What if all the time-management articles that promise us greater productivity (wonderful and well-intentioned as they may be) are missing the point? What if these articles are going on assumptions that we haven't fully thought through? What if all this talk about time is distracting us from the real issue, which is energy?

Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of peak performance and value creation

Earlier in my career, I was focused on time management, but eventually it occurred to me that it didn't matter how well my team and I managed our time if we didn't have enough energy. I realized that without enough energy, we would become slaves to time rather than making time work for us.

As entrepreneurs, we've all had the experience of putting in 16-hour days with barely a break for lunch but still going to bed knowing we didn't create much value. On the other hand, we've all also had the experience of working four hours and knowing we've created more value in this short amount of time than we often do after working three times this much.

What makes the difference? The difference, of course, is energy -- physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of value creation, which means we need to start thinking about how we optimize our energy rather than how we manage our time.

The deal with renewable energy

Energy optimization, unlike time management, is a cyclical process, not a linear one. Time is finite (everybody gets the same 24 hours in a day), but energy is renewable. Energy is like currency--after you've spent your money, you need to replenish your supply before you spend again (and everybody knows that when you spend without sufficient funds to cover your purchases that you wind up in trouble).  

Sprints vs. marathons and humans vs. machines

Recently, I read an article that cited a scientific study reporting that taking Wednesdays off was a great way to recharge. Evolutionary biology tells us that human beings are made for "sprinting" (short, intense, cyclical bursts of energy output) rather than for "marathons" (long, linear, sustained periods of energy output). Since the modern five-day workweek isn't exactly a sprint, taking Wednesdays off did wonders for most people in helping them feel less like they were running a marathon.

Sure, we can run marathons, but only rarely. Only machines can "run marathons" every day. The irony is that to the very degree we expect ourselves to perform like machines and run regular marathons, the poorer our performance will be and the less value we will create. (And we have it on good authority that this is the case.)

Optimizing our natural energy flow

So if you want to enhance your performance, does that mean you need to take Wednesdays off? Maybe. It might be a great place to start if you have the option, but the real issue is starting to better understand the particular conditions that optimize your individual energy flow. This way, you can strategically harness it to power higher performance and greater value creation.

It should go without saying that everybody's different. One person's "Wednesday" might be another person's Monday. While I'm often at my most innovative amid the buzz of active collaboration, others on my team are most likely to be struck by inspiration when they're quietly working from home. Some people are night owls who can crank out their most dynamic work after midnight. Some are morning larks who have their best work cooking at 5 a.m.

The point is, we all have our own natural energy flow that doesn't necessarily conform to someone else's schedule. When it comes to optimizing this energy, you literally want to "go with the flow" rather than fighting against it. At Zen Media, we have a culture that puts a premium on optimizing our team members' energy flows. We've found that the more we each have the freedom and flexibility to organize our time as guided by these flows (rather than trying to make these flows conform to set times), the more value we create, individually and as a team.

Tips for energy optimization

  1. Find your rhythm. Whether you use a paper notebook or an app, keep track of the times and conditions where you feel most-to-least energized, inspired, and focused. Aim to do your most important and demanding work during the times and in the conditions most conducive to peak performance, and scale the rest of your work accordingly.

  2. Let yourself be human. Technology shouldn't be the model for human performance. Reject the idea that you should perform like a machine, and accept that fluctuations in energy, mood, focus, and motivation are perfectly normal and should be respected and worked with rather than against.

  3. Become a world class "sprinter." Give yourself permission to work for short, intense bursts rather than expecting yourself to "grind it out" for "marathon" lengths of time on a regular basis. Be mindful about your energy, noticing when you've reached the limits of full engagement and need to take a break and refuel your tank before gearing up for another sprint.  

  4. Recharge throughout the workday. Once your energy has been spent, it needs to be replenished. Build in frequent breaks to your schedule and be highly strategic about choosing what feels most renewing. (A short walk, a trip to your favorite coffee shop, some quiet time in nature, connecting with friends, playing with your pet, meditation -- know what most recharges you and commit to it.)

  5. Indulge your sweet spot. Invest your time away from work doing things that leave you feeling refreshed, revitalized, and reinspired, or that heighten your sense of meaning and purpose. (Make regular deposits to your physical-, mental-, emotional-, and spiritual-energy bank accounts.)

In conclusion

While time management may have its place, we need a new paradigm -- a cyclical paradigm that doesn't make machines the model for human performance and therefore dehumanize us, demoralize us, and confuse value creation with "productivity" (simply squeezing more working hours out of our day).

Energy optimization is this paradigm. By harnessing the power of our natural energy flow, we make our organizational culture more human and our business practices more agile. With our eye on both sides of this equation, we create the value that our success -- personally, professionally, and in the market -- depends on.