Scott H Young

Energy Management Is More Important for Creative Work


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There are two basic veins of thought when it comes to getting the most accomplished.  The classic view is time management: keep lists, stay focused and organize your time effectively to get everything done.  As a whole, time management works fairly well.  However, it misses a couple key problems, such as:

  •     Why do you burn out?
  •     Why can you have a perfectly organized plan, but still procrastinate?
  •     Why does your mood have an impact on how much work you accomplish in the same amount of time?

This is where energy management comes in.  This theory was popularized, if not originating from the book, The Power of Full Engagement.  The idea behind energy management is that your energy, the invisible source of motivation, focus and mood is the real driver towards becoming productive.  Perfectly managing your time, it claims, won’t make you a super-achiever, it will just leave you burnt out.

I’ve already written about energy management before, but one observation I noticed is that it becomes increasingly more important, the more creative your work is.

Energy Fuels Ideas

At first, I think this is a bit counter-intuitive.  Physical jobs leave you more fatigued than sitting behind a desk all day.  Why would a less calorie demanding workload (if you assume typing at a computer uses less fuel than hauling bricks) require more energy?

The answer is that energy, the kind used for productivity, is more than just calories.  It’s the mental fuel you need to get work done.  A great example of this for myself is writing.  When I am writing, it isn’t terribly difficult.  I’m in a comfortable chair and I don’t need to move considerably.  Even the task of writing is enjoyable and fairly stress-free (compared with customer service work, or making sales calls).

However, I find it absolutely impossible to write articles for eight hours straight.  I may be able to do it with a much larger topic where the writing is less restricted, but if an article takes roughly 1-2 hours to write, I would find it hard to finish six in one day.  Even if I had ample time.

Why does this happen?  Because you reach a point where you run out of ideas.  Even if you do have ideas, you struggle to write them down with any sophistication.  You might not feel tired, but some invisible fuel source has just run out, and you’re stuck.

 Creative Blocks as a Lack of Energy

This doesn’t just happen with writing.  It happens whenever you need to do something creative.  Whenever you need to constantly think about what needs to be done, summon up ideas and form solutions, you’re using a very limited energy supply.  While you can train yourself to work eight hour days of physical labor, putting your cognition into constant action can be far more draining.

Someone who needs to constantly use ideas can’t fall back on the philosophy of time management (maybe that’s why artists are stereotypically cast as being disorganized).  Pushing out ideas without stop is almost impossible to do.  Even if you train yourself, the caliber of your work will slowly decline as you strain your reserves.

Energy management, however, does help.  The idea that managing energy, the invisible currency of work, and not your schedule is a powerful one.  It means that taking extra breaks, working 15 hour work weeks, partying or non-essential reading can all be justifiable in different circumstances.  In time management, most of these would be considered completely wasteful.

    When Energy Matters, Extreme Measures Aren’t So Extreme

Steve Pavlina is a blogger who I suspect many of my readers would be familiar with.  He has grown two successful small businesses in highly creative fields, and follows some rather unusual steps to get there.  Recently, he decided to opt into an all-raw, vegan diet.  One of the biggest reasons was, Steve believes, a raw vegan diet gives more energy.

Before I get comments saying a raw diet is useless, or there is more to eating than getting energy, I’ll state that I’m not a raw-food vegan, so I won’t comment on that practice.  However, as extreme as Steve’s diet sounds, it isn’t ridiculous to me.

When your work is highly creative, energy is a luxurious commodity.  Anything you can do to increase it even a small amount can have huge repercussions.  And when you work for yourself, and directly enjoy the fruits of your labor, I can see Steve’s perspective.  What may seem like a crazy policy to squeeze a little more energy into each day, actually seems reasonable when you’re work is grounded in ideas.

For most of us, the next step to more energy is a lot simpler.  Exercise regularly.  Sleep enough.  Eat more plants, less processed foods.  Take a day off each week.  Compress your time so you don’t work evenings.  Declare a war on agents taking away your precious discretionary time (television, negative friends, boring extracurriculars).  But the principle is the same.

Switching to More Creative Work Means Switching Philosophies

I know a lot of students and young people read this blog, I’m a student myself.  One thing about being young is it means a lot of transition steps from one type of work to another.  Often this means a transition from less creative work to more creative work.

I think this transition can be handled better if you put more emphasis on managing your energy and less on managing your time.  Although you might be able to get away with pulling all-nighters to cram for a rote memorization test, it doesn’t help if you need to function creatively the next day.

 Boosting Creative Energy

I think there are some obvious solutions to boosting your energy, specifically the energy needed to create ideas and solutions to mental problems.  There are also plenty of less obvious, but still important factors:

  •     Read more than you need to know.  Intellectual fodder gives you a much larger creative base to work from.  Even if you don’t use the specific ideas, reading, listing to TED Talks, following interesting bloggers is like exercise for your mind.  If you don’t exercise physically you get fat and slow.  If you don’t exercise mentally, you just become stupid.
  •     Cut Sources of Demotivation.  I’m not a believer in eliminating everything negative from your life and drifting into a fairytale world.  However, we all have people, news sources and entertainment that makes us feel like garbage.  If you want to have great ideas, you need to weed out the toxic sources that offer nothing valuable in return.

Are You Uncreative or Just Tired?

Saying you are born uncreative is like saying you’re born fat.  Certainly there is a genetic component to obesity, but claiming that exercise and diet play no role is ridiculous.  Similarly, I think mental exercise, physical health and your intellectual diet play a big role in how creative you are.


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10 Responses to “Energy Management Is More Important for Creative Work”

  1. CDM says:

    Thank you for all your posts. Thank you!

  2. Bobby Rio says:

    haha… funny you posted this today.. I just ordered Brain Quicken.. hoping that it can ween my off my Red Bull addiction.

    I’ve cornered myself into the habit of chugging a 16 ounce Red Bull before getting going on my writing…

    Which is great for writing.. but horrible for the rest of the day when I crash down from the Red Bull high!

    I’ve read Steve’s reports of his raw diets… I’m already a vegetarian.. but the thought of going raw is just not possible at the moment. Or should I say, a priority or desire.

    But I am open to hear about other diets, natural supplements that increase energy.

  3. Scott Young says:

    Bobby,

    Agreed, I’m not in a position to make a raw food diet edible. It might be an interesting experiment, but it’s not feasible at the moment.

    I’m not a complete caffeine and stimulant abstainer, but natural energy is probably better than chemicals for enduring mental performance.

    -Scott

  4. I worked professionally as a creative problem solver, which means I learned long ago to forget about time and instead immerse myself in the process. It’s not that I didn’t have deadlines, it’s just that I ignored them because they were distracting. I did manage to do great work.

  5. J.D. Meier says:

    That’s one of my favorite books — and it was an “ah ha” to realize that energy, not time is the key to results.

    If you know that thoughts create your feelings, and that questions change your focus, then you can shift gears and change states pretty effectively when you need to.

    One distinction that’s not well known is how sustained thinking burns out your prefrontal cortext and you need little breaks for a sustainable pace (http://blogs.msdn.com/jmeier/archive/2008/01/02/working-memory-vs-routine-activity.aspx)

  6. Rahul Thorat says:

    Hi Scott,

    I just thought to inform you that your writing means a lot to me and keeps me going through my research work.

    Thank you very much and keep on writing.

    regards

    Rahul

  7. Scott Young says:

    Thanks Rahul!

    Thanks for the link J.D.!

  8. Nappy BoY says:

    all you do is steal other peoples ideas, you belong in jail!

  9. Scott Young says:

    Nappy BoY,

    I do my best to attribute where I can, I’ll admit my citation ability isn’t as good as it could be, but I try. If you have a specific complaint that an idea presented as my own is not mine, let me know your source. Unfortunately, most generalized advice can be linked back to dozens of authors, but if there is something specific, I’ll make a note of it in the future.

    -Scott

  10. Louche says:

    Scott, I love your blog! I also read Steve Pavlina, and I’m vegan, but I eat a lot of grains… I don’t have much energy… pretty soon I’m going to start working out again and try to reduce grains… they’re cheap and overly available compared to vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Grr. I’d love to try raw and see what happens, but it’s such a hassle for me as a college student right now.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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