Do you Know How to Manage your Mental Energy?

A little while ago, I stumbled across this article by Cate Huston which talks about a concept called energy management. I’d never really heard of this before in the context of leadership and management, but the more I read the article, the more familiar it felt. I understood the importance of what Cate was talking about pretty quickly and her take on how to overcome the issues she highlighted was really interesting.

I won’t regurgitate her article and I’d highly recommend that you go and check it out.

Instead, I’m going to share my experience on the same topic and share some ideas and actions that you can take to better manage your energy and, the term that I’ve used over the years, headspace. 

Cate uses the term energy management and what she is referring to is the management of mental energy, hence me using the term headspace instead. Let’s talk about headspace and the part that it plays in your ability to manage your team and do your job effectively.

What is headspace?

Think about your headspace as a bucket and all of the things that come into our life is water that fills that bucket up. The water can be anything from pressures at work, to stress and anxiety outside of work, or lack of exercise and sleep. All of these things can fill your bucket of water, making it heavier and heavier. 

To help, you can let water out of the bottom of the bucket and keep the level of water at a manageable level. The ways that you let water out can be things such as managing your time effectively, spending time doing things that you enjoy, or eating well and spending time outdoors. 

If this analogy sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s one that is used in mental health conversations too

It’s a helpful way to think about our headspace too, even if we’re not feeling particularly stressed, anxious or overwhelmed.

Let me give you some examples of the types of things that can take up your headspace (fill up the bucket) and prevent you from performing at your best in a work:

  • Looking at your calendar for next week and seeing back to back meetings every day.
  • Opening your emails and seeing that email that you really need to reply to from two days ago, but haven’t yet.
  • Thinking about the big presentation you’re giving next week.
  • Working on that important strategy but knowing that you have a call starting in 20 minutes and you’re thinking about the agenda.
  • Seeing your phone light up with WhatsApp notifications from your friends about meeting up later.

Do any of these sound familiar to you? I’d hazard a guess that at least one or two of them do. If so, you’ll know that trying to get things done whilst these things are floating around your head isn’t easy. Sure, you may get things done, but did you really do the best possible job that you could?

The answer is almost certainly, no. This is because all of these things will drain your mental energy (filling up your bucket, making it heavier), having an impact on the amount of headspace that you have left over to work on everything else. 

Of course, these things are part of your job and your life – the goal isn’t to prevent these things from happening, the goal is to limit their effect on your ability to focus on what you need to do in a given moment.

To stick with the analogy, you need to find ways to release water from the bucket to keep the weight manageable, allowing you to do what you need to do.

This is important for pretty much anyone who wants to be a high level performer in their job.

It’s vital for anyone who manages other people and wants to be an effective manager because managers tend to have a lot more things that can fill up their buckets than non-managers. This is because the people who you manage will contribute to the water that fills up your own bucket.

So, the question becomes, how do you manage this and ensure that you remain an effective manager and high performer?

How to manage your headspace

Now that we’re aware of the concept of headspace, energy management and the things that can prevent you from being effective, let’s look at how to manage your headspace.

Again, the article above by Cate provides some great pointers and tips, which I’d recommend that you take a look at. Below are some of the things that I’ve personally found useful over the years and things that people I’ve managed have found useful.

Be aware of what uses your mental energy

A range of things can affect how your mental energy gets used. A classic example is whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, meaning that you either get your energy from being around lots of people or you find the same experience draining on your energy.

A common workplace example is meetings – do you find that they drain your energy? Or do they leave you feeling energised?

If it’s the former, then you may want to structure your day so that you don’t have too many back to back meetings and therefore, you don’t get your energy drained quickly and you end up underperforming in the latter meetings.

Take some time to look at your common tasks, priorities and projects and think about which of them require a lot of mental energy to complete or work on.

Structure your days and task lists to account for high mental energy tasks

Once you’re aware of what can drain your mental energy, you are armed with the information that you need to get the most from the energy that you have. Remember that you only have a limited amount of mental energy to use each day, so you need to use it wisely. 

Try to think about two main things here:

  1. Controlling your meetings and calls so that you make the most of your mental energy during them.
  2. Writing your to-do list out so that each day, you don’t schedule too many tasks that require lots of energy. 

Doing this will allow you to control your schedule and your to-do list in a way that makes the best use of your mental energy.

Think about what you need in order to recharge your mental energy

Managing your mental energy isn’t just about understanding what uses your energy, it’s also about understanding what recharges that energy. 

Take some time to think about things that make you feel relaxed and energised, inside and outside of work. Whilst everyone is different, there are a few things that I’ve found to be quite common over the years:

  • Spending time outdoors, walking and interacting with nature. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that this works for most people.
  • Putting aside time for “big picture” or “free thinking” where you let your mind wander a little and think about tasks or ideas that you may not usually put time aside for.
  • Physical activity such as playing sports, walking or going to the gym, all of which can fuel your mental energy. 

Once you understand what works for you, you need to make time to actively work on these things and balance them against the things that use up your energy.  

Don’t underestimate the power of being very deliberate about all of the things above, particularly the things that recharge your energy and that you may not usually make time for. You often can’t help the things that sap your energy, they just happen no matter what. Whereas it’s easy to push aside the things that can refuel your mental energy because you don’t have time. Try to avoid falling into this trap and be deliberate about everything.

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