Energy management: How to upgrade your view on what working hard looks like

As much as I wish it were possible, it’s impossible to be at 100% energy 100% of the time.

Most high achievers, especially athletes, tend to be either ‘go’ or ‘stop’ (or as my mum says to me ‘you’re either go or sleep’). But even then we can’t ‘go’ at our highest potential all day long. Everyone has ups and downs. We all need rest. We can’t maintain laser focus every moment of the day.

A lot of people relax too much. They finish work, come home and watch TV. They skip the gym workout in favour of hitting snooze a couple more times. They go on holidays and drink their weight in alcohol every day for two weeks, with no exercise beyond regular trips from the sun lounge to the bar.

But not you. You’re the person that pesters gym owners to open up for ‘just a few hours’ on Christmas morning. That ‘friendly’ workout between friends is more like the battle for the Death Star for you – win or die. You’ll only take a holiday if it involves hiking to the top of Everest. When your job forces you to take annual leave you immediately write a tight schedule for achieving all those personal development and renovation goals that don’t fit into your regular work week. All your work out shirts have slogans like ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’ and ‘no days off’.

You know that rest is for the weak. Obviously.

I used to think like that. As a 10 year old I would beg my parents to let me stay home while the family all went on holidays so that I wouldn’t miss training. Seriously, what 10 year old says that? I’ve ticked off a bunch of ‘achievement’ holidays. Hiked the Grand Canyon, and trekking up mountains in Nepal, Kilimanjaro and Yosemite. And, much to my coach’s exasperation I was constantly asking for more, more, more training sessions (usually at 6am).

This belief that we need to go, go, go is reinforced when we hear stories from high achievers. Michael Phelps trained every single day for years leading up to the Olympics (yes, even Christmas day). Elon Musk used to work to exhaustion and then curl up in a bean bag next to his desk. He’d get the first employee who came in the next morning to kick him awake and he’d go straight back to work.

I’m certainly not arguing that you should swing to the lazy end of the spectrum, instead I’d say be more conscious of your performance and your rest. The challenge lies in how to optimise your energy management. How do you know when to rest, when to ramp up, and when to really give everything? How do you schedule your life and training into an hour, a day, a year, a career? We are going to start thinking about it today.


Why rest?

First of all, you may not want to admit it (it certainly took me a while to come around to acknowledging this), but rest is important. And we are talking about both physical and mental rest.

It’s important for a few major reasons:

1) Reduce motivation fatigue.

Much like decision fatigue (the idea that you only have the ability and the willpower to make a limited number of decisions each day), we can also suffer from motivation fatigue. Taking time away from your sport or work allows you to have a mental reset. Stepping back lets your mind remember what it is you loved about the activity in the first place. You come back to it inspired to work harder, achieve more, and with the mental energy to focus.


2) Peak performance requires peak energy.

You wouldn’t try and set a PB 100m sprint time after running a marathon. Just like you wouldn’t do 1000 heavy squats the day before your weightlifting competition. You shouldn’t take that exam after staying up all night (although I’m sure many people have done this!) It’s very intuitive – you know that your body and your mind needs to feel rested and fresh in order to achieve your best performance.


3) Improvements occur during rest periods.

When you go to the gym and lift weights, you are actually breaking down your muscles. The strength gain doesn’t happen until you are lying on your couch, protein shake in hand. That’s when your body says ‘we better build those broken down muscle fibres back even stronger if we are going to keep being subjected to those demands in the gym’.

Similarly, you internalise and synthesise new information when you are sleeping. So after that mammoth cramming session make sure to get a good night’s sleep to let it sink in.


Macro energy management

If you think about energy over the super long term – in terms of a year or a decade – you can draw lessons from what other successful people have done. Very few people can push themselves to think this long term, but if you can it brings patience along with drive, longevity of success rather than short-term gains.


Career energy

Think of a football player. Early on in their career they are talented but lack polish. However, they make up for this with athleticism. Being fit, strong and fast is their competitive advantage.

A decade later, that same player may not be able to keep up with the speed of an 18 year old, but they outshine them with impeccable ball handling, a superior grasp of strategy, vision of the field, and the ability to lead others.

Consider what stage of your career you are in. What is the strongest element of your game now, what will it be in 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? How will your competitive advantage change over time?

Now, plan how you expend your energy in each phase to promote that (hint: you should spend some time on the skills you’ll need for the next phase too). When you are young you may be in the gym a lot, as you progress you may work more on your strategic ability by studying your opponents.


Annual energy

Planning your energy over the course of a year is relatively simple. Map out the major events of the year – projects, competitions, training camps. Consider these your peak energy times.

If you have a holiday or an off-season consider that your lowest energy time.

Everything else falls somewhere in between. Typically, the intensity and difficulty of your training and preparation will gradually ramp up over several months before a major event. Don’t expect to perform at your best immediately after off-season, and don’t expect to feel rested in the middle of intense training periods.

I’d recommend taking a couple of complete breaks every year. I force myself to take a couple of 10-14 day holidays every year where I don’t play volleyball at all. I might stay active with hiking, swimming or games, but I don’t do any serious training. It’s hard to do, but I know in the context of my energy for the entire year, it isn’t really that much time off, and it will enable me to reach greater heights later on because I come back from holidays refreshed.


Medium-term energy management

The medium term is the duration we think of most when it comes to planning. We are used to scheduling training sessions, recovery treatments, travel, competitions and to-do lists into months, weeks and days. What you’ve perhaps given less thought to is your energy management across those periods.

Monthly energy

When we get down to months we start to get into the detail of energy management, and also more into the personalisation of what suits you. A few examples of how you might manage energy over this time frame, in a way that suits your life, include:

  • Ensuring that your busy time at work, does not correspond with your most demanding training period
  • Using a 3 heavy weeks, 1 recovery week type schedule
  • And some female athletes might schedule their training around that time of the month as changes in hormones can see you get the most benefit out of certain types of training based on your cycle


Weekly energy

The world has determined that the week is the standard recurring schedule for almost everyone. Work is Monday to Friday. Kids have school sport on Saturdays. Sundays are for sleep ins and family dinners. But you need to make your week work for you. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Take one full rest day per week. It is usually better to train twice on one day and have a complete rest on another day than it is to have no days off. With few exceptions, most people need a regular mental and physical break
  • The weather is a big influence on my mood and energy. And as a beach volleyball athlete it certainly has an impact on training conditions. I look at the weekly forecast and schedule the content of some of my training sessions based on that
  • If you feel energised on a Monday put your tough tasks first on your agenda then. But if you are someone that struggles to get going again each week perhaps you perform best on a Wednesday or Thursday when you’ve hit your working rhythm


Daily energy

My family is the perfect proof that there are early birds and night owls. I’m more than happy to wake up at 6am and I’ll be full of energy to tackle the day. But by 9:30pm I’m yawning and wishing my family good night. In contrast, my mum struggles out of bed at around 10:00am, but she will happily work until 1am most nights. In fact, our energy timing is so different that we barely see each other. A few things to be conscious of when you think about energy over the course of a day:

  • Schedule your most difficult tasks or training for when you have the most energy
  • Think about when you eat (and what you eat) – food can help sustain you during your low energy times
  • If you have the luxury of being able to nap during a low energy time in your day take advantage of it
  • Work in solid blocks of focus and intensity, with short rests in between blocks. The Pomodoro technique is a good starting point for this – it’s 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off
  • Studies of the practice habits of the world’s best athletes and musicians show that they use deep practice – training where you are constantly on the edge of your comfort zone and seeking out constant feedback to improve. However, it is only possible for someone to be in this zone for 2-5 hours per day. Additional training after this point doesn’t help
  • Minimise distractions by batching your minor tasks. For instance, answer emails twice a day, not as they come in. Do your social media posting and checking at certain times of the day only (some people delete social apps from their phone so they can only check it if they log into a computer).
  • Have a morning and a night time routine to make wake-up and bed-time smoother (your routine should not be checking social media first thing!)
  • Schedule ‘nothing’ time. Don’t feel guilty about reading a novel in the bathtub or watching an episode on NetFlix. You don’t have to fill every minute of the day with productivity


Micro energy management

Micro energy management is all about the specific activities you do. The units of time that you look at will differ for you based on what you do. I play beach volleyball so the micro units I might look at could be a tournament, a single match, one set of the match, one change of ends (7 points), one point of the game, and even down to segments of the rally.

There are key moments in any sport or activity where you need to be at maximum energy. And the rest of the time is about preparing for those moment, or conserving your energy so that you have enough when the moment comes. For athletes, here’s a few ways that might play out:

Over a tournament – consider what time you will arrive, when you will eat, when you will start warming up, if you need medical treatment when will you get that, when do you start your mental preparation to get into the zone, when will you talk to your coach both pre and post event and so on. Knowing these things in advance means your brain can rest as everything is taken care of already, and your body will be in the best state possible.

During a match – be conscious of momentum swings and when you need to ride them out by slowing the play down, or take advantage by speeding things up. Know the key moments or points that require your full concentration. Decide how long you are going to feel your opponent’s weaknesses out before you commit to a strategy. All of these require energy management in order to optimise your performance and get the win.

During a point or a play – Even right down to the micro level you need to manage your energy. In CrossFit you need to know when to run between apparatus and when to take an extra breath for recovery. In gymnastics, some skills are easier and while you perform them you are already mentally preparing for the more difficult skill to come. In beach volleyball, there is half a second to rest after you pass the ball and before you begin your approach to hit it. Being aware of the moments that require absolute focus, and the moments where you can relax physically and mentally (if only for less than a second) is important.


Being energy conscious…

…is being aware of your peak energy times, and your down times, and optimising them to improve your performance and output. We can’t go at 100%, 100% of the time. But you sure want to be able to go at 100% when you need to. That’s why rest is important, as is managing your energy over macro, medium and micro time frames in a way that suits you personally.

From planning the focus of your training over your entire career, to finding half-a-heartbeat of rest in the middle of a crucial play, being aware of your energy means you’ll spend it more wisely.

With money, we know that wise spenders become wealthy individuals. In sport, wise energy spenders win more events, and achieve far greater career longevity.

November 9, 2017