The 4 Elements of Physical Energy and How to Master Them

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“Manage your energy, not your time” – Tony Schwartz

This is the quote that made Tony Schwartz famous. And it is one, that I believe best represents a truly efficient lifestyle in the 21st century the best.

And yet, living “manage your energy, not your time” is incredibly hard, at least for me. It probably took me around 1 year, to just fully grasp its meaning. Since then, I’ve turned my life upside down and changed my routine dramatically.

As one example, here at Buffer, we use an informal line to help us make better decisions. It goes something like this:

“Working more is never the answer.”

Whenever we are struggling under more workload, the first thing is to stop what we’re doing and think about a better way to manage our energy, not to add more work hours to our days.

Schwartz famously proclaims in his book, that most of us are chasing the wrong resource: hours in the day. Instead, we should focus on something entirely different: our energy.

Our energy can be broken down in 4 different elements:

  • Your physical energy – how healthy are you?
  • Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy – how well can you focus on something?
  • Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

The order of how these energies are written down is not random by the way. But Tony gives them this specific order to guide us through developing our energies in the right way. And in doing so, your physical energy comes first, because it is naturally our base and foundation for any other energy or focus we want to develop.

So for this article, I wanted to break down all elements of physical energy as our most important foundation. Let’s dig in:

Your physical energy – how healthy are you?

Your physical energy naturally serves as the base, says Schwarz. It is going to be very tough to build out your other energies without taking care of your body first. What’s most interesting is that up until now, your physical energy is the most discounted element in our day to day lives.

To break it down further, how you arrive at optimal physical energy is through these 4 elements:

Nutrition – Do you keep a sustainable glucose level in your blood stream?

We’ve talked before about the importance of nutrition when it comes to productivity. After all, nutrition is your fuel. And yet, so many of us neglect what they eat every day gravely. Here is a typical graph of our glucose level, showing the difference between eating more sugar and less. From first sight it is clear that most of us base too much of their diet on the 3 big meal times throughout the day and get a similar spiky pattern of ups and downs:

glucose level

To optimize your above graph, I wanted to pick out 3 most important parts to get your nutrition back to the level it might have once been:

  • Reorganize how food is stored in your cupboard: Researcher Brian Wansink demonstrated in a surprising experiment that “You are 3 times more likely to eat the first thing you see in your cupboard than the fifth thing you see.” Put the healthy things in reach and the not so healthy ones out of it.
  • Carbohydrates in the morning, fat and protein in the evening: This is something bodybuilders have been practicing for a long time and I believe it applies equally for anyone trying to work with more energy. Learning to better manage your energy level, one of the most important things is to respect your catabolic and anabolic cycles. Giving your body carbohydrates (= energy) in the morning will give you all the fuel. Moving more towards protein and fats towards the evening so your body can refuel over night is equally important.
  • Doing nothing else when eating food:  It seems such a fitting experience to watch TV, work, read or do anything else but solely focusing on eating when we eat. Funnily enough, it almost appears to be a waste of time if we “just eat”. The latest research on multitasking however reveals the exact opposite. Solely focusing on eating doesn’t just help you digest your food better, it also makes you a more efficient worker for any other tasks.

Fitness – How well do you transport oxygen through your body?

The second element of great physical energy is how fit you are. Meaning, how much oxygen your blood stream can transport at any given time. And working on your fitness level doesn’t just come with great health benefits. It can serve as the most important element to change your life into the one you want:

Out of all possible habits and routines, the gym habit is by far the most powerful one writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit. The reason is simple: Going to gym creates something called a “cornerstone habit”. That means, you can build any other habit you want, around this habit. After you have a consistent fitness habit, you are basically ready to tackle any other challenge much easier.

In a powerful post from Leo Babauta, he addresses the 15 most common excuses to form a gym habit and how to work against them. Here are my 3 favorite ones:

  • “I don’t have the time”: That is by far the number one excuse Leo mentions. And yet, the problem is often the fear of having to start a 5 days a week bodybuilding workout. “Do 5 minutes a day. You can squeeze 5 minutes of brisk walking into your busy schedule.” Says Leo to overcome this more easily.
  • My family isn’t supportive.” This is one of the toughest ones Leo talks about. His insight to overcoming it is to tell your family early on: “One of my favorite tactics is getting my family on board early — before I’ve decided to make a change, when I’m still thinking about it. I send them articles I’m reading, talk to them about things I’ve learned, why this is important to me, etc. Then when I’m ready to make a decision to change, I ask for their help deciding — and then their help implementing.”
  • I’m not good at it.”  Another key excuse Leo mentions is this one, fortunately: “No one is good at it when they start out. Everyone has to learn, everyone starts somewhere. You get good at it by doing it. Here, especially using the Tiny Habits method can help tremendously.

And as the last help with this, exercising also makes us happier.

 

Sleep – Do you sleep enough to renew your body?

We’ve talked in depth about how much sleep you really need to renew your body overnight. And one of the key elements I keep coming back to myself is to focus on both light sleep and deep sleep in your sleep phases. Here is outline from sleep tracking app Zeo on how the average data on sleeping for its users looks like:

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 3.21.25 PM

What is most interesting to know if your amount of sleep drops below the above mentioned level is this. The research on sleep shows that it changes our cognitive functions entirely:

“Working overtime doesn’t increase your output. It makes you stupid.”

The problem with not getting enough sleep is quite simply that we don’t know we aren’t getting enough. And the consequences can cost us dearly.

What I’ve personally started to experiment with, together with the whole Buffer team is to start tracking our sleep with the Jawbone UP fuelband:

Jawbone

It’s been an amazing help to get better sleep, and also know if you are getting the right kind of sleep. What I tried to optimize over the past few days was the amount of deep sleep I’m getting every night. The reason for this is that deep sleep serves as the most important element in your sleeping phase for renewing your brain cells and body cells. I’ll definitely have to do a more in depth article about my findings here. For now, here is my best sleep pattern yet where I got over 4hs of deep sleep:

photo

 

Renewal – Renewing your energy levels within the day

Tony Schwartz talks about this last part as one of the most overlooked elements of our lives. Renewal that we get throughout our day. Yes, that’s right, if you are anything like me, that’s probably the last thing anyone does and yet, it couldn’t be any more important.

Fittingly he mentions that even the fastest racing car couldn’t win the race with at least one or two great pit stops. The same holds true for ourselves. If we don’t have “pit-stops” built into our days, there is now chance we can race at a high performance.

To better manage your renewal throughout the day, here are 2 quick ideas to help you get started:

  • Take a nap, every day. Being able to nap is the most important part for getting daily renewal in. NYT best selling author Michael Hyatt puts it best in his article about napping recounting his predecessor: “Every day after lunch, I lie down on the sofa in my office, I hold my car keys in my right hand and let my hand hang toward the floor. When the car keys fall out of my hand, I know I’m done.”
  •  Build a reading habit. Almost everyone I know wants to spend more time reading. And yet no one seems to find the time for it. Personally, I’ve recently started to build a daily reading habit of just 30 minutes in, straight after lunch. Especially as this is a time where you are likely not going to be very productive, it is a great way to catch up and get daily renewal.
  • Develop a meditation habit. Another fantastic way to get more renewal throughout the day is to develop a meditation habit. Around 6 months ago, I started to first incorporate mediation in my daily routine and I’ve had it ever since. The best way I found to get started was through an amazing app called HeadSpace. It solved the big problem of not knowing how to get started with meditation, as Andy guides you through every step.

Building up all 4 of these elements for a greater capacity of physical energy will build the base for getting better at whatever it is you want to improve, says Tony Schwartz.

What are your thoughts on physical energy? Are you working consistently to improving this element? I’d love your thoughts on this in the comments. 

  • http://www.jamiemchale.com/ Jamie McHale

    Great article – I read the book a while ago, and am trying to implement some of the ideas.

    How have you found the Jawbone Up? Was comparing it to the FitBit One. Have you had experience with any of the other sleep / activity trackers?

    • LeoWid

      Hi Jamie, yes, the book is absolutely incredible, what was also amazing for me was this YouTube video from Tony: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tke6X2eME3c

      As for the Jawbone Up. Andy in our team (see in the sidebar) has compared the Jawbone Up vs. Fitbit vs. Nike Fuelband and his verdict was that for sleep tracking the Up wins, so if that is useful at all, that’s why we went for it. :)

      • http://www.jamiemchale.com/ Jamie McHale

        Excellent – thanks Leo!

  • http://www.facebook.com/TriciaMolloy Tricia Molloy

    Thanks for this article. I recommitted a few weeks ago to regular exercise at the Y, including cardio and circuit training, and have seen how my productive time has expanded. A regular meditation practice is next on my list. I appreciate your wise advice.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Tricia, that’s amazing to hear that you’ve already mastered so many elements of the above ones. And yes, I can only recommend meditation, let me know how it goes! :)

  • http://twitter.com/thekahena Lena

    My favorite line: “Working overtime doesn’t increase your output. It makes you stupid.” After being freed from a mandated overwork/minimum rest schedule some months ago, I decided to rebuild my day before something or someone else tried to encroach on it. I decided that sleep was not a giveaway. I decided that better food and physical activity was not a giveaway. It really works to structure the day around the fitness cornerstone activity, that’s the first thing that became regular (aside from sleeping and eating). All of the points you outlined in your post really work and help manage energy. This means that during focused work time the project or person is getting your best and most productive focus, more work done in less time….usually. :)

    • LeoWid

      Hi Lena, love how you’ve taken back control of all those elements in your life, it’s a huge inspiration to read. Keep me posted on what’s next! :)

  • Kelly Young

    This was really good. Are you going to write an article on the other three elements?

    • LeoWid

      Hi Kelly, yes, I am indeed! :)

  • http://twitter.com/buildsleep BuildBetterSleep

    Did you pick Jawbone UP because Zeo went belly-up? How well do the two correlate??

  • http://twitter.com/ArielPaz08 Ariel Paz

    Good points, Leo. I would also include managing emotions and thoughts as a key factor in physical energy. Failure to express either in a positive manner not only saps my energy but causes physical ailments and fatigue as well.

  • http://twitter.com/Imagetwits Ayodele Oguntubi

    Totally revealing! But if you live and work in Lagos, Nigeria; this might be a tall order to fulfill. Once again, Leo you got me thinking!

  • Allison Catherine

    I agree with Ariel Paz, there is definitely a large amount of energy expended on negativity. Leo, do you have any techniques you would recommend on turning around a bad mood? Or would one of the elements listed above do this?

  • Robbie Williford

    I absolutely love this article. I think it’s all important, really. If you can just pay a little bit more attention to focusing your energy to places that matter the most, it’s almost guaranteed that your life and productivity will skyrocket.

    Great stuff, as always. Bookmarked it and sent it to a few friends.

    • LeoWid

      Hey Robbie, thanks so much for the kind words and for stopping by. Exactly right, we don’t have to turn our life upside down to get started with this. All it takes is 5 minutes a day and you go from there.

      Your encouragement means a lot! :)

  • http://www.thepetedesign.com/ Pete R.

    Awesome post once again Leo. All are great tips that could lead to not just being more productive but also happier.

    Nutrition part is one of the things I really must control. With all that startup life + fast food, instand noodles, it could really lead to a health problem later on.

    Thanks for making me realize that. :)

  • http://www.PuraVidaMultiMedia.com/ CAELAN HUNTRESS

    “Working more is never the answer.” Love that.

  • Chris

    I’ve been waiting to read the next in the series — Are we still going to get your articles on the other areas as well?

  • Chi

    Got to love the quote “Working overtime doesn’t increase your output. It makes you stupid.”

  • André Prinsloo

    Leo, thanks so much for this, this is awesome! In our work environment, people often put in more hours without regard to the effects on their physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. I am certainly going to forward this on.

  • shaun domnic

    what about exam stress ,if we aim high score will the same trick succeed?

  • http://thinkersplayground.com/ Gavin Morrice

    Guys – I love your blog and enjoyed this post!

    A note about the “carbohydrates in the morning” riff though. I’d argue that eating carbs in the evening is more beneficial.

    Raising blood sugar in the evening, aids the parasympathetic nervous system (the sleepy, recovery, well-being side of your nervous system). In the absence of light (incl. artificial light), raised insulin (from the presence of carbs) will lead to an increase in tryptophan production. This will help you fall asleep faster, and deeper, whilst also improving recovery whilst you sleep (due to an increase in HGH).

    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/85/2/426.full

    Since the glucose will be stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen, you don’t need to load up on carbs in the morning.

    Source: Former biology student, former bodybuilder, olympic weightlifter.

  • Kathleen McCabe

    EXCELLENT INFORMATION IN ONE EASY-READ NUTSHELL!!! yes, I’m screaming that! A must share…p.s. Gavin Morrice brought up an interesting point of view on the carbs…

  • Amy F

    Great. I am sharing this article. I know a few people, besides myself, that will find it an interesting read. Thanks!

  • Gustavo Orrego

    You forget talking about sexual energy, why?

  • suchitab

    wow what amazing articles. thank you so much. you added so much value to my life. i was looking for this:)

  • Garry Palmer

    Excellent article! How we physically feel majorily effects our productivity and quality of life. I incorporate each of those habits everyday. The only thing I differ from is not having carbs in the morning in order to teach my body to use its fat stores for energy. Thud, keeping my body in a higher fat burning state all day. (: Again, excellent article! I will be sharing this!

  • mahesh

    Hello
    i want to talk about myself hope you can find it important , i ma just turned 30 and i have an issue since childhood i can do physical activities my energy is not so much i cant run faster if i get down i have to struggle to get up. can it be cured? let me know your words on it.

    thanks

  • subhash

    can we not have this in the form of pdf so that we save it for future reference??

    • http://courtneyseiter.com/ Courtney Seiter

      Hey there; great question! It’s helpful to know this would be useful for you; I’ll look into this for future posts! Thanks for the nudge. :)