This article first appeared on Happify
It’s a new year and millions of us, determined to make a fresh start, are busily filling out productivity planners and feeling motivated to reach our goals by year’s end.
Except…we’ve been here before. This time last year, and perhaps the year before that (and maybe even the one before that) and we felt exactly the same. Many of us have been setting the same New Year’s goals for a while now, unable to carry that initial excitement and motivation all the way through.
Here’s why. Our desire to live fully is often based on our ability to manage our time. If only we woke up earlier, or exercised more efficiently, or planned and cooked our meals for the week ahead during the weekend—if only we made efficient use of every moment available to us, then we’d finally be able to master all our goals. Right? Well, not really. While making the most of our lives is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, trying to be productive all the time is inconsistent with the way we function as human beings.
Wharton professor Adam Grant says that we all have periods of productivity and periods of procrastination. It’s normal and it’s healthy because slowing down allows our bodies to recover physically, mentally, and emotionally, so we can be at our peak performance during the next period of productivity. When we attempt to defy this basic principle, productivity declines, motivation wanes, and we fall behind. We then judge ourselves harshly, raise the bar higher, or compare ourselves to others who seem to be on top of their game. Before long, we’ve either lowered our aspirations, or given up on our ability to achieve them.
This means that instead of engaging in self-defeating efforts to manage our time, we would do much better by taking a long-term approach and learning how to manage our energy instead. In his book The Power of Full Engagement, performance psychologist Jim Loehr talks about four sources of energy that build on each other. Which ones can you tap into to maximize the time you do have by showing up fully in the here and now?
In his research, Tom Rath, author of Eat Move Sleep found that eating well, moving regularly, and being well-rested are key to maximizing productivity. When energy levels are high, we’re up to three times more likely to be engaged in our work. And yet, most of us sit too long at our desks, grab a coffee and doughnut for a midmorning snack, or veg out in front of the TV instead of going to bed at a decent time.
Your turn: What one change will you make this year to look after your physical energy? Whether it’s opting for green smoothies and oatmeal for breakfast, taking 10-minute walks during lunchtime, or establishing a soothing bedtime routine, set yourself up for success by being consistent and persistent in your behavior. That’s how to form lasting habits.
We spend a lot of time in our own heads—much of it rehashing old events or getting caught up in needless worry about the future. Research shows that while a wandering mind may help with creative problem solving, it can also make us unhappy and lower performance significantly because stress and regrets drain our energy. In addition, time spent ruminating about the past or fretting about the future is time wasted. These are precious moments that should be spent attending to what’s important in the present. By not directing our energies to the here and now, we deprive ourselves of the feelings of competence, or accomplishment, or joy that can come with being in the moment.
Your turn: Is there a negative voice in your head that you’ll try to leave behind as you move forward and fully step into this year? What will you replace it with? For example, if you tend to ruminate about things that didn’t go well, can a wiser inner voice remind you of the three things that did?
A 2015 study by Microsoft revealed that our attention span has declined over time, and is now, at eight seconds, one second shorter than that of the goldfish. Although other studies show that human attention spans have always been notoriously low, most of us would agree that technology has negatively impacted our ability to focus deeply on one task at a time. To be at our most productive, we need to shut off all distractions so that our mind is not struggling to toggle multiple tasks at the same time.
Your turn: What are some habits that get in the way of focusing, whether at work, or when you’re with people? Is it having too many tabs open on your computer? Is it having your phone at the dinner table? How do these habits affect you? Which ones will you let go of this year?
This is perhaps the least understood form of energy—and thus the least harnessed. Spiritual energy is about tapping into whatever feeds our souls. Certainly, it could be a religious practice. But it could also be a good book or quiet meditation, a nature walk, or playing with a child or pet. It could be a creative pursuit, such as art, dance, or music. Research in education shows that when productivity begins to decline, feeding our spiritual energy improves our cognitive efforts. In fact, it’s believed that Einstein would play the violin whenever he faced an intractable problem, and arrive at a solution by the end of the piece.
Your turn: What are your sources of spiritual nourishment? How will you create time for them in the new year? What new passions will you develop? What will you say no to in order to do so?
Life is short as it is. Don’t rush through it trying to manage your time just so you can tick off items on your to-do lists and without ever engaging with the here and now. Instead, live widely and be present in each moment. Experience the joy that comes from being physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually alive. Then you can truly maximize the time you have. There’s no better way to make the most of our lives this year and beyond!