Six months into my dream job, I had a nervous breakdown.
I just started getting the hang of things, trying to be productive and friendly in an ocean of people smarter than me. This was the first project I had leadership responsibility on, and I was obsessed with making sure the team felt well taken care of. I was as busy as ever, but I loved the challenge and growth of doing work I enjoyed.
At least, I felt that way until Status Thursday. It was our third development sprint, which means it was my turn to present. On the surface, this should have been a layup. Friendly client, brilliant team, the project was on track - what could go wrong?
For starters, I forgot to build the status report. Everyone showed up to see my slide that didn't exist. It completely slipped my mind.
How did this happen? I'm never late on my assignments. I've been turning in work early since the fourth grade. In college, I even did the problems in Differential Equations that weren't assigned as part of our homework. I don't drop the ball... ever.
As I sat there in the middle of the room, trying to think through how I was going to break the news to my wife that I got fired, the account principal recovered in a way I imagined required a balance only surfers possess. The situation was salvaged, but the damage was done - my confidence was utterly shattered.
After the mandatory feedback discussion directly after our status meeting, my manager reassured me that this is a "common thing" to happen to people at my level and "not to worry." She had the answer to all of my problems - Getting Things Done, by David Allen. What a revelation! It turns out our brains possess a shockingly finite capacity to store context about what we're supposed to be doing, and it isn't very reliable and breaks down entirely after excess load is placed on it. What I needed was a trusted system.
Two weeks later, I had my own GTD application and process installed, balancing tasks better than ever before. I had filters, queries, and tags that managed my task system flawlessly. I even started helping my team proactively set up their GTD systems to avoid similar fates as my status meeting blunder. I probably triaged my inbox with more expertise and vigor than David Allen himself.
Problem solved? Unfortunately, no.
It turns out effective time and task management is only part of the equation. A critical part, necessary but not sufficient for long-term success and well-being. After all, hamsters are adept at running on their wheel but never go anywhere. Knowledge workers all over the planet, including myself, similarly toil day after day in their task management system, obediently completing tasks at increasing levels of efficiency without ever asking, "Am I even working on the right things?".
Two years later, I'm on an amazing project with a fantastic team, and exciting tech. Best of all, we're ahead of schedule. The hamster wheel was spinning along wonderfully. Unfortunately, it turns out my well-oiled productivity system was helping me delay the inevitable - toppling over the house of cards I built for myself after a couple of unexpected jolts hit our project - new requirements causing replanning and a particularly abrasive stakeholder that created a terrible working environment. Over time, the burnout set in, and I felt the same as years before, caught unprepared for what my job could throw at me.
At this point, I realized my system was incomplete and had failed me again. Or, maybe I had simply outgrown it in some sort of bizarre equivalent of the control panel the Emotion Characters use to help Riley in Inside Out?
Regardless, there's not as clear of a prescription for what came next. Things get blurry when you straddle the line between tasks and emotions. What I did realize, though, was that managing time and tasks is not nearly as beneficial to us as managing our energy.
We spend all of our time thinking about managing time and hardly any thinking about how our actions affect our energy levels and, ultimately, our overall well-being.
Time is fixed, and energy is fluid. You can create energy from thin air. Energy ebbs and flows and gives us the motivation and willpower to accomplish incredible feats one minute while completely betraying us the next. And, just like a avalanche, flash flood, or stock market crash, your individual energy is an entire ecosystem that must be managed and cultivated so you don't find yourself in a nervous breakdown when you need to rally.
So how do we manage our energy, then? How do we bring our best selves to work, accomplishing our career aspirations while ensuring we have plenty in reserves to fulfill our personal commitments?
I don't know what's right for you, but I do have a formula to help us think through, more intentionally, what is on our plate and how to invest the precious energy we have afforded to us. I call it Return on Invested Energy (ROIE).
Return on Invested Energy is the Productivity, Engagement, Connectedness, and Recovery you can achieve per unit of expended energy - physical, mental, or emotional.
ROIE = (P + E + R + C) / (PE + ME + EE)
Let's start with the positive side of the equation. The pieces that are going to provide us long-term sustainability in our actions:
- P (Productivity): Measures the amount or quality of output or work done. This is your standard Getting Things Done variable.
- E (Engagement): What is the level of involvement, satisfaction, or fulfillment derived from the activity? This is similar to Flow.
- R (Recovery): How much does this affect my well-being? Does it rebuild or recover energy in the future? This can be a positive or negative number depending on whether or not the activity is energy-giving or energy-draining.
- C (Connectedness): How does this help me develop and nurture relationships with others? This could include both personal and professional relationships.
And now the negative side. Everything takes energy, and energy is finite. Paying attention to the types of energy a task requires, especially when we aren't at our best, is vital:
- PE (Physical Energy): How much physical energy and willpower do I have to expend to complete this task successfully?
- ME (Mental Energy): What is the brain tax required? Is this going to require my best thinking?
- EE (Emotional Energy): What emotional investment or stress is involved? Can I do anything to reduce this ahead of time?
This is why some activities, on repeat, give one person satisfaction and meaning and completely drain someone else. Worse, this changes day-to-day. Have you ever tried to be creative or productive the day after having a massive fight with a loved one? You are still the capable person you were before, but the emotional and mental energy needed to complete a task is higher for you.
In the same way, investors manage their portfolios using cold-hard facts and formulas to remove emotional bias from their decision-making process. We also need a similarly detached ruthlessness to manage our energy investments. We must make emotionless decisions about where we spend our energy in areas that are, by definition, full of emotion. Any organization, regardless of size, whether it's Apple or you as an individual, must continuously make a positive return on invested energy to thrive. Too many investments with a negative return will lead to bankruptcy, emotional, physical, or organizational.
Lately, I've realized that I burn too much of my energy stores fighting problems with groups of people with no interest or willingness to attack the issues themselves. As someone higher on the extroversion scale, I have an internal need and hardwiring to hunt in packs. When working on personal or professional pursuits with people I can connect with and enjoy, I have more energy than working on something solo or with a group I'm not aligned with.
I can fully control some of this - other parts, I can't. But adjusting what I can and mitigating the rest puts me in a better position to reduce downsides moving forward. As a small step forward, I can think of two standing meetings I will decline after publishing this article.
It's time to get off of the hamster wheel of productivity and stop thinking of our life's work as managing time and tasks - we are much better served managing our energy and focusing it on pursuits that are likely to have a positive return on investment, where you can be a multiplying force and create outsized ripples into the world around you.
Hopefully, the formula above will help you take stock of your current situation, where you are investing your energy, and provide insights into tweaks you can make to add or remove activities that will yield a better result. Even small 1% tweaks made throughout a lifetime can yield dramatic results. James Clear showed the compounding power of tiny gains made continuously. The same holds with how well we manage and invest Energy.
In this relentless task completion and productivity journey, we must remember our humanness. It's our most important asset. To ensure this asset doesn't falter, we must think more holistically about our work and where we are investing our life's energy. By applying the Return on Invested Energy concepts, we can better understand and balance our professional aspirations and personal commitments sustainably. It's time to step off the hamster wheel, pause, reassess, and move toward a more mindful approach to energy management.