Knowing Your 'Work Capacity' Is Key to a Productive Day
April 9, 2018
We were rounding the corner during one of our weekend long runs when my friend Aransas said something that nearly made me trip over my beat-up Sauconys: “I’m a high-capacity person,” she said, “I can do 100 things in a day more easily than I can do one thing in a day.”
In the words of the almighty Oprah, I knew this to be true. I had seen my powerhouse friend in action: working a high-powered and fulfilling job, raising two daughters, making time for date night with the husband she adores, watching her talented musician friends play at dive bars well into the night—oh, and running a couple marathons a year. And still somehow finding time to bake some killer sourdough bread.
That's a high-capacity person in action.
You’ve probably met or known a high-capacity person, too. It’s a person who has the same 24 hours in the day as all of us—but seems to maximize every minute and do all the things at once.
A well-known Exhibit A: Beyoncé. There’s a mug floating around the Internet that proclaims “You have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé.” (My brother sent it to me as a nudge of encouragement.) Queen Bey is the perfect example of a high-capacity person—she doesn’t have a time turner (that we know of...), yet she seems to crank out as many projects in a month that many of us could only dream to do in 10 years.
These high-capacity unicorns can inspire us to do more with our time—but they can also make us start to compare our own work capacity and wonder why it’s not on their level.
As my friend Aransas talked about all the things she can do in one day, I started thinking to myself: Where are my days going? And where did my high-capacity self go? I used to be that person—the one juggling just the right amount of social, personal, and work obligations to feel pretty stretched yet completely fulfilled. But now, that person seems as out of reach as a shadow.
The truth is, our work capacity ebbs and flows. We can be high-capacity one day, but much lower capacity the next day. It happens when our lives shift unexpectedly, our priorities change, or when our energy evolves at the dawn of our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.
What matters most is knowing your current capacity, accepting it, and optimizing what you have.
Here are some ways to gauge your capacity right now—and be OK with wherever you are today.
Define—and Accept—Your Capacity
The definition of capacity is “the maximum amount that something can contain.” But defining your capacity doesn't mean you have to plan every minute in your day—although I do respect a color-coordinated Google Calendar. Instead, evaluate how a full schedule makes you feel compared to a wide-open calendar.
When you wake up with a lot to do, do you feel like “I’m gonna dominate today!” or more “How can I slog through all this?” And when you have zero plans, do you think “Finally, some breathing room!” or “Now I’m going to zone out for eight hours because my priorities aren’t clear!”?
Start your to-do list from a place of what you can do in a day, not what you need to do in a day.
Everyone needs different levels of structure, so it's all about noticing which routine gives you more energy. One question to ask yourself each morning is: "What does my capacity level feel like today?" If you feel like zipping through a million things—great. If you want to focus on just one or two things—also great.
Rather than fighting your capacity, accept it—and plan your day around it. Start your to-do list from a place of what you can do in a day, not what you need to do in a day.
Set Yourself Up to Reach Your Capacity Sweet Spot
Recognizing your capacity for the day is the first step—and tweaking your surroundings to get there is the fun part. Surrounding yourself with encouraging friends is a great way to help you feel calm and collected.
Think about a time when you felt really inspired. Who was around you? Friends affect our thinking in subliminal (or not-so-subliminal) ways. There’s a reason my runs or motivational talks with friends end with me feeling like a superhero—their ambition stokes my ambition. If you want some accountability, plan a weekly meetup or phone chat with a supportive friend. Make it a "capacity call" and check in on how you're both doing.
Paying attention to your environment can give you clues as well. Do you feel anchored and motivated in a bustling environment, or do you need a quiet space? Limiting distractions can help you recognize if you're feeling too "busy" or if you're operating at your peak. (Hello, airplane mode!)
If You Need to Up Your Capacity, Give Yourself Less Time
Sometimes, our busy lives do require us to amp up our capacity. If you’re in a sprint on a project and need an extra capacity boost, remember the old adage: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”
When we feel like we don’t have enough time, we tend to work faster, smarter, more efficiently—and magically get everything done. It’s like those harried few hours before you head to the airport, when you wrap up work tasks that have been lingering for weeks, pack your suitcase, do two loads of laundry, and return your friends’ texts—all without blinking. There’s no other choice, your flight is leaving soon, so you just do.
Try giving yourself less time (if it’s not too stress-inducing), and see if your capacity rises to the occasion.
Believe in Your Capacity
Rainn Wilson, who brought to life Dwight Schrute on The Office, shared a quote in Tim Ferriss's book Tools of Titans that I loved so much I wrote it on a notecard and stuck it to my desk. It's simple: "You have to believe in your capacity."
"You have to believe in your capacity." - Rainn Wilson
This is the advice he wished he could have given himself when he was an aspiring actor dreaming of “just getting by” with a few guest parts. The older version of himself knows the truth—all he needed was the belief in himself.
Because that's the truth. We're each at our best when we're in our own capacity sweet spot, not trying to reach some unattainable goal.
You know what you need, what you're made of, and what you can do each day.
Recognize, accept, believe—and put down the Beyoncé mug if you want to. You're doing great, just as you are.
Read next: How to Balance Career Success With Self-Care