Last week while attending the African Doctoral Academy at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape, South Africa I had many great insights which I’d like to share with you over the next few articles. These ‘aha moments’ occurred during an outstanding 5-day course, ‘The Productive PhD’ presented by Dr Sebastian Kernbach of the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. He also presents a similar course at Stanford University in the USA and other leading educational institutions globally.
This course covered fascinating, researched ways in which we can become more productive. I came away with a new ‘toolbox’ of simple and effective visualisation methods and ways of creating awareness of energy levels and using each state more productively. These topics are broad and in this article I focus only on creating awareness and using low-energy times more productively.
Our facilitator articulated and demonstrated his message clearly: we can be more productive through structuring our days according to our energy levels. Although his approach referred primarily to flourishing during a PhD, this approach would apply equally in most people’s business or professional lives, too.
In order to focus on the ‘lows’ let’s look at the pattern of an average day in most people’s lives:
Permission to use the above slide was kindly granted by Professor Kernbach
Professor Kernbach’s message was clear. We should not try to erase those times. The result would be lessening the energy level of our following prime or high-energy periods each of which usually lasts two to three hours. So we should rather engage in mental, emotional and physical activities found to be most effective during low-energy periods.
From a mental perspective, during these times we have better access to creative and holistic thinking and intuition. Emotionally we have an improved perception of our own moods and are more empathetic. Physically that is a good time to have a snack, exercise or take a cat-nap.
We were interested to hear that research has shown that this is not a beneficial time to drink coffee. For many of us, that was contrary to the way we instinctively have a cup of good, strong coffee (or other stimulant) to lift our energy. Does that sound familiar? Yet, evidently, although that will help us to feel more ‘awake’ during the low-energy time, it also reduces the level of the following ‘high’ thus not enabling us to take maximum advantage of the activities we could most productively engage in during those high-energy times. In other words, drinking coffee during a ‘low’ will mean that our low is not so low, but in addition, it will reduce the level of the following ‘high’. The coffee-drinking time most conducive to using our energy levels most productively is at the start of an upward curve in our energy cycle.
So how do you and I apply this information in a practical way? First let me show you what I discovered during the course. I’ll use my own example to demonstrate my ‘findings’ and this is the process I followed:
- I drew my own energy map showing my perceived energy levels on an average day. This can be seen in the black curve in the rough diagram below. Yes, I could easily show the alpha time, prime time and high time. And yes, my own main low lasted about 2 to 3 hours as did the two high-energy times.
- However, that was on an ‘average day’. But what would happen to my energy levels on a day, for want of a better term, I have called an ‘excited day’? So I drew the curve in green. There were significant differences. There I woke up earlier, eager to start on a project that inspired me. My energy was higher from a much earlier time and although there were variations, stayed higher in the evening, too.
- I was the determined to look at another kind of day, the days where I wake up exhausted and battle to get going. There my energy is lower all day and trails off in the evening. (Please see the red curve.)
By looking at three different ways in which I could divide the kinds of days I have (from an energy perspective) and superimposing those three simple graphs, it was astonishing to become aware that, regardless of the kind of day I’m experiencing, all three curves have a similar ‘low-energy’ period in common. This insight is profound as it means I should change my habits in order to take greater advantage of that time.
I went back to the drawing-board and explored the activities that I should allocate to those 2 or 3 hours in the middle of the day. One great insight was that this was the best time for me to attend to e-mails! To be most productive I should not allow this time-consuming activity to interrupt my higher-energy times which can be used more productively for other activities such as problem-solving or higher level strategy thinking.
It is taking a great amount of discipline to break my former habit of getting my e-mails out the way as early in the day as possible. However, I’m already experiencing the benefits. This has practical implications for the clients whom I coach. Most are high-level leaders in executive positions and resent the amount of time they need in order to attend to e-mails and do other routine tasks effectively. It reduces their time for more strategic activities. Thus, although this form of communication is highly effective, it may deplete our emotional energy.
In executive coaching programmes I have tried various tactics with different clients, crafting programmes to suit their needs. An example may be limiting their attending to e-mails to a specific blocked-off period on workdays. This time would be chosen to suit that person’s perceived needs. A few of the leaders have chosen 4pm to 6pm as the only time they allow themselves to look at or work on e-mails and this has benefitted them, but only in a limited fashion. However, it has helped to free the early part of the day for more strategic endeavours.
So, what is the relevance or significance of sharing this insight regarding my own energy levels? It means that, in order for anyone to maximise their low-energy periods, it would be an advantage for them to know when those times occur and plan to do routine admin tasks (including e-mails) or even have a cat-nap during those times. This would enhance the quality of the ensuing high-energy period.
Regardless of whether you are trying to be more productive in your academic endeavours, business or professional work, map your energy levels, plan your more routine tasks during low-energy periods and you will benefit through being more productive. Try it and let me know how you find this exercise. Thank you!
For more information on executive coaching programmes (conducted either ‘in person’ or via Skye – so location doesn’t matter!) or personal strategy, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: www.strategy-leadership.com
Please also visit Professor Kernbach’s websites in order to learn more about the work he does: https://mcm.unisg.ch/en/transfer/beratung/visual-collaboration-lab
Details of the July 2018 African Doctoral Academy Winter School will soon be available: http://www0.sun.ac.za/ada/