The Time-Energy Paradox

Every morning, I walk three miles up and down a trail by my house, and every morning, I listen to either a book on Audible (I almost said, a book on tape—yikes!), or a podcast as I make my way past the trees and the strawberry fields, and the houses that are now slowly replacing the strawberry fields. This is my meditation. A way to fill my head with something good before I take on the day and all hell breaks loose.

I try to pick something that’s soulful or beautiful like the book, How to Live by Sarah Bakewell or the podcast, On Being by Krista Tippett, and sometimes I pick something that’s useful, like The Creative Penn podcast by Joanna Penn or Michael Hyatt’s Lead to Win.

This was a “useful” morning.

The topic was about Time-management versus Energy-Management. Should we continue to obsess about managing our time—create to-do lists, schedule tasks etc.—or should we look, instead, at managing our energy?

Hmmm, good question.

Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at managing my time. I’ve had to. No virtue there. But I haven’t always been as good at managing my energy, often crashing and burning from an over-scheduled calendar and an over-burdened to-do list.

You see, I haven’t always had solid models to show me what “energy management” looks like (I’m looking at you, Mum!). I’ve known what it looks like to work hard. I’ve even known what it looks like to play hard. But a moderate, modulated energy output? Not so much.

The best I could manage was to manage my time with such a fine point that the crashing and burning was confined/deferred to “safe” times when it could do the least damage: At night, at the end of a semester, on vacation.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what it even means to “manage your energy.”

Does it mean you eat certain foods? Do certain kinds of exercise? At certain times of day?

Does it mean you breathe? You meditate? You pray?

Hmmm. I listened on.

Michael Hyatt and his co-host and daughter, Megan Miller Hyatt, introduced the concept this way:

The Time-Energy paradox is that time is fixed but energy flexes. You have only so many hours in the day (24) and in the week (168)—time is fixed, but energy, by contrast, fluctuates during the day.

We each have high energy periods during the day (in the morning for me—I’m a Lark) as well as periods when our energy sinks (for me around 2:00-4:00 p.m.). So instead of trying to manage your work, your life, around conventional time periods–a 9-5 workday, lunch breaks, tea-time–one should try to manage them around idiosyncratic high- and low-energy periods.

Okay, that makes sense. And maybe I do this already myself. Instinctively, I gravitate towards my deepest, most challenging work in the early hours of the morning and my most superficial (mindless) work in the afternoons, when it’s all I can do to rub two thoughts together.

So far so good. But what else? What else could we doing, should we be doing to manage our energy?


Yup, no surprises there, I know, but managing energy means you also have to manage your sleep. I’ve learned this the hard way and it’s paid off dividends. Here are the two components of sleep management that are really important: duration and consistency.

Not only do we need to sleep enough each night (duration)—usually 7-9 hours for most people—but we also need consistency in our sleep—regular bedtimes and regular waking times, even at the weekend.

Yes, even at the weekend.

This was a little trickier for me as it is for most people because weekday agendas and weekend agendas look rather different. I used to think that I could stay up later on Friday and Saturday nights and wake up correspondingly later, but that never seemed to work. Pretty soon the cumulative fatigue would catch up with me and I’d—you guessed it—crash and burn.

So now, I keep to pretty much the same sleep schedule every day of the week, and I’m much the better for it. The only sleep-management challenge remaining is to train myself to take a short nap during the day to shake myself out of my natural afternoon slump. I can’t seem to do it. I struggle to fall asleep and then I struggle to wake up, feeling neither refreshed or rejuvenated at the end.



The second tip for proper energy management is proper nutrition. And for this I’ll defer to the famous quote by Michael Pollan, “Eat whole foods. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I like the simplicity of it. Not too many rules. Not too many decisions to make.

Which brings me to the third tip. The one that might very well sap all our energy:


Manage the number of decisions you make during the day in order to manage your energy.

This is a great one. I think we’ve all heard the Steve Jobs story of how he wore the same thing every day—jeans and a black t-shirt—so that he had to make one less decision before he got to work.

I dig it.

For a good chunk of my life I wore a uniform. First, as a student. Then, as a flight attendant. And even now, I wear a uniform of sorts—trousers and knit top. Short in the summer; long in the winter. That’s it.

And to take it one step further, I hang my clothes in trouser/top pairs on a single hanger in my closet, so that all I have to do each morning is reach in and pull something out that I know will match and coordinate. Done.

Other decisions that I defer or delegate are what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast and lunch are the same thing every single day, and dinner is whatever my family cooks and portions out for me on a plate each night. I am grateful.

Decision-making requires energy, and I’d rather conserve that for things that count.


So here you have it—the Time-Energy Paradox.

Why paradox?

Because I (we) have spent all my effort “saving” time and “spending” energy, when really we should have been doing it the other way around—spending time and conserving energy.

If you enjoyed reading this post and would like to get more like this delivered directly to your inbox Click Here

Categories: Reading

Tags: ,

Leave a Comment