identifying the hundred plus action items you need to perform across multiple projects - then then slotting them into buckets like "to do immediately", "to be delegated", "do it someday", etc.

Now, I liked this system for its level of detail. At any point of time, I'm able to identify the things I need to do on the spot - with absolute focus. No more wondering, "Hmm, is this something I should do now or in the future?"

However, after trying the system out do about a year, I find I came back to the same problem. I could not find the discipline to execute tasks at any given moment. I'd start off with good intentions, aiming to crank through ten action items in my "to do immediately" bucket. And I failed miserably.

To be honest, I reached a point in my life where I wanted to give up on time management systems. This was in direct contradiction to my day job - a project manager. A PM has to be master of time management. And I just could not do it - I had no discipline.

Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

Fortunately, I stumbled across an life changing article from the Harvard Business Review called Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy. You can download a copy of this article here.

The article described how a senior executive in a consulting firm started to manage his ENERGY, rather than his time. How he moved from down to the minute schedules and extreme stress, to a lifestyle that was healthier and more focused on keeping his energy levels at a peak.

A light bulb went off in my head! So perhaps that was it - to manage my energy rather than my time. Sure, I'd still have tasks to do in my personal and professional life, but the trick to executing them did not lie in some "magic" schedule or technique. It lay in having the energy to do them! It made a lot of sense.

After that epiphany, I tried a new way of managing tasks. Sure, I continue till this day to use GTD to list out and categorize my tasks (by the way I use a great iOS app called Things to do this). BUT I make absolutely sure I manage my energy. How do I do it? I'll explain more below.

My Personal Schedule

Here's my personal schedule these days. I set aside every Tue and Thu morning to wake up at 5 am to go running. The run does not need to be a marathon - just a short twenty minute run will do. The hardest part is actually waking up at 5 am. If I'm able to wake up, the run itself is easy to accomplish.

And here's the real benefit - when I come back to the house at 5.30 am after my run, my body is supercharged with energy - adrenaline all over! And I find that I work at DOUBLE the productivity compared to trying to slog on a task late at night.

On other days (i.e. Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat) I wake up at 5 am as well. I have a cup of water, and as far possible I work on my personal "goals" (e.g. updating this website). I try not to work on my day job activities during the mornings if possible.

On Sunday evenings, I schedule a longer run (40 minute) at the local park. This boosts my energy levels on Sun evening so I can double my productivity again when I plan and execute tasks that Sunday night.

At night, I make sure I am with the family when I get home. I spend some time with the kids and sleep at 10.45 pm with my wife and kids. I used to stay up late after they fell asleep and do my day job activities and my own personal tasks. This did not work out well, because, as I explained, I feel very tired at night and I can't fire up my systems well enough to do the tasks.

You may ask, what if you have a truckload of tasks to do from your "day job" which requires you to work late into the night? Well, I tell myself, those situations can and will occur, but I make sure they are minimized. If I have no choice but to work past midnight on a deadline at work, then I will sleep late the next morning, past 5 am BUT I make sure I make up the regular personal goals activities for the day.

So for example, if I intended I write a page for this website on Wed morning, but due to work commitments on Tue night, I could not wake up on Wed morning at 5 am to write my page. I'd make sure I immediately schedule a time slot to make up for writing the page, e.g. writing two pages on Sat morning.

I've tried this schedule out and it works very well. I had some client requirement workshops running and yet I forced myself to stick to this schedule. The "old me" would have slogged into the night preparing for the next days's workshop agenda. But the "new me" says "let's wake up at 5 am tomorrow then do it".

This approach can be DANGEROUS, of course. If you FAIL to wake up at 5 am the next morning, you're shot. You'll be conducting that workshop without any agenda materials prepared. However, my personal sense is that this bit of risk of not waking up to do work is useful. It gives you some hidden stress to force you to wake up.

Key Takeaways

So, in summary, what I mean to say in this article is the following:

  • Traditional time management techniques are good, but very often you lack the ability to execute the planned tasks (e.g. due to fatigue).
  • You may continue to use traditional times management techniques to list down and categorize your tasks (e.g. using GTD). However, I suggest you manage your energy instead of your time to ensure you are in peak condition to execute your tasks. This means scheduling physical activities like runs into your daily schedule. Early mornings are especially good.

  • Remember to take it one step at a time. Don't overdo the runs (e.g. running everyday at 5 am may be tough to do). Instead, space it out - on some days don't run but just wake up early to work on tasks.

  • For me, I personally think it's important to do tasks aligned to your personal goals first every morning. It makes you spiritually more well conditioned and you inject confidence into your mood, knowing you've "moved" towards your goals for the day.

    Try to leave work related tasks out of your morning schedule as far as possible, unless there is a deadline - in which case you may want to work late into the night and schedule another time slot for the personal goal tasks you miss the next morning. Alternatively, you can leave the work related tasks to the next morning but try to ensure you wake up.

Wrapping Up ...

Ok, I hope the above has helped you understand that for project management, it often more important to manage your energy than your time. Although traditional time management techniques are useful, it is only when you have the energy to execute on tasks that you'll become truly productive.

Try the above "manage your energy" approach out - sustain it for about twenty-one days to make it a habit. You'll then start to see a dramatic shift in the quality of your life, and also improved project management capabilities.

That's all I have for now. Until next time, have fun managing your energy and your projects!

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