Productivity is not about time management.
For a long time, I thought it was. I scheduled. I tracked. I planned. I set priorities and allocated time blocks. I knew my goals, and the milestones I had to meet along the way.
Sometimes, my plans failed because I tried to put too much into too little. I crammed too many tasks into each hour. I would work at a frantic pace, as long as I could. Burnout was inevitable.
Most of the time, though, my plans failed because my energy failed. I would get slower and slower. The reasons that seemed so clear would become muddy. My motivation, my ideas, my self-confidence: all of it would erode, sliding away beneath me. I’d find myself stuck partway up a hill, wondering why I wanted to get to the top in the first place.
Productivity is about energy management: you have enough energy to do the work you want to do and to build the things that are important to you.
Work doesn’t take more energy than play.
Work is the expenditure of energy.
If you’re playing, you’re expending energy: so, play is work. Work is work. Sex is work. Everything is work.
The difference is that some work is fun, and some work isn’t.
Some work means something to you, and some work doesn’t.
And some work means something to you and is also fun: that’s the golden ticket, there.
When you the end of a day feeling listless and unproductive, it isn’t because you didn’t ‘do any work.’ You’re always doing work — expending energy — in one way or another.
No, the reason you feel lethargic and disappointed is because you’ve spent your energy on tasks you don’t value. You feel the disconnect. Imagine winning the lottery, then being forced to spend the money on stuff you hate.
Something joyful — winning — becomes something agonizing.
The same thing happened to me when I chose goals that didn’t align with my values. I would get caught up in the excitement of starting something new. There’s a lot of potential energy bound up in a beginning. That energy would send me a long way down a particular path before I paused to ask why I’d chosen this path.
When I did, I might realize I chose it for all the wrong reasons. To impress someone. To feel more qualified. To fit in.
Once you start, though, stopping feels like a failure. I would keep trudging along, down a path I didn’t love, spending my energy. Turning around would mean quitting, and quitting felt worse than succeeding at the wrong thing.
Every morning we wake up having won the universal lottery: another day.
Here we are, with this expanse of possibility stretching in front of us. We are capable. We are intelligent. We are energized.
Then the coffee wears off and we are slumped over desks, fading away in sad cubicles, doing work we don’t love for money we’ll spend on rents we can’t afford. We do it to maintain a status we don’t care about, to meet expectations we don’t respect, to keep an unfulfilling relationship cobbled together a little bit longer.
There is no way to manage your own energy unless you first realize that it is yours to manage.
As the success gurus of the early 20th century preached full and undistilled responsibility for every moment of time given, I am here to preach complete and unhesitating responsibility for every bit of energy you expend.
It comes to you, this energy, as a gift.
You can throw it away if you want to. But quit complaining about your situation, your unfulfillment, your life, your hardships, and your lack if you won’t consciously manage your energy.
If you choose to throw it away, quit complaining when it is gone. This is on you.
And that’s great news.
What is yours, you can change. If the responsibility weren’t yours, the power wouldn’t be yours, either.
Congrats! You’ve got both.
Start by paying attention to your attention.
This is how you discover where your energy goes. Attention is focused energy.
Attention is how you give your energy to something: your phone, your friend, your pet, your hangnail, your screaming neighbors, your stretch marks, your home, your car, your soul.
Look: I am not here to tell you what deserves that attention. I am only here to ask you to start noticing these transactions.
Because they are transactions. Energy is the currency of the universe. You don’t do anything to deserve it and you’re free to spend it however you want. I just want you think about it. What do you want? Is that what you’re getting? What bargains have you made?
You can end the contracts, you know. You can sign yourself out of any bargain.
You don’t think of attention as meaningful. You don’t notice how it’s sucked away. You don’t value the one minute here, five minutes there. You don’t think you can control what gets your attention. You don’t think it matters.
It’s the only thing that matters.
Your attention, your energy, where you put it, where you send it, how you use it: that’s all you have.
That’s the whole scheme and scope of reality. You, me, all of us are vibrating bits of energy. Everything you see: the same. Matter is a crazy illusion we’ve all agreed to have together.
Energy is what’s real.
Money is nothing. It’s a representation of energy. How bizarre that we would value the representation of something more than the thing itself.
Consider the value of what you get out of each transaction.
Your attention on social media: what do you get back from those ten, twenty, sixty minutes you spend scrolling? What do you get in return for your energy?
You’re getting something, or you wouldn’t be there. Here’s your question: do you want what you’re getting? Is it good? Do you like it? Is it helpful? Is it fun? Do you value what you’re getting in exchange for your attention?
Sometimes things are fun but not valuable.
Sometimes things are valuable but not fun.
Sometimes things are both: fun and valuable. Those are the best things. Those are the things that deserve your attention, at least 80% of it. Let the rest fall into the cracks that are left.
There isn’t a universal standard to impose.
This is not about morality, about what should be valuable to you. Oh, no. What a ridiculous assumption to think that anyone could prescribe what some other person should value. (We’d get past this faster if we would agree to quit using the word should in the first place.)
What you value is up to you.
But what you spend attention on — by default — might not be what you value. It might be fun or feel good, and you mistake that for value.
Not the same.
It’s difficult to know what you value.
It takes thought. It takes honesty. Most of us don’t know what we value.
Instead of doing the difficult work of figuring it out, we adopt. We find a ready-made set of values. There are plenty around: every sub-set of society, every religion, every organization, every ‘tribe’ has its list. Choose your flavor.
I hope you don’t.
Trouble comes when you assume a set of values that don’t match who you are, who you want to be.
An assumption of shared values is a trap. You end up in a place you don’t belong, in behaviors you don’t internally approve.
Over time, you separate your internal self more and more from your external choices. The split widens. You immerse yourself in the external, the situations and interactions of daily life. You look away from what you’ve left behind, crushed and silent, on the other side of that canyon. You try to forget it’s there.
But you can’t.
And that’s why you come home from that party, or from a full day at work, or from a trip, a fun day with friends, a promotion or honeymoon or date or shopping trip, and see yourself looking like death in the shadowed shine of your bathroom mirror.
When you pay attention to yourself, you know.
So you do your best not to get caught in those places, those moments, those silent in-between spaces. You stay busy. You look up and out; anywhere but inside. You ask for feedback and affirmation in a thousand ways, because you need reinforcement. You need an argument for the silent mirror self.
You have to know what you value.
You have to figure it out.
Let yourself be still long enough to hear it.
Learn to say it a thousand different ways. Make a thousand false starts and then another one. Each one gives you clarity.
Knowing what you value is how you learn to spend your energy in the way that’s best for you.
And the way that’s best for you is the way that’s best for everyone, for God and the universe and all of us, for evolution, for uplifting, for enlightenment, for the collective movement forward we’re all making.
Knowing what you value is how you start creating value.
Spending your energy on anything you don’t value is a waste. The universe is bountiful, profligate, eternally generous. But the universe wastes nothing. Someone who flings energy about and receives nothing they value in return is a vacuum, and you know how nature feels about that.
She’ll shut you down.
The listless, lethargic feeling is the diminishing of energy. If you don’t use your energy well — if you don’t get value in return for attention — your energy allotment goes down. Energy is the currency of the universe, and the transactions are supposed to be equitable. Nature likes a balance.
When you waste your precious energy, things get out of balance. The slow but sure diminishing of your drive, your fire, your motivation, your joy: that’s not a punishment, or a judgment. It’s a reminder. It’s a call to action.
It’s the universe knocking on your door:
“Hey, uh, ‘scuse me. You gonna, like, do something with this shit, or do you wanna give it back?”