The importance of matching your tasks to your energy

Jul 14, 2022

Table of contents:

  1. Working harder can lead to burnout
  2. We work best in short periods of high intensity
  3. You need to follow your ultradian rhythm

It doesn’t matter who you are, every person on planet Earth only has 24 hours in a day. It’s impossible to make more time, and so in order to maximise your productivity potential, you need to make the most of your time.

Using time as a fixed constraint turns out to be a really great thing. When time is a fixed resource, it means you need to be smarter with how you spend it.

Another constraint we have available to us is our energy level. Your energy level is a fluctuating resource that has a huge impact on everything you do. In order to make the most of your time, you need to match the things you do to your current energy level.

Working harder can lead to burnout

We all have the same amount of time each day. For most people that means we have around 8 hours per day to dedicate to work. However, whilst the amount of time we have for work has remained fixed since the industrial revolution, there has never been more pressure to be productive.

The information age has created an “always on” environment where the expectation is that you are always available to respond to a problem if you want to rise above the competition. Working harder over a longer period of time and making sacrifices in your personal life will help to hit short-term goals, objectives, and deadlines. However, you are likely to suffer the consequences of exhaustion and burnout over the longer term.

The problem is, forcing yourself to increase your output can actually hurt your productivity. It’s only natural for your performance to drop when you become tired and exhausted. You will likely find that your concentration is severely decreased and you start to make lots of mistakes. However, the longer term consequences of not allowing yourself the space to rest and recuperate means you won’t be able to recover your higher level of work.

Whilst short periods of intense work can be good for your productivity, pushing past that point for long periods of time is simply not sustainable.

We work best in short periods of high intensity

Working long, hard hours is not what our minds and bodies were built for. We work best during short periods of intense alertness followed by periods of tired and drowsiness known as the ultradian rhythm.

These cycles of periods of high alertness typically last around 90 minutes, with 10 - 20 minutes of tiredness. The periods of high energy is when you should schedule your best work, and then allow yourself the space during the 10 - 20 minutes recovery time to fully rest. Following this natural cycle will allow your mind and body to work and then recover at a sustainable pace.

You need to follow your ultradian rhythm

In order to do your best work you need to work on the right tasks at the right time to match your energy level. During periods of high energy, you should work on your most difficult, creative tasks. During the periods of downtime, you need to either rest, or schedule tasks that require low effort.

For example, this might mean tackling your most creative, complex tasks first thing in the morning, strategy and collaboration tasks in the afternoon, and mundane, routine tasks such as email or admin during the downtimes in between.

Being mindful of your fluctuating energy level throughout the day is a good place to start. By keeping track of your energy level using a simple “low”, “medium”, and “high” scale, you will start to recognise patterns that can help you maximise the time you have available to work.

Matching your tasks to your energy level is key to getting the most from your limited time. Once you can identify your opportunities of peak performance, you will find it easier to make progress on your longer term goals.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done, especially if you don’t control your time, schedule, or workload. However, it’s important that you make the case that if you are expected to do your best work, you need the time to rest and recover in between periods of intense work.

Philip Brown


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