I bet you think you’d be able to do a lot more if you had more time. If so, you’re probably wrong. Having more time is only a piece of the puzzle.
It’s not just the quantity of time that we should consider, but the quality of time, too.
This is largely the foundation of the idea of heatmapping your productivity and of the engagement threshold. In each case, time is only one factor – with energy and attention being the others.
The fact that time is only one of three factors doesn’t discount the importance of time, for having an abundance of creative energy or being especially engaged doesn’t help much if you don’t have enough time to do anything with that energy or attention. Manifesting change in the world takes time, but that’s not all it takes.
Thinking in terms of time, energy, and attention is important because many of us operate as if more time equals more capacity, when in reality it often doesn’t. (Tweet this.)
Anyone who’s sat at their desk at the end of the day in that awkward middleground where they’re neither working nor playing understands this concept. Yet the overriding tendency is to sit there nonetheless because the operating assumption is that more time working equals more work done, evidence to the contrary be damned.
Why We Think in Terms of Time Management
We like to think in terms of time because it’s a lot easier than trying to evaluate the trinity of time, energy, and attention – our TEA – especially since time is objectively measurable. If we’re in a scenario where others are directly or indirectly evaluating our output, a dutifully completed time card is a safe fallback because, as we’ve already observed, more time at work equals more work done. And, in fairness, it’s hard to gauge someone else’s energy and attention from the outside when you’re in a large organization, so the time card gives us something to go by.
Many of us creatives don’t work in those environments, but we’ve done an excellent job of keeping the model. This is quite unfortunate, because creative effectiveness is all about harnessing our TEA. We might have only two hours per day when we have the concentrated TEA that we need to do some creative heavy lifting, and if we don’t use that TEA wisely, no amount of any single component of the triad is going to help us work at that same level.
This Isn’t New, But We Need to Be Reminded About It a Lot
What I’m saying here isn’t anything new, either in my own thinking or in that of others. For my own part, I’ve written about some of these ideas directly in a General Theory of Productivity a few years ago and indirectly in just about every post I’ve written on productivity. One way to understand a lot of what’s going on in Getting Things Done is to see that David Allen is giving us a process to get things out of our heads, thereby increasing the amount of attention and energy we have available. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz address energy and attention more directly in The Power of Full Engagement. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits framework is generally about using our TEA proactively rather than reactively. The huge body of work on time management and efficiency tends to focus on creating processes and systems that increase available time by decreasing the time seepage that often happens with our work. And so on.
Instead of thinking just about how you’re using your time, think about how you’re using your time, energy, and attention. I’ll wrap this up with some questions for you to ponder:
- On gaining time: What are you doing that you could either stop doing or do more efficiently so that there’s less time seepage?
- On using time: What would you do with any additional time that you gain? Is the juice worth the squeeze?
- On gaining energy: What could you do to increase your available physical, emotional, social, mental, and physical energy?
- On losing energy: What are the sources of energy drain in your life? Is there something you can do to address those sources? It’ll probably take more energy to deal with the cause than the symptom, but continually applying Band-Aids has a cost, too.
- On gaining attention: What really engages you? What are you naturally drawn to do?
- On losing attention (being distracted): What’s distracting you or causing you to continually shift focus? Is there a way to alter your environment so you’re less prone to be distracted?
Our TEA is precious and finite. Please treasure these assets and use them wisely.
For some reason, people negate the time they spend being glossy eyed.
What’s worse is that most people don’t realize they’re doing it!
Which means they blame “not having enough time” because they’ve checked out of the the time stream for maybe 2 or 3 hours total in the day.
Instead, you should become more aware of your body. If you notice that you’re glossing over, step away for a second or two until you’re able to sit down and actually get stuff done.
If you have to pack up the laptop and go to the coffee house, so be it! At least then you’re getting stuff done!
Mars Dorian says
nice things to ponder.
On using time: I came to the conclusion that gaining time isn’t going to increase the quality of your work. In fact, it’s the opposite. When you have less time, you make your brain focus on the essentials – all the clutter gets ignored because of constraint.
on gaining energy: Definitely eating muesli in the morning, doing energetic workouts and listening to my favorite music. Cherishing grrreat relationships.
on losing energy: bad habits and bad relationships. I thought that having less sleep will increase productivity, but that didn’t work out too well. I also got rid of toxic friendships – former “friends” complaining all the time and saying it couldn’t be done. It’s essential to be with peeps that enjoy a similar standard.
Lots of things to ponder – and it all comes down to focus in the end !
My newest method to getting things done is timing my efforts: Whenever I need something essential done, I give myself a ridiculous time limit (online stop watch) and then shoot straight to the action. This increases my focus like crazy, and I get the right work done.
Thanx for illuminating my mind, Charlie !
Katie Brandt says
What distracts me? EMAIL – it is a schedulekiller most of the time – it causes me to switch between tasks and help deal with other people’s issues rather than my own I should be focusing on.
What could I do to incrase my TEA? Turn off my email! Until designated times in my schedule. I am able to focus longer when I don’t have that annoying “new message” indicator.
I am new to your blog and loved all of the links to your older posts – they were wonderful!
This post is timely because we had a life coach come to our team meeting today and talk with us about productivity. Not TIME management but EVENT management. Time is what it is; we can only manage the events, interrruptions, distractions within it.
I struggle with productive use of time because I tend to put off the events that I don’t want to do. Not productive.
Liked your thoughts on this and hope this will help me start to think in terms of time, energy and attention.
Must be a topic I need to focus on…
The absolute best time management strategy I have used that has helped me find more time is to shorten my deadlines. If given a week to complete a project, I tend to use the entire week. However, if the deadline is shortened to four hours, I somehow manage to get it done just as well in that time. It is all about shorter deadlines for me. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it has made for me.
Joe Wilner says
TEA! Very good stuff, I like it! This is really a straightforward principle that sums up how to effectively approach time-management. By managing our energy level we can do more for an extended period of time, though we must also have our attention dedicated to the appropriate task for this to be efficient. I will certainly be incorporating this in my life. Thanks!
That energy, for me a least, is like a muscle. Either you use it everyday for concentrated periods, or the day is wasted in the email inbox.
Like Mars I find music to be a great trigger, but the best is having a task that allows for flow. The best time management is when you don’t notice the time going by at all.
The Skinny On says
Such a great post! I find when my energy is low I tend to have a shorter attention span than normal, which then leads to me procrastinating. Although I listen to music all the time while working, it can sometimes become a distraction depending on the tempo/genre.
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TEA sums it all up. Good article Charlie. Like you say it’s all about managing your time, energy and attention.
And even with this principle in mind it’s sometimes difficult to stay focused on the task.
Time management says
Thanks, good article.
I totally agree with you on the operating assumption is that more time working equals more work done is evidence to the contrary.
Charlie Gilkey says
Hmmm, what distracts me? Probably all of the notifications between email, text, social media, phone calls. When you get knee deep in something one of these can take you off course for a lot longer than it was worth.
I want to start turning all these distractions down to really zone in on my tasks and projects.
gk questions says
Thank you for sharing such valuable info.
Jos de Cupertino says
Very good article, indeed.
I knew there were other perspectives that made me efficient and not only the time I could have. Your article sheds more lights on the subject as it clearly picture other dimensions such the energy and the attention. This trinity appears to be key when scheduling tasks we want to get engaged in and the best moment for us to step in.
Thank you again
I definitely agree that it’s always about the right balance between managing various aspects of your work and resources. When it comes to managing my time and energy, I find it useful to take breaks. The best schedule for me is 3 hours of work, 20 minutes break, 2 hours of work, then 15 minutes break, and then a couple of periods when I work for 30 minutes and have a 5 minutes break after. I read about this method here https://kanbantool.com/blog/time-vs-energy-management . I like it a lot, so hopefully you’ll like it too.
César Pérez says
muy buen articulo que como dice Charly no es nada nuevo pero debe ser recordado y aplicado continuamente como una buena practica
Write down everything you do and you will see where your time goes
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