We've all got the same hours in our days, but the way we experience those hours is affected greatly by our energy levels. In this article, I'd like to share nine things I've learned this summer about keeping my energy optimized for work, for love, and for play.
1. Chip away at sleep debt rather than trying to pay it off one morning a week. It's better to add 30 minutes to each night of sleep for a week than to add 4 hours to one night of sleep once per week. Author and researcher Jim Collins (Good to Great, Great by Choice, etc.) is rather obsessive about this, keeping track of total hours of sleep for the most recent 10 days of life. When the total number is below 70, he knows that he won't be able to perform his best.
2. Nappucinos work. This is the thing where right before that afternoon slump hits, you down a cup of coffee and then lay down and shut your eyes for fifteen minutes. The science of this is explained beautifully in Knapp and Zeratsky's Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. The gist is that adenosine is a chemical in your brain that makes you feel sleepy, and the only way to clear it off your receptors is to sleep. And caffeine works by clinging to the adenosine receptors so that they can't receive adenosine — thereby making you not tired. But caffeine has a hard time clearing adenosine itself.
So you chug the coffee (the caffeine will take twenty minutes or so to get into your bloodstream), take the quick nap (I set a timer on my phone — the goal here is to just lay down and close my eyes; sometimes I fall totally asleep, sometimes I don't), and then when you wake up, BOOM. Go time.
(Dan Pink coins the term “nappucino” in his newest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.)
3. Set a daily reminder to write down what your energy has been like. Treat yourself like an organism that you are studying. Jim Collins used to keep a “bug book” on himself, studying himself to try to understand what he should do with his life. (He literally refers to himself as “the bug called Jim” when talking about this.)
You and me know what we want to do with our lives — we want to educate! But I find that we rarely understand where we do or don't get energy from. And simply keeping regular notes on what happened to our energy in a given day — what we ate (e.g., sugar intake), how many cups of coffee we drank, how much sleep we got, did we exercise and if so how, etc. — can start to give us insights to make us better stewards of our time.
4. Light candles at dinner and turn off the other lights. Sure, it's romantic. But more importantly, it's a way to get our minds ready for sleep. One of our hosts in Australia did this while Crystal and I were over for dinner, and it was just lovely. Just beauty.
Artificial light before bed really affects our readiness for sleep, especially if we're trying to get to bed early for the sake of an early rise.
5. Keep a list of “energy giver” people. These are folks who, after you talk to them, you always feel a bit charged. The list could be small — after all, it's easier to take a person's energy than it is to give them some — but important. You want to spend more time with these folks.
And the opposite is, of course, true, too — I just don't care to write down the names of people who are energy drainers.
6. Take real breaks vs. fake breaks. I wouldn't like to see the number of times that I've taken a “break” from work by checking email or Twitter or the news or YouTube. This is dumb. It's taking my mind from one intellectually demanding activity — feedback on papers, lesson planning, writing, research — and dumping it into a high-stimulation activity.
Instead, take a walk, do some jumping jacks, stare at a window, do a nappucino, call your grandma… do something besides the digital default.
7. Have some quiet each day. Thanks to headphones and podcasts and Spotify and car radio and audiobooks, it's easy to ensure that every moment of our day is filled with stimuli. I've found it quite liberating to intentionally not use stimuli at various points in the day. To drive with the radio off. To wash the dishes after the kids are in bed while just looking out the kitchen window, listening to nothing.
The constant noise we default to these days contributes to our dizzying, frenetic sense of overwhelm. In her book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, journalist Brigid Schulte shares the work of the Yale Stress Center, where neuroscientists have discovered that the overwhelm we feel “can physically shrink the thinking brain” (274).
So… let's not shrink our brains. Schedule some time in each day for quiet.
8. Do the coffee thing from two hours after wake-up until an hour after school ends. As much as I love my old wake-up routine of boiling, grinding, pouring, dripping, and sipping on some delightful joe, I've benefitted from converting to a later coffee start time. This happened when I started learning about how hitting the coffee too early in the day sort of hijacks the work of our natural wake-up chemical, cortisol.
For me, that means I have my first cup at 8:00 or so, and my last cup at 3:00 or so. I find that it's easier to fall asleep this way.
9. Exercise for about twenty minutes about every day. The goal isn't to get a raging six-pack in twenty minutes a day — it's to run or walk or do calisthenics or swim for twenty minutes. Thanks to keeping track of these kinds of things for the past few months (#3), I know that my best time for exercise is first thing in the morning before work.
One important point here is to not overdo the exercise, as that'll increase the odds that you won't do it every day. In Make Time, Knapp and Zeratsky shorthand this as “Don't be a hero.” From an energy perspective, the goal of working out is to exert your body for enough time per day to get the resulting energy boost, but not to exert it to the point where you injure yourself and now can't exercise tomorrow.
All of these can seem a bit nit-picky when you look at them, like a list of buzz-killing joy-stealers. But I've found the opposite to be true: when I operate beneath a few simple, logical rules like these, I end up experiencing more freedom and creative output, and I end up giving more to others.
In other words, paying mind to my energy helps me increase my usefulness.
Laura Hopkins says
Just when I think you’ve covered all the topics of teacher interest, you write about the key topic of energy! I love the Nappucinos! Didn’t realize my necessary coffee/nap had scientific backing. All of your energy tips really resonate with me, because I’ve struggled with this as I’ve gotten older. Thank you for your always insightful articles, Dave. Here’s to more energy the realistic way!
Forbes has added an update to the article about coffee and cortisol that clarifies that the cortisol cycle is different for early risers. Since cortisol is party a response to sunlight, levels are lower for early risers than for the general population who start work at 8 or 9 am. He recommends starting caffeine an hour or so after waking, rather than two hours.