If I don’t eat a good lunch, then by late afternoon I’m going to be a prick. I’ll be impatient and curt; it’s a low blood sugar thing. If I don’t sleep well one night, I’m actually pretty good the next day, but the entire following day I’m going to be stupid. My mental energy surges around 10 in the morning and 10 at night. One beer anytime of day marks the end of any serious productivity.
I’ve always been like this, and all through my twenties when the energy surges kicked in, I’d skip meals or stay up way past my bedtime. In between states of highly productive creativity, I was pricky and idiotic. I didn’t understand how to manage my energy. I’d ruin tomorrow’s plans with today’s impulsiveness.
What’s in a great day?
The goal of making a Day’s Plan is to give yourself the best odds of feeling satisfaction— immersing in difficult challenges without being overwhelmed, paying attention to what’s most important to you, being clear and present and loving with the people around you, and nurturing your health in the process. The problem is that most people overestimate how much they will do in a day, setting themselves up for disappointment, and they don’t have a good handle on their energetic rhythms.
If we understand intimately how our energy shifts through the day, we have a much better chance of tuning our plans accordingly. We can match our day’s different goals to the right levels of energy. This makes everything more satisfying.
One deeply satisfying result of making good plans is that we can respond more spontaneously and confidently when opportunity knocks.
Master your circadian rhythms
Most people have a pretty solid circadian rhythm, which means their day’s energy shifts follow a consistent pattern, if allowed, making it easier to predict and optimize. Electric lights in particular affect our rhythms by throwing off our genetically ingrained sleep patterns. (Look up melatonin.) Weekends also screw up our rhythms by tempting us to stay up late, eat differently, and sleep in. Women have monthly energy cycles to factor as well. Then, there’s middle age which marks a turning point in our resilience to these effects.
Make yourself some guidelines
It’s taken me a long time to understand how to optimize my energy during the day and it’s never perfect, but I’ve developed a few rules to help me plan my days.
- I have the most energy for creative challenges between 8 and 11 in the morning.
- I need to eat a good meal at lunch so I don’t crash in the early evening. It’s a great time to visit with friends. A little coffee will give me another couple hours of focus in the early afternoon.
- BUT I can’t drink coffee or chocolate after 2pm without risking a bad night’s sleep.
- I fog out late afternoon, so it’s best I stop work and exercise hard. It resets my emotional state and gets my brain enough blood that I can think straight again. A shower and a light dinner means I’m good for another 3 to 4 hours of creative work in the evening.
- An afternoon nap feels restful if I keep it to 20 minutes.
- Alcohol affects me a lot, so I don’t drink more than one drink at a time. I’ll do it when I’m making dinner for someone, maybe once a week— when I don’t need to do anything else that requires real concentration.
People have some differences, for sure, so you need to find out what works for you.
Try this: During one day this week track your energy. When you wake note the quantity and quality of your sleep and how you feel. Then, set a timer for 20 minute intervals, and make a note about the quantity and quality of your energy every time the bell rings. How much energy do you have: high, medium, low? What are you doing? Are you focused and intense? Are you sleepy, hungry, fatigued, dull, sharp? Also note when and what you eat.
Next day adjust your Day’s Plan accordingly. At the very least reschedule the toughest challenge during your time of focused, high energy. Avoid email, mundane chores, and distractions during that time. Then don’t sweat the rest.