Time management skills are stupid. Here's what actually works.

Focus on energy, not time

Put the schedule down for a second.

Consider something I read in The Power of Full Engagement: Maybe it's not about time. It's about energy. "Energy, not time," it says, "is the fundamental currency of high performance."

It's a qualitative lens instead of a quantitative one. Focusing on your time management skills sounds great but all hours are not created equal. We're not machines and the time model is a machine model. Our job isn't to be a machine — it's to give the machines something brilliant to do.

Do you accomplish more in three hours when you're sleep-deprived or in one hour when you feel energetic, optimistic, and engaged?

This may sound fluffy but it's an important perspective to take: 10 hours of work when you're exhausted, cranky, and distracted might be far less productive than three hours when you're "in the zone."

So why not focus less on hours and more on doing what it takes to make sure you're at your best?

Work like an athlete

For most people, good work happens in sprints, not marathons. Time management skills don't address that.

Use the analogy of an athlete. They might train for long periods of time but the focus is not on monotonous hours of uninspired grind.

For athletes, it's a focused explosion of effort followed by rest and planning before another all-out push.

Their entire lives are designed around expanding, sustaining and renewing the energy they need to compete for short, focused periods of time. At a practical level, they build very precise routines for managing energy in all spheres of their lives–eating and sleeping; working out and resting; summoning the appropriate emotions; mentally preparing and staying focused; and connecting regularly to the mission they have set for themselves. Although most of us spend little or no time systematically training in any of these dimensions, we are expected to perform at our best for eight, 10, and even 12 hours a day. [The Power of Full Engagement]

Forget the stereotype of the dumb jock. The athlete metaphor is actually quite good for the modern day worker.

Who is more concerned with results over theory than athletes? Who looks at metrics more than they do?

They aren't satisfied with inspirational messages or clever theories about performance. They seek measurable, enduring results. They care about batting averages, free-throw percentages, tournament victories and year-end rankings. They want to be able to sink the putt on the 18th hole in the final round, hit the free throw when the game is on the line, catch the pass in a crowd with a minute to go on the clock. Anything else is just talk. [The Power of Full Engagement]

The research agrees

A lot of research on self-control and willpower aligns with what The Power of Full Engagement says about focusing on the proper use and renewal of energy.

In my interview with Roy Baumeister, author of The New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, he made clear that every decision you make depletes your self-control:

Making choices depletes willpower and afterward your self-control is impaired. If you have people exert self-control and deplete their willpower and later on have them make decisions, then their decision-making is of poor quality.

President Barack Obama makes deliberate efforts to limit decision fatigue so he can devote his mental energy to things that matter:

"I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing," he told Michael Lewis. "Because I have too many other decisions to make."

So when you perform different types of work is key.

Do you wake up fresh and renewed — only to respond to 30 depleting emails solving someone else's problems?

Jealously hoard your prime hours for important work. Respond to email when your brain is already taxed.

It's not just physical

It's not merely an issue of physical energy. The book also discusses softer things like relationships, optimism, and meaning that bring energy to our work days.

Work metrics get measured and analyzed but we're terrible about being as accountable in our personal lives — even though the latter can make a huge qualitative difference in performance.

"It's great to know how to recharge your batteries, but it's even more important that you actually do it," Vinod Khosla, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield and Byers told Fast Company. "I track how many times I get home in time to have dinner with my family. My assistant reports the exact number to me each month. Your company measures its priorities. People also need to place metrics around their priorities…" [The Power of Full Engagement]

Personally, if I don't schedule significant social time into my weekend, Monday hits me twice as hard. It feels like I never really "got away."

A 40-hour week after a weekend getaway is quite different from a 40 (or 50) hour week without it.

Research shows vacations increase productivity at work for up to a month afterward. All hours are not the same.

What to do next

If you want to work like an athlete, here are things to take into consideration:

  • Strategically use rituals that keep you positive and energized. Does social time rejuvenate you? Does a video game session help you relax?

No doubt, time management skills are necessary. But just as with your relationships, "quality time" matters and right now there's little focus on that.

We've become a more, more, more society and occasionally we talk about "working smarter, not harder" — but it's time to think about how to work better.

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