Living Resilience

Managing energy

I have spent the last 15 years working in the so-called “helping professions”. People like nurses, doctors, pastors, social workers, teachers… that’s us – the helping professionals. And for helping professionals, the main resource we use in our work is our energy.

And to make things more complicated – I’m an introvert. That doesn’t mean that I’m shy, or I don’t like people. It just means I derive energy from solitude, and I expend energy when I engage people. In other words, people are expensive.

In helping circles, a lot of time is spent talking about self-care, and it has even slipped over into mainstream conversation. But all too often, self-care is equated with doing something enjoyable: A spa day. An afternoon at the movies. Soaking in a hot tub.

Those can all be fun, but the real task of self-care is energy preservation and repletion. If energy is your single most important resource, a primary job of self-care has to be protecting and replenishing that resource.

I know a surgeon, and the list of things he just won’t do is long because he simply cannot afford to hurt his hands. They are the means by which he earns his living, and that is too important to risk on something like mountain climbing.

Or another friend who is a bartender, and she makes her living on her feet. The money she spends on shoes and inserts and care for her feet gives me chills, and she too has a long list of things she won’t do, because it could hurt her feet and impact her ability to do her work.

I propose we should take energy management exactly that seriously.

That sounds simplistic and privileged, and it is. But something can be both simplistic and true: You have to manage your energy to be in this fight long-term. This sort of work – helping work – is an endurance sport – a marathon, not a sprint, and we will not get the better world of which we dream by working 14 hour days on the regular.

And privilege is both a noun and a verb, and while energy management is a privilege in the noun sense, it is also something we must privilege in the verb sense – we must privilege it, make it a priority, in the same way we make eating a priority.

A big part of how we do that involves listening to your body, and then building your life around what you learn. The most important knowledge is always self-knowledge.

Here is a personal example:

Because I know myself, I know my most creative time of the day is early morning, that my least productive time is after 3:00 PM, that I really need 7 hours of sleep to be my best, and that more than 8 hours of sleep will not help me and actually hurts me. Carbs are not my friend, and sugar makes me tired. Exercise of any sort helps me focus. Mingling among crowds is exhausting, but being on stage is life-giving.

None of that is supposition or opinion: Those are facts, gathered over a lifetime. And because I have committed my life to build a better world, I have to manage my energy, so I have, to the fullest extent possible, sought to build a life that prioritizes those facts and takes them into account.

So only easy meetings get scheduled for after 3:00 PM whenever possible. I wake up as early as I can, which means trying to get to bed as early as I can (A friend once told me that going to bed early is how adults sleep in, and I can’t agree more). If I eat sweets at all, it is only after I am done with work for the day. I am more likely to accept your invitation to be a speaker than I am to attend your party as a guest. And I take daily walks that range from 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the amount of time I have available.

And I’m not perfect at this, in any sort of way. But I have found that doing something excellently 80% of the time always gives me better results than doing something half-assed 100% of the time. The things we pay attention to are the things that get better.

I’m not saying that any of these things are things you should be doing, but they are things that work for me, and allow me to be fairly good at my work, despite being an ADHD riddled, introverted, depressed Chaos Muppet.

I am saying, though, that you should pay attention to your body and learn how your body responds to things, and then build a life that focuses on preserving and maintaining your energy.

What have you found helps you with managing your energy?

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  • Robin Vestal
    October 29, 2021 at 6:01 pm

    I’m 57 and I’ve struggled with energy management my whole life. The pandemic completely through me off because it allowed my work to consume my life, something I’ve guarded against for many years. I do what I can to manage it but winter is coming and I’ve had seasonal PTSD after multiple traumas around Christmas. This is the time of year where I try not to expect much of anything from myself expect survival

  • Joanna
    November 1, 2021 at 7:12 am

    1) I go to bed at 9:00 and wake up by 5:00 so I can meditate, pray, journal, work out, and do yoga before 8:00 a.m., because there’s no way I can get through the rest of the day without that mega-dose of self-care first thing. (Doing everything at the beginning of the day also protects and prioritizes that self-care time.)

    2) I try to schedule meetings in the afternoon when I’m running out of gas so I can use my morning superpowers to get stuff done.

    3) I say no to social events on weeknights and limit myself to one outing on the weekend – it might be with my spouse, a friend, or a group, but I can only do one.

    4) I imagine all the different parts of the abundant life I am trying to build (emotional, creative, relational, etc.) as balls I am juggling, and I’ve accepted that at any given time, at least one of those balls will be resting on the floor – the trick is not to leave any one ball on the floor for too long.

    5) My therapist regularly asks me, “What have you been doing to fill your cup?” Prioritizing the things that feed my soul over things that just kill time (like binge-watching Netflix) really makes a difference – I still watch Netflix, but I have to be honest that it is junk food and can’t keep me going long-term.

  • Dawn
    November 7, 2021 at 8:28 am

    This week I had to fill in paperwork for disability benefits… all about what I * can’t* do and why I can not work 40 hours a week like a true Canadian can. It got me really depressed. My therapist asked me instead, “What are your needs for optimal performance ?” a long with a big dose of ” working 40 hours a week is not optimal for any performance. ”

    Mine in general are 1. rest between tasks 2. time and 3. space. I aIso need to give more thought to diet.

    My schedule is my best tool. 1 meeting a day, 3 meetings a week (I am also a PhD student ). Meeting is everything from doctor appointments to coffee to meeting my advisor. Goals and Deadlines are stressful for me, so I try to be productive in spurts. Pomodoro techique is very useful to keep me focussed.