Using your time series: Looking at energy

Although I’m calling this “Looking at energy,” I’m actually talking about both energy and health here. Whatever you’re doing with your life, it’s easier if you’re well rested and well fed. We all know this. Our cars don’t run on empty; neither do we. Of course, I’m not going to stop there.

In an ideal world, you’d get to do all of your work during the time period when you feel most creative, most energetic, most on fire. I don’t live in an ideal world. If I did, I’d get to write from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. every day, then sleep until 10 or 11 a.m., and slip in a short nap in the afternoon.

Yeah, not so much. I live with a family, and everyone’s on what I refer to as “school schedule.” This morning, for example, everyone had to be out the door by 7, which means that I was up, chivvying the girl to get dressed (had to take away her blankets twice), making the boy’s lunch, checking to make sure everyone had everything that they needed (homework that got left by the computer, trumpet for band practice, etc.), telling the dog to hang on and I’d feed him once everyone was gone . . .

So I’ve learned to write when time’s available. Even so, I rarely write first thing. Maybe first thing when I get on the computer — which is often at least two hours after I get up. If you’re a morning lark, this may be easier; you can get up an hour earlier and write. Maybe. (There can be family commitments that interfere with that, I realize. I used to try to get up early to journal in the morning, and without fail my son would hear me and get up to spend time with me.)

I drink tea all the time. Caffeinated in the morning, decaf in the afternoons. Unless I’ve been running light on sleep, in which case I might sneak in a cup in the afternoon. That said, I don’t drink as much as I was a month ago, and there have been many days recently where I’ve only been drinking green tea or decaf.

What’s changed? I started running again. Oddly enough, exercise really does boost energy. Who’d have thought it? They’re telling the truth!

And I realized that when I ran and had caffeine, I had more trouble focusing on my work, whether it was freelance work or writing. One or the other, not both. So these days, I’m opting for less caffeine (except for this week, when I’ve got too much work to finish to take out an hour or more to exercise, cool down, stretch, and shower afterward) but still finding myself able to get the work done.

Sugar suffers from some of the same problems as caffeine: it might give you a brief burst of energy, but there will be a crash later, and it takes a toll on your body. For the best levels of concentration, you don’t want to be too hungry (and, hey — calorie restriction diets don’t prolong lifespan! Excellent news, as this means starving yourself is no longer considered even possibly a good thing) or so sated that you’re drowsy.

What helps with that? Oh, you know — protein, complex carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits with vitamins and fiber, water for hydration. All the stuff we’ve been told for years we should be eating (instead of things like the torte I posted the recipe for on Monday, or the hot fudge sauce and chocolate gravy recipes I found on the blog hop). Sweets are okay in moderation, but they shouldn’t be a staple. I went through a period in grad school where I ate a Snickers bar every afternoon to get me through an energy slump, and then I’d be ravenous by dinnertime. I would’ve been better off eating carrot sticks.

(Edit: I just went through a 1-1/2 hour slump of puttering about on-line, reading blog posts and the like, and then I went back to today’s work — indexing — full of focus. I’ve never gotten past that afternoon energy slump, which I hadn’t realized until today. But that’s an important observation about what works for me going forward.)

The other thing that really helps is getting a full night’s sleep most nights. The occasional “the work is really flowing and I’m going to stay up and write like a maniac” is fun, but it can leave me wiped out for days afterward. (In the final 24 hours of NaNoWriMo last year, I wrote over 17k. Amazingly, I wrote other things that week — added some words to an SF novel and even wrote a flash piece.) Sleep gives the brain a chance to build connections, consolidate memories, and process information.

So this is the flip side of barriers: barriers are things that hinder you from getting your work done; these are ideas about things that might help you get your work done. Sleep. Eat healthy (never mind what sugary thing I’m snacking on right now). Exercise. Use caffeine in moderation. Find the patterns that work for you.

All of these things work together to keep your energy mostly steady, but everyone has their own energy cycles — not just morning lark vs. night owl, but how long your energy is up, and how slowly or quickly you fade. When you do fade, so does your willpower, and you’re more likely to give in to temptation, whether that’s on not following through on work or having that extra candy bar.

Which is why we need systems. We need habits, we need to find ways to make doing things automatic. If I stop to think, “I should write, but first, maybe I can check out Facebook,” I’ve already lost.

Next week, we start looking at building those systems, taking everything into account — our own energy patterns, the barriers we face, practices that have been shown to work by others. Meanwhile, what do you find that helps boost your energy? When are you most productive?

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  1. Exercise…. I know I should go back to my walking, but…. On the other hand, you made some valid points. Thanks! YY

  2. “Which is why we need systems. We need habits, we need to find ways to make doing things automatic.”

    Oooh, yes. I need those. And more sleep and exercise. It’s soo hard, though! I’m looking forward to more of your series. Maybe I’ll figure it out as I read along.

  3. Do you know that when you said you were running it inspired me to start walking. Told you I learn from you.

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