The To-Do List Hack to Better Manage Your Energy
November 20, 2018
Does it drain you?
Or does it sustain you?
These questions have been on my mind lately—and they’re the way to create a new kind of to-do list that can revolutionize your days.
But let me backup for a second.
We all talk about energy—how to maintain what we have, how to get more, and how to keep it going, going, going in order to keep the pace of our ever-changing lives.
But how often do you break down individual tasks, the ones you do every day, and look at whether they’re giving you energy, or taking it away?
Because it’s important to double down on these energy-giving tasks. Tom Rath, whose book Are You Fully Charged? explores research-backed ways of energizing your work and life, writes that “the odds of being completely engaged in your job increase by more than 250 percent if you spend a lot of time doing meaningful work throughout the day.”
Energy is a finite resource, so it’s necessary to spotlight the tasks you do that naturally sustain you.
Here’s how to focus on what takes away your energy and what gives you more—and how to balance the two to stay energized in your day-to-day.
Create a to-do list with two columns.
You probably already write down your daily to-dos. Here’s what I want you to adjust: create two columns next to each item labeled “DRAIN” and “SUSTAIN” and put a check mark when you decide which column the item falls into.
For example, if one of your to-dos is to talk to your boss about a raise, that will likely fall into the “DRAIN” category. But buying your best friend a birthday present might fall into the “SUSTAIN” category.
Sometimes, some of your conclusions might surprise you.
Sure, you could have “grab drinks with former coworker” on your to-do list, which sounds fun, but once you actually ask yourself the question “Does this drain or sustain me?” you might realize that you’re not looking forward to getting together. Maybe the meeting location is out of your way or the person always comes with complaints—whatever the reason, the energy question will force you to look at your obligations with fresh eyes.
Rearrange your to-dos according to their energy-giving properties.
Nothing can drain your enthusiasm faster than piling up a bunch of activities back-to-back that suck all the life out of you. When you kick off your day with energy-draining items, you can burn out by noon.
So take another look at your to-do list. Maybe there’s a quick and easy activity that has a check in the “SUSTAIN” column—trying sandwiching two tougher activities around this fun one, and you’ll give yourself something to look forward to and provide a little boost of momentum through the harder moments. It doesn't have to be a huge energy-giving task—it could even be as simple as taking a break to sing. Experts say singing (whether it's in the shower, your car, during that bathroom break...) can give us a mental boost and decrease stress.
Gravitate toward energy-sustaining tasks if you’re feeling down.
Feeling sluggish? Rather than jumping onto an energy-draining task and feeling like you’re hitting a brick wall, ease yourself into a more productive state by inching toward an energy-giving task. You can assess what you can realistically accomplish because you’ve already talked through how the task is going to make you feel.
Drop the energy-draining activities (if you can).
The more often you engage in this habit, the quicker you will notice patterns in your life. Maybe you’re always dreading making a certain phone call or seeing a certain someone—or, on the flip side, you find that you’re always getting energy from an unexpected source. Maybe your weekly Trader Joe’s trip or cooking dinner on a Friday night actually makes you feel good.
Notice these patterns. Take them in. They’re important. Now you can try to wiggle yourself out of the activities they are no longer contributing to your overall energy. You can set up better boundaries—when you’re invited to events or meetings, you can start to consider right from the outset whether they are energy-draining or energy-giving activities, and can respond accordingly.
Of course, an entire life filled solely with life-affirming, energy-packed moments isn’t 100 percent realistic. But recognizing when and where you feel most alive, most like yourself, and most energetic is the first step in creating a full life that gets you a little bit closer to that reality—and one you actually have the energy to enjoy.