Energy for work and life: To light a fire, strike a match

A map will guide you where you want to go and signs will point the way. Like maps, plans and to-do lists help you focus, but you need a means of travel. Along with reminders of what to do, you require a steady supply of fuel that enables you to do it.

What is this fuel?

“Motivation” comes readily to mind, but that’s not it. I am motivated, in that my intentions are good, I believe in what I’m doing, and I have a plan. For focusing on priorities, my spirit is willing – but some days the flesh is weak.

“Drive” is good, but a little dramatic. Do I want to be driven? I am reminded of an expression of my late grandfather’s: Go at your work with an all-day stroke. I prefer, like he did, a controlled slow burn for the long haul.

“Inspiration?” Also good, but fleeting. Inspiration comes and goes; it has an accidental quality.

I have settled on a term that is ordinary but apt: “energy.” It is energy that powers concentration and focus, energy that overcomes procrastination and distraction. Energy gets me started; energy keeps me going.

Energy can be fleeting, too, right? Sometimes it seems as inconstant as inspiration. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed and you have a crappy day. We would like energy to be more reliable.

Fortunately, we do have some control over it.

Over time, I’ve made some discoveries about energy that at first surprised me. I had assumed the most important thing was to take breaks and get rest. The best way to have energy for work, I thought, was to conserve it. That’s not wrong, but I noticed that certain activities both used energy and generated it as well.

Remember your grade school chemistry: To start a reaction, you need to add energy. You might desire the heat and light of a campfire, but nothing will happen until you apply a lit match.

I settled on twelve behaviours or habits that energize me, and I keep this list handy. Any are a good substitute for what drains me of energy: social media, television, etc. The behaviours are specific and tailored to my own interests, but they relate to these themes:

  • engaging in creative activities outside work
  • reading (real books)
  • organization and planning (eg. bullet journaling)
  • exercise and movement
  • meal planning and diet
  • quiet reflection
  • paying attention to the needs of others (a.k.a. acts of kindness)

These themes are conventional. My steady-as-she-goes grandfather could have come up with them. It’s not hard to imagine others: Socializing, family, travel, sports … What I like is the radical notion that the energy source fuelling life and work is something each of us can create.

Going mobile doesn’t always mean going paperless

It started as an experiment. One notebook and a pen. Seven notebooks later, the bullet journal is one of my essential work tools. My method is now so stripped-down I’m not sure it’s still legit Bullet Journaling (capital B, capital J). Numbered pages, two indexes (one for “people,” one for “subjects), and a few symbols (dots for to-do items, circles or dashes for information) – and that’s it.

My method is simple. Still, someone once said to me, “I don’t have time to do that.” I understand. It takes time to transcribe meeting notes, next actions, and ideas into a notebook, and then index the content, and then migrate content to the next notebook.

Here are some things I don’t have time for.

I don’t have time to look for scraps of notes either paper or digital. I don’t have time to wrack my brain to recall past discussions, issues raised, decisions made. I have no time for backtracking, missing connections between things, and thinking, doing, and saying the same things over and over.

Indexed journaling saves me from that. It enables me to advance the conversation instead of going over the same ground. It helps me make connections among disparate ideas or events. Pen and paper take my eyes off the all-consuming screen. And it frees me from needing a physical office for days at a time – two notebooks and a laptop and I can work anywhere.

Focus on what matters: Pour your attention into buckets

Some days it’s one interruption after another. Your interruptions are interrupted. And some days you let it happen: Everyone gets a hearing, and email is your to-do list. You guard your purse, but you squander what’s really precious: your energy and attention.

I’m guilty. I think we all are, at times. It’s hard to keep the main thing the main thing.

I once received advice on focus from someone who is very good at focus. Think of the most important activities you engage in, he said, and create a mental bucket for each. Each bucket is a non-urgent but important arena of activity that creates value and contributes to success in the long run. There might be three buckets on your list, or four, or five. Probably not more than five.

Now picture pouring your energy and attention into those buckets, he said. Keep that list in front of you as a daily guide. The list will not banish the fog of the urgent, but its light will sometimes cut through.

My list has four buckets which have remained stable for two years now. The buckets are People, Process, Leadership, and Strategy. Within each bucket, I have one to three focus areas. In the People bucket, for example, I have “grow the team”, “develop talent”, and “build relationships.”

Within each focus area, I have one to four activities. Here I get more specific about what I mean by “grow the team,” and so on. These activities change – I revise the list every few months to keep it current.

The particulars of my list are not important; you’ll have your own buckets, areas of focus, and activities.

Your buckets and areas of focus do not replace documented strategies and plans. Buckets are more personal; they embrace these externalities and relate them to how you spend your personal resources. Your focus areas will also include matters of ongoing importance that tend to be absent from timebound, project-oriented plans.

The list will seem obvious when you create it, but even the obvious becomes obscured when fatigue lures you toward distraction or when people are trying to interest you in minor fires here and there.  Fatigue and fires are real and unavoidable. But when you have energy on tap, fill the important buckets first.

Forget about time – energy and attention are your true resources

A few years ago, my wife and I took a ride in a hot-air balloon over the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. I was amazed by the experience. I expected it to feel blustery up there, a thousand feet up, looking down on the terrain from a little wicker basket. Instead, despite our rapid movement, it was perfectly serene. When you’re blown by the wind, you don’t feel the wind – because you are the wind.

Your to-do list for today likely has at least one urgent thing, or several. On days chock full of urgent tasks, it’s clear where you must devote your energies. In our complex work environments, urgency provides momentary clarity. Urgency liberates us: It absolves us from having to plan or decide.

Urgency is like riding in a balloon – it hypnotizes. You’re moving quickly, things are getting done. You’re keeping everyone more or less happy. The days fly by.

You have no direction in a balloon. The wind sends you here and the wind sends you there. You may have left from a predetermined Point A, but Point B might be anywhere.

Extended indefinitely, urgency leads us astray.

Unrelenting urgency is stressful, and who wants to be stressed out? And yet, we are addicted to urgent tasks. We will gladly check email for the one hundredth time on the off chance something’s exploding. And if there’s nothing exploding, we’ll just take the first task off the pile.

Your brain expends energy when it has to decide what’s most important. The brain is lazy. It’s easier to let someone else decide for us.

This is a special challenge for Operations staff or anyone in a support role. They are supposed to be responsive — but they are also professionals who enjoy a good deal of autonomy over how to structure their time and tasks. In a mature team, everyone knows what the goals are and is able to use discretion when prioritizing one thing over another. Advancement is complex work – pushing decision-making deeper into the organization works better than trying to manage order-takers ticking things off a list.

In a modern office, then, fewer people are handed a list of predefined tasks when they clock in. But what happens then? Too often, the absent assigned list is replaced by the inbox. I’m not immune, and neither are you. We all have days when we just want to be told what to do.

You can’t ignore the inbox. You must respond. But being ruled by the inbox is even worse than being told what to do, because it’s more random and disconnected from a sense of priority. It’s not responsive – it’s reactive.

In roles that call for judgment, there must be time for judgment.

It’s up to the individual employee to make time for judgment. This is especially true for leaders and managers, but not just for them. Turning a request around quickly will get you thanks today; the fundamental change or new approach you fashion during the quiet hour will get you promoted tomorrow.

Your destination, Point B, is defined by strategy and unit plans and performance plans. But an X on a map is of no use if you’re in a hot-air balloon. You need to feel a steering wheel in your hands. That steering wheel is any tool that helps you control where you direct your focus.

Time management is out; you can’t conserve time. Time is what marches on while you answer emails. Energy and attention are your true resources. Harness those.

Adapting the Bullet Journal, for managers and leaders

Information, ideas, and tasks fly at us continuously. They flow out of meetings and out of our own heads. Capturing the flow with the help of paper-based or electronic tools helps us externalize information, which unburdens the memory of clutter and frees the mind for focused thinking.

Notebooks, paper files, electronic files, email – I’ve used them all, and they all share the same drawback: Retrieval. Record as much as you like, the exercise is pointless if you can’t put your hands on information when you need it.

Since last year I’ve been using the Bullet Journal method. I had been aware of bullet journaling for years, but it always seemed faddish, too fussy, too neat-freaky. A colleague’s example convinced me to read a book about it and adopt it wholesale; now I find it a natural extension of the notetaking methods I’ve always used, and a mindful way to manage the flow.

The essentials of the method can be described in ten minutes. I won’t go into them here; there are plenty of videos, a website, and the book. (1) I only want to talk about the power of easy retrieval. I have improvised on the basic idea to suit the reality of a manager or leader facing a different conversation, a different issue, every few minutes.

A bullet journal requires an index and page numbers. The index is no more than a list of topics and the page numbers you’ll find them on, but it’s the key to retrieval. The topics are the tasks, ideas, and other notes recorded in bullet form – an accumulation of the flow that washes over us every day.

The original bullet journal method relies heavily on the idea of Collections. A Collection is a page, or a pair of facing pages, dedicated to a single topic – think of a large project that generates a lot of tasks and notes that are more convenient to keep together.

I have mostly dispensed with Collections, because they were page hogs. New projects would turn out to generate fewer notes than I anticipated, and I would use up notebooks too quickly, forcing more frequent and time-consuming migrations. (Again, I leave it to you to know what is meant by “migration,” another powerful central concept. In a nutshell, migration refers to transferring relevant or unfinished business from a full notebook to a blank new one, a useful process of review and winnowing.)

In place of Collections, I note down everything as it comes, without trying to gather related notes together. Instead I rely on two specialized indexes, one called People and one called Subjects.

Without a doubt the biggest generator of information, ideas, and next actions is meetings. Whatever your capture method, at the head of your notes from any meeting are three critical pieces of information: When you met, who you met with, and what you talked about. Date, people, subject.

In a bullet journal, the date is taken care of because the flow is (more or less) captured in sequence. In my modified method, People and Subject each get their own index. I set aside two facing pages for each index. An entry in the People Index might look like this:

Paul: 10, 12, 28-9, (3:36), 58, 42

A page number in parentheses indicates a reference to a previous notebook (each notebook is numbered), should I need to go back that far. There’s no need for the page references to be in order.

A sample entry in the Subject Index looks the same:

Online giving: 22, 16, 80

The People Index is most useful when you’ve met with one person to talk about multiple things – check-ins with direct reports or other regular one-on-ones. The Subjects Index is most useful when you’ve met with multiple people at once about a single thing. The same meeting can be noted in both indexes, for example when you’ve met about online giving as a group, and later discuss online giving during a one-on-one.

I try not to write too much. I take rough notes during meetings and then transfer to the bullet journal only concise highlights, key things to remember, and next actions. If I wrote directly into the journal I’d end up with a mess and use up too many pages. I can fit a month or two into a single notebook of about 100 pages.

For this to work, you have to keep the indexes up to date. I will either index as I go, or I’ll let a few days go by and then catch up. When I’m done indexing a page for people and subjects, I write “P/S” at the inner top of the page, near the gutter, so I know where to continue from. I mark the outer ear of the index pages themselves with a colour Sharpie, red for People and blue for Subjects, so I can quickly flip to either one.

If this seems too fussy or too much work, then compare with keeping it all in files or, worse, in your head. In my current notebook I’ve got entries for about 20 people and more than 50 subjects. Either index is expandable and flexible. The Subjects list fits on two facing pages, and although it’s not in alphabetical order, it’s not hard to quickly find what I’m looking for on a quick scan. True, relevant bits of a project will end up scattered here and there throughout my notebooks, but the index keeps them more readily accessible than having them stuck unseen in a paper file in a drawer, or an elusive Word document hidden somewhere in the folder tree on the shared network drive.

A notebook won’t completely eliminate the need for files containing more detail (although it comes remarkably close). Nor will a notebook direct how you spend your most precious resources: energy and attention. You need other tools for that. But it does feel liberating to carry around your entire current work world in a notebook or two. Give it a try.

1. “The Bullet Journal Method,” by Ryder Carroll. See