Energy States

Guess what?

Sometimes, I am tired. And sometimes, I am very energized.

And the weird thing is, I don’t seem to have control over when I feel tired and when I feel energized. But it heavily impacts what I can do at any given moment.

Energy States

I call them energy states. Because, well… that is what they are, really. It is actually just a spectrum:

And, depending on what my energy state is at any given time, certain activities become easier or harder to do. For example:

I generally only do things like write or program when my energy levels are relatively high. And when I say high energy levels, I mean I have the mental fuel to perform a task – when I have enough focus and motivation to actually get meaningful work done. I could try to write with low energy levels, but I would only get a fraction of the work done – or a fraction of the quality – and at that point it isn’t worth the time spent.

As a general rule, then, I can only do high-energy tasks when I have… wait for it… high energy. But I also noticed something odd.

If I have high energy, I cannot do low-energy tasks either.

That isn’t very intuitive, is it? If I had enough energy to run a marathon, I would presumably have no problem walking a mile. But if I have the mental energy for a marathon task, I find “walking” unbearable.

If I try to listen to podcasts in a high-energy state, I cannot focus. I am looking for something else to do. My brain needs something to saturate its full attention. Trying to do a low-energy activity with high energy is like trying to sleep after drinking something caffeinated. It just doesn’t work, and it really isn’t even worth trying. Sleep will not come anytime soon.

In fact, I think this same effect also occurs when I have high-energy as well. I frequently listen to music while doing high-energy “thinking” activities to help me focus. If I don’t, it feels like there is a tiny slice of my brain that isn’t being used, which in turn completely disrupts my concentration. But if I keep that slice occupied, I have a very productive time.

So what have I learned so far? I have learned that there are energy states and that it is much easier to perform certain activities in certain energy states. In fact, it is so much easier that it is a waste of time to violate the energy spectrum.

But what do I do with that information?

Well, the first step is to figure out where on the spectrum certain activities fall. Check.

But then… well, I can pick and choose what to do based on my energy state, but that isn’t quite good enough. The things I want to do don’t always match my energy level, you see. Even though I may only feel like listening to podcasts, I want to write that blog post. The production value of the high-energy tasks is worth more, so I want to maximize pursing them. But I can’t just choose to do a high-energy task whenever – if it violates the energy spectrum, it is actually counterproductive to try working on it at all, a waste of time entirely.

So I want to do high-energy tasks, but I don’t always have high energy. Which leads me to ask…

Where does the energy come from?

Beats me. It seems random, really. Or at least it did, until I eventually noticed a pattern.

For me, my energy level over the course of the day looks like this:

So the high-energy times are in the morning and evening. Evening is the most productive time of all, and around 8pm things seem to just click. Evening also seems to have a special “night bonus” effect of some sort. I don’t know what it is, but I seem to concentrate better when my surroundings get darker. I don’t know if that is actually because the dark or if it just happens at the same time.

So I mapped out my energy over the course of a day and can schedule activities appropriately to maximize use of my time. Problem solved.

Oh wait, no it isn’t. See, the thing is, I can’t do things whenever I want, because I have one of those job things. I wake up and go to work in the morning, so there isn’t time to do anything until the evening.

Just wake up even earlier and you will have time in the morning. After all, the early bird gets the worm.

The early bird can eat worms all it wants, because that is disgusting. I am not going to wake up earlier than I do now.

So that leaves the evening. And the evening is great. In fact, the exact time at the moment I wrote this sentence was 9:39pm. I am very focused and productive right now. There is only one problem.

I have to quit while at peak energy. Because I need to get up in the morning – I have that job thing, remember – and apparently you also need sleep. And borrowing time from sleep is quite a short-term debt for me, because I repay it the very next day. And that debt has a lot of interest – enough interest that the increased productivity gained at night is offset by the lack of productivity the next day.

And it is even more unfortunate because high-energy activities take time to ramp up. I can’t instantly be at peak productivity when programming. It takes time to get into the flow of things. That is why the best time available for me, taking into consideration the ramp-up time, is night. But tragically, it is also not time I can use.

What are you going to do about that?

Nothing, so far. I try to do high-energy activities when I have high energy, and likewise with low energy. But as I explained before, this does suffer from some limitations.

I haven’t thought of a good solution yet. It seems like there isn’t much that can be done when such large blocks of time are allocated. Let’s say there are 8 hours of work and 8 hours of sleep every day. That leaves a full 8 hours, which seems like a lot of time. But you don’t actually get 8 hours. There is the time you spend before work preparing for it, the time you spend on some sort of lunch break (during which nothing really useful can be done due to the ramp-up time), and the time you spend “detaching” from the mental work state after a day of work. And then, if you don’t want to starve, you need to figure out where food is coming from. And then the lawn needs mowing. And people keep sending you these bill things in the mail, and they all want your money. Sadly, you don’t have any, so you have to figure that out too. And then there is that other activity you are involved in that happens every third Tuesday, so nothing is going to get done anyway.

So the usable amount of time you can spend on any activity is actually rather limited. And again, there is ramp-up time to consider, so if you don’t have a large-enough block of time allocated you aren’t going to get anything done even if you do manage to find a free half hour.

I suppose if you didn’t have a job, or otherwise had the freedom to choose your hours, you could potentially structure things more efficiently. Of course, that comes with its own challenges and trade-offs.

At the end of the day, though, all this worrying about whether time is productive or not doesn’t really change the end outcome. Because there is never going to be enough time to do what you want. If you have more free time, you will just adjust what you want in such a way that you fill up all the time you have. Likewise, if you are twice as productive during work hours, you will be given twice as much work to do – because an idle worker is a wasted resource.

No amount of extra time will fill the gaps. You just have to do the best you can, and adjust expectations accordingly.


Jacob Clarity


One thought on “Energy States

  1. Great post. Very true. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but there is a lot of truth to the mental energy state model. I can only program when my mind is both focused and full of energy. I think that the reason that more people do not go into the field of computer science aka programming, is that it is a very unique mental state. Not everyone can get there. That doesn’t mean they are not smart enough. It’s more about temperament.

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