A Rhythmic World
Life on our planet is all about rhythm.
Everything oscillates: inbreath and outbreath, high tide and low tide, day and night, waking and sleeping.
Our hearts beat in rhythm. That’s what keeps us alive.
Rhythm is made up of rise and fall, activity and rest. Often we think only in terms of activity, measuring our days by what we’ve done; but rest is what shapes our actions and makes them meaningful, just as the pauses between notes allow us to make sense of music.
The same applies to our own energy.
Four Kinds of Energy
Energy is about much more than physical tiredness. Generally speaking we have four kinds of energy: physical energy, emotional energy, mental energy, and willpower.
All four of these ebb based on how much we’ve used.
For example, when you’ve spent an entire day dealing with toddler tantrums (using up your emotional energy), you have much less energy left to listen when your spouse comes home complaining after a hard day’s work.
Similarly, after working intensely on the computer for an hour or two (using up your mental energy), you feel tired and have to take a break.
Or when you’re on a diet and trying to avoid (tasty, tasty) doughnuts, it’s easy to walk past the doughnut shop just once on your way to work. But if you walk up and down by the doughnut shop all day long (using up your willpower), sooner or later you will give in and buy one.
Ebb and Flow
All four kinds of energy have peaks and troughs; their levels naturally rise and fall. We expend energy through activity, and gain it again through rest.
This means that for optimal performance we should match our activity levels to our energy levels. Instead of trying to maintain a certain fixed activity level (as is the case with a rigid schedule), we should try to do more when our energy is high and rest when our energy is low.
This pattern applies to all our projects. When we first begin a project, we’re filled with energy and enthusiasm; we’re more likely to lose interest and focus when we’re halfway through, and sometimes there’s a final spurt of energy when the end becomes visible at last.
Don’t fight this pattern by imposing an unnecessarily rigid schedule upon yourself. Instead, flow with it and use it to your advantage.
How to Flow with Your Energy
Flowing with your energy is very simple:
At times when you have more momentum, enthusiasm, and energy, do more.
Days will come when you get bored, or want to make room for newer things, or have to deal with unexpected problems, or simply feel burnt out. This is quite predictable because of the way our energy moves in cycles.
Since we can predict this, we can plan for it.
Since we know that there will inevitably be days when we can’t do as much, doing more when we have the resources to do more — often when a project is just beginning — will help us to make up for those days when we simply have to do less.
Don’t march yourself in lockstep to an artificially-imposed schedule. Continually adjust yourself to your energy and your circumstances.
And one final consideration…
Don’t Drain the Tank
Pavel Tsatsouline was once a physical training instructor for the Soviet special forces. Today he’s a strength coach best known for promoting the use of kettlebells in the United States.
One unique aspect of Tsatsouline’s training approach is that he rarely pushes his trainees to their absolute limit. Instead he advocates keeping a little energy in reserve every time.
This is because training to one’s absolute limit — known as “failure” in physical training circles — inevitably results in significant muscle soreness that requires a few days of recovery time.
Professions like the special forces simply don’t have that luxury.
So Tsatsouline’s trainees work hard, but they don’t exhaust themselves. This results in a slower rate of development, but has the added advantage of keeping trainees always ready to perform.
You can do this too. Don’t push yourself to your absolute limit each and every day. The harder you work, the more rest you’ll need. If you pull an all-nighter you might need a day off.
If you push yourself too hard for too long without sufficient rest, your performance will simply get worse and worse over time. This is neither efficient nor effective.
But if you make sure to stop before you’re completely drained, you can keep yourself ready to perform day after day.
Never rush. Augustus Caesar — the first and greatest emperor of Rome — had as his motto festina lente, meaning “hurry slowly”. If he could afford to take his time, so can you.