Energy Management vs. Time Management: Where Productivity Should Start

Energy Management vs. Time Management
Table of Contents

Whatever your goal, improving your productivity will probably increase your chances of success. Time management is one of the most common solutions for low productivity. It’s easy to understand why. When we cannot complete all the items on our to-do list, it can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Making the most out of the time we do have should translate into a notable productivity boost. And for the most part, effective time management can make you more productive. However, traditional time management strategies don’t work all the time. They also aren’t suitable for everyone.

In recent years, energy management has emerged to fill the needs not met by time management solutions. Although, most people can benefit from blending both approaches.

Before we explore the advantages and drawbacks of time management, let’s examine how poor time management contributes to the most common productivity issues. Then, we can consider how time management strategies address these problems and where it falls short.

Common productivity issues


Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
~ Abraham Lincoln


Failing to plan is one of the most common causes of productivity issues. Poor productivity can result in many adverse outcomes, including:

  • Work or studies encroaching on personal time
  • Missed deadlines
  • High-stress levels

Bad habits and a lack of strategy can also contribute to low productivity. Here are a few of the most common productivity issues.

Procrastination

Procrastination is a maladaptive strategy for coping with task-related stress. Tasks can feel overwhelming for many reasons. For example, we may feel that we do not have the skills, time, or resources to complete the task successfully.

For some people, this sets off the unconscious desire to escape the source of stress. As a result, people engage in procrastination activities like:

  • Scrolling through social media,
  • cleaning, or
  • shifting to non-essential tasks.

While these activities temporarily reduce stress, they also waste time that could have been used to complete the original task. So now, there is even less time to complete the task, which increases stress levels.

While everyone can procrastinate, one out of five people are chronic procrastinators and struggle with completing any task [1].

Poor prioritization

A common cause of low productivity is the inability to prioritize. Spending too much time on unimportant tasks can contribute to two major problems. First, this approach removes white space from a person’s schedule, which is essential for reviewing results and preparing strategies. Second, the lack of results could be interpreted as a personal failure.

For example, a new business owner may spend weeks designing and updating their website. However, marketing is a higher priority task for finding new clients. Since the business owner is focusing on the wrong area, they do not get the results they expect. Instead of changing tactics, they may think their idea isn’t viable and close their business.

Overscheduling

Thanks to the planning fallacy, a cognitive bias, people often overestimate how much they can complete in a day and underestimate how long tasks will take [2]. Unrealistic planning can significantly reduce productivity by causing delays.

Trying to schedule too much in one day means that some tasks will inevitably be moved to the next day. This can cause other problems, such as:

  • overworking,
  • hasty work, and thus
  • lower-quality outcomes.

Parkinson’s Law

Another productivity problem happens because of how we analyze tasks. Instead of estimating how long the task should take, we are more likely to focus on the time we have to complete it [3]. This contributes to Parkinson’s law, which states that the time to complete a task will expand to however much time is allotted for it.

Giving ourselves too much time for a project is just as detrimental to productivity as overscheduling. The problem is compounded if we focus on low-priority tasks.

Task Switching

While people often think of multi-tasking as a productivity strategy, studies have shown that it produces the opposite result. When we multi-task, we constantly shift our attention, a behavior known as task-switching. However, our brains use energy to adapt to the demands of the new task. Getting into the right mode takes time. We can spend more than a third of our mental energy on this process [4]! Thus, task switching results in lower overall productivity.

How time management boosts productivity

Time management strategies can address most, if not all the problems outlined above.

Removes uncertainty

Our productivity can be impacted by how much we know about a task before we begin. While some open-endedness is motivating, too much task uncertainty can lead to stress or procrastination [5].

We can use time management strategies to gain more information about a task and increase our understanding of what it will require from us. For example, we can focus on one or two tasks at a time. If we do a task for the first time, we can perform a time audit and track how long it takes us to complete it. We can then use the data we find to help us make more realistic plans.

Creates concrete deadlines

Scheduling strategies like time blocking create a sense of urgency by creating artificial deadlines. This counters Parkinson’s law by restricting the amount of time we can devote to a specific task. It also prevents task-switching, as we can only focus on one task per time block.

The Pomodoro technique, a timer that alternates between work and rest cycles, also provides a structure for completing tasks. Rather than agonizing about when to start and stop work, the Pomodoro timer can take on that cognitive load for us.

Improves focus

Time management strategies, like batching, can help us minimize task-switching. During a batching session, we focus on tasks that share similar features, such as answering emails and social media messages or making outlines for blog posts.

Scheduling tasks can also reduce the Zeigarnik effect. When we juggle many incomplete tasks, we consume mental energy by unconsciously reminding ourselves to finish them. However, the effect dissipates once we enter these tasks into our calendars or to-do lists [6].

Disadvantages of time management

Time management strategies certainly help improve productivity. However, they have limitations.

Rigid expectations

Time management techniques are meant to be used consistently. However, life is rarely consistent. Anything from getting stuck in traffic to coming down with an illness can derail our schedules and routines.

Many time management strategies also don’t account for natural fluctuations in willpower and concentration. Every time we make a decision, we expend energy. Over time, this decision fatigue wears down our self-discipline and willpower [7]. Without willpower, it is more difficult to maintain a time management strategy [8].

Limited flexibility

Most time management strategies are presented as a fixed system or solution. As a result, these strategies are often most effective in a specific context. For example, time blocking may work perfectly for someone with complete control over their schedule. On the other hand, it may be less useful for someone with caregiving responsibilities who can’t always schedule their tasks so rigidly.

Not suitable for everyone

Some people find time management strategies more helpful than others. For example, people with high conscientiousness thrive in order and routine. However, people with low conscientiousness feel constrained by regimented workflows and thus need more flexibility to work effectively [9]. Other factors, such as neurodiversity and stress levels, can also affect how well we can incorporate time management strategies into our lives [10].

Principles of energy management

In an effort to address the shortfalls of time management, productivity experts started to search for alternative approaches. In 2003, researchers Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz published the book, The Power of Full Engagement, which identified energy management as the missing piece in productivity discussions.

Loehr and Schwartz suggest that managing energy rather than time results in higher productivity and better outcomes while reducing the chances of burnout [11]. Their book also summarizes energy management in four main principles:

  • We have four sources of energy: physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental.
  • Productivity requires a balance of spending and restoring energy.
  • We can increase our energy capacities through training.
  • We can use routines to restore our energy.

Other researchers and productivity experts have expanded the concept of energy management and uncovered additional principles:

Productivity is a holistic process

One common criticism of time management is that it focuses too much on the output side of the productivity equation. Energy management also considers how other conditions, such as our moods, diets, and stress levels can impact our productivity [12].

Time management strategies alone cannot fully address productivity roadblocks that stem from stress or maladaptive coping mechanisms, like procrastination. There is also no routine or strategy that can overcome the dip in productivity from being hungry, sleep-deprived, or burned out.

Productivity capacity is limited

According to Schwartz, productivity follows the law of diminishing returns [13]. This means that at some point, the more time we spend on a task, the less effective we are at doing it. Rather than scheduling tasks based on a calendar or clock, energy management principles suggest we are better off stopping once our energy levels start to decline.

Breaks are an important part of productivity

Since time management mostly focuses on tasks, the importance of taking a break is not so obvious. However, energy recovery is essential to staying productive. Positive psychologist Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar introduced the multilevel recovery framework as a way to restore energy and promote productivity.

TypeDurationExample
Micro5 to 15 minutes• Pomodoro break periods
• Coffee breaks
• Short walks
• Stretches
Meso8 to 10 hours• A full night’s sleep
• Full day off on weekends
MacroA week to several months• Two-week vacation
• Sabbatical
• Summer break

Dr. Ben-Shahar goes into further detail about multilevel recovery:

Inspiring Ideas: Tal Ben-Shahar – Multi-levels recovery to fight against stress

While energy management is still not as mainstream as time management, interest in the concept is growing.

Which is better, energy or time management?

Time management as a standalone productivity approach is incomplete and unsustainable. Incorporating time-focused strategies into an overall energy management plan produces better results [14].

We can use the four-quadrant Emotional Energy Matrix to visualize the relationship between productivity, emotion, and energy levels.

Emotional Energy Matrix

Using time management strategies without addressing emotions in the survival zone can progress into burnout. However, when used in the performance zone, a productivity system can improve effectiveness [15].

Tips for implementing time and energy management strategies

So, how do we combine time management and energy management to get the best of both approaches? Here are a few practical tips:

Monitor your energy levels

Energy levels tend to follow a pattern. They slowly rise, reach a peak, decline, then recover slightly after resting. However, these stages can happen at different times of the day. The Chronotype theory divides people into larks and third birds, who peak during the morning and early afternoon, and owls, who wake up and peak later in the day.

Energy Levels Throughout The Day
Based on Dyan Williams. (2019). Three Stages of the Day. ‌

However, individual energy patterns can vary based on mealtimes, exercise routines, sleep cycles, and other factors. You can identify your peaks and troughs by tracking your mood and energy levels throughout the day. Use a journal or app to record this data hourly for at least seven days.

Categorize your tasks by energy level

Time management strategies often group tasks by urgency or importance. However, every task also requires a certain amount of energy to complete. Organizing tasks by energy level will help you create achievable to-do lists and schedules.

While the energy needed to complete a task will vary based on your interest and skill, some general rules of thumb are outlined in the table below.

Energy LevelCharacteristicsExamples
High• Creative
• Innovative
• Writing reports
• Planning a campaign or other high-order task
• Design work
Medium• Structured
• Partially passive
• Editing
• Meetings
• Research
Low• Repetitive
• Automated
• Routine
• Passive
• Checking email
• Writing outlines
• Scheduling posts

Once you have an idea of when you hit your energy peaks, you’ll know when to schedule your most energy-intensive tasks.

Schedule breaks

Time management strategies can help you better integrate micro-breaks into your normal workflow.

Plan breaks in advance — When scheduling tasks in your calendar, include at least two or three short breaks throughout the day. Block this time off so other tasks like meetings don’t disrupt these free periods.

You can schedule a more extended break at times in the day when your energy normally hits its low. Of course, not everyone has so much control over their schedules. If you cannot plan your breaks, try switching to a lower-energy task for 10 to 15 minutes.

Set internal deadlines — If you have a project or task with a hard deadline, set an internal due date that shortens the timeframe by a third. Not only will this help you avoid Parkinson’s law, but it will also reduce the chances of working overtime without adequate time for breaks.

Follow the 50-minute hour — A study of effective office workers found that most took a 17-minute break after working for about 52 minutes [16]. You can follow this method by scheduling 60-minute time blocks but ending work 10 minutes before the period ends. This will create buffers to fit in restorative activities like stretches, socializing, or mind wandering.

Sources

[1] American Psychological Association. (2010, April 5). Psychology of procrastination: Why people put off important tasks until the last minute [Press release]. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2010/04/procrastination

[2] Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Peetz, J. (2010). The planning fallacy: Cognitive, motivational, and social origins. In M. P. Zanna & J. M. Olson (Eds.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 43, pp. 1–62). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(10)43001-4

[3] Kendra Cherry. (2022, September 22). What Is Parkinson’s Law? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-parkinsons-law-6674423

[4] American Psychological Association. (2006, March 20). Multi-tasking: Switching costs. Apa.org. https://www.apa.org/topics/research/multitasking

[5] Bill Knaus Ed.D. (2013, August 30). Uncertainty, Anxiety, Indecision, and Procrastination | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/science-and-sensibility/201308/uncertainty-anxiety-indecision-and-procrastination

[6] Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011, June 20). Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024192

[7] Lindsey, Andrew, Moffat, David C, & Shabalina, Olga. (2020, September). Could Decision Fatigue be a Problem for Serious Games? – ProQuest. Www.proquest.com. https://www.proquest.com/openview/028255fde9ef6a017e258a89bd29502b/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=396495

[8] José Luis Peñarredonda. (2018). Why time management so often fails. Bbc.com; BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20180904-why-time-management-so-often-fails

[9] Gordon, S. (2021, March 20). Understanding How Conscientiousness Affects Your Behavior. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-conscientiousness-affects-your-behavior-4843763

[10] Keath Low. (2020, November 3). Strategies for Managing Time If You’re an ADHD Adult. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/time-management-tips-20409

[11] Young, S. (2006, July 25). Interview: Energy Management with Emily Schwartz. Scott H Young. https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2006/07/25/interview-energy-management-with-emily-schwartz/

[12] Gaur, V. (2012). Holistic Approach to Productivity. European Journal of Business and Management, 4, 88-94.

[13] Dahl, M. (2014, June 5). Work Smarter: Get Stuff Done in 90-Minute Chunks. The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2014/06/get-stuff-done-in-90-minute-chunks.html

[14] Pueschel, A., Tucker, M., Rosado-Fager, A., Taylor-Bianco, A., & Sullivan, G. (n.d.). Priming Students for Success through Energy Management: The Balancing Act. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, Volume 20. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1178733.pdf

[15] Hovish, K. (n.d.). Emotional Time Management: Three Evidence-Based Tools Staff Learning & Development Officer. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bec9805f8370a4294042119/t/5ed92d2e7efac23bd48e3ce6/1591291186136/SEAL+Emotional+Time+Mgmnt+June+2020.pdf

[16] Gifford, J. (2018, May 14). Secret of the Most Productive People – Breaking | DeskTime Blog. Desktime.com. https://desktime.com/blog/17-52-ratio-most-productive-people

Alisha Verly Jensen
Alisha Verly Jensen
I am a freelance wellness writer passionate about positive psychology and gentle productivity. I enjoy studying personal development and sharing what I’ve learned to help others create a balanced and fulfilling life. When I am not writing, I am tending to my garden.