Work Smart and Level Up #3 – Energy and attention management

Have you ever observed your energy level throughout the day? Do you see any pattern between days you are most productive and days where you struggle to get things done? How does your productivity impact your mood and how does your mood impact your productivity?

I personally find that the better I sleep, the better my day is.

I think better, eat better, have more energy to exercise, spend less time doomscrolling, am more productive, am less anxious, can focus more easily, and have more stable energy level. I even feel and perceive the same experience differently depending on how sleep deprived I am.

Note that I define productivity here as producing something you’d like to produce. Watching Netflix is sometimes producing relaxation. But sometimes it is producing anxiety if you are doing it to procrastinate. The first is being productive and the second is not. There is no right or wrong to any activity. It depends on your intention going into it.

I have been tracking my life metrics on spreadsheets since Dec 2018. The two strongest variables that affect my day’s rating are 1) mental & physical bandwidth — which are strongly driven by the quantity and quality of sleep, and 2) the amount of variety and new experiences I had (managed to integrate different types of things into the day).

Better sleep = higher mental and physical bandwidth.

Higher mental and physical bandwidth = better perception and presence.

Quality of perception and being present = awesome day.

I decided that the obvious takeaway is that if I can make sure I sleep well, the rest of the things will take care of itself.

Our bodies are systems. It takes in input, runs the necessary process, and produces output.

  • Environment. We interact with it. Our environment shape us and we shape our environment. I find simple things like leaving your phone outside the bedroom is the most effortless way to help me fall back to sleep if I woke up in the middle of the night.
  • Food and drink. Nutrition, digestion, eating time. We all react differently to different food and work according to different schedule. Take time to experiment and get to know you. I find it suits me best to have my last meal 7 hours before bed. Else I will be hungry or too stuffed. But also that hunger is mostly a function of habit. If you feed it every day at 4pm, you’ll get hungry at 4pm
  • Movement (and Rest). I had difficulty falling asleep after not being in the gym for months due to covid. Tried to kickstart light cardio again. Voila, slept like a log that night (either dead beat tired or what). Also that there is nothing I need to do to accelerate recovery period than just giving it 2-3 days and rest. Doing nothing is usually the best solution.

These are all easier said than done. I know all about the benefit of keeping your phone away from your bedside, turning on blue lights, staying away from screens, have your last meal at least 4 hours before bed, don’t watch or read the news, take time to unwind, and so on and so forth. Only after reading it for 8 times I started trying it.

We know but we don’t do.

What about coffee? Yes sleep is not the only method to acquire / manipulate attention and energy.

There are conceptually two types of solutions on the time dimension for most problems:

  1. Short term: Performance-enhancing, awareness-alterring tools or actions. Shorter feedback loop. Results are more immediate. Provides intensity. High highs and low lows. More popular. We love shortcuts, it’s how we are wired.
  2. Long term: Organic, involves habit formation and complex effort over multiple variables. Longer feedback loop. Cannot see results immediately. Requires consistency and patience. Easy come easy go. Reps don’t lie.

Example 1:

  • Goal: higher physical and mental bandwidth
  • Intensity: coffee, energy drink, taking a shower, taking a walk
  • Consistency: sleeping, eating, and developing fitness

Example 2:

  • Goal: lose weight
  • Intensity: crash diet, slimming pill, liposuction
  • Consistency: lift weights, slowly

Example 3:

  • Goal: attention management skills
  • Intensity: 10 day silent meditation retreat
  • Consistency: mindfulness practices

Which one is better? The answer is always: It depends. Know your tools and use them well. None of these are good or bad on its own. Parents with small children will need coffee to survive modern life 🙂

Some things worth mentioning:

  1. I have no spouse nor children. So I’m blessed with sleep freedom. Tips? Hang in there. There will be time when you’ll manage to sleep like a sane person again….
  2. I don’t drink coffee. I do like the taste so I would sometimes get tempted to have just a couple of sips or get one in special occasions but I try and stay away from it. Why? I find it messes up my body’s schedule and it will take 2-3 days to recover from the crash and then “detox”. The artificial productivity boost is then followed by several days of mediocre output, unless I keep myself hooked on it. Not worth it. The last time I used coffee was during my startup x maker era, when I would pull an all nighter to hack away, pulling on the curiosity thread.
  3. My body clock has always been well calibrated. 96 out of 100 nights I would have no trouble falling asleep and can wake up at certain time without any alarm clock. I just need to make a mental note before going to bed. The last time I use alarm clock was in elementary school.
  4. I generally eat pretty healthily. Mostly home-cooked whole-foods with quality protein, complex carbs, and healthy fat. I make sure I get sufficient fibre and minerals. I am mindful of processed food — anything with added sugar, preservatives, fabricated(refined? what’s the word here?) oils, simple carbs, anything battered, deep fried, high in sodium, liquid calories, and packaged dairy. Heck I love them and I do still eat them, a bit too much too often, but YOLO. This is probably why I didn’t notice anything significantly different after a 20 day experiment of strictly cutting out flour-based, processed food, anything with added sugar, red meat, and dairy from my diet. My energy level pretty much stays the same. Good to know… Donuts, here I come!

So, your mileage may vary. See what moves the needle the most for you. For me it’s workout. The effect is immediate and obvious.

Even with these things in place, I still don’t get perfect sleep each day. When I made changes to any of the other factors, the ripple effect is immediate. So sleeping well is indeed a big and expensive problem of humanity.

In summary: don’t manage your time and tasks. Manage your energy and attention instead. Protect them at all costs. Know what affects them. Learn how your body works. Observe how it reacts to things you consume — from food, drinks, to information.

Fix the root, not the symptoms.

What about you? How do you manage your energy and attention? How do you sleep?

Also published on Medium.

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