So you spend your day running your business. That means making decisions on the fly, attending back-to-back meetings, responding to emails, communicating with your team about projects and deadlines, and managing the piles of work you’ve accumulated from wearing a bunch of different hats. Plus, you’ve got a spouse and a droopy-eyed basset hound who need your love and attention. But when you’re off work for the day, you don’t have a lot of energy to spare. You still need to take Copper to the dog park. And figure out what you and your partner should make for dinner: Pad Thai or Lemon Carbonara? But by the time you’re home and ready to be present with your family, you’re totally spent.
At the end of the day, your head hits the pillow and you conk out, completely exhausted… and you have to get up and do it all over again tomorrow. If you’re feeling wiped out, like you’re burning more energy than you have to spare, it might be time to think about budgeting your energy.
When you’re approaching burnout and stress levels are high, there are key signs you can learn to watch out for so you know you’re reaching your limits. Psychologist Christina Maslach and colleagues measure burnout by three main signs: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.
Feeling emotionally depleted, foggy-brained, and overall fatigued.
When everything your coworker says drives you crazy, or you feel more irritable and snappy at your team meeting.
Feeling a lack of achievement, inadequate, or having the idea you’re incompetent at work.
According to Maslach, these are all signs that could point to burnout. And if you’re experiencing these feelings, it might be time to take energy budgeting more seriously.
We’re all familiar with budgeting when it comes to finances. You have a certain amount of money coming in each month and a certain amount of money going out, whether for bills, savings, investments, etc. Budgets are a great way to make sure you always have enough money to cover everything you need so you don’t end up over-spending and landing in a deficit. Energy budgets can work the same way. Research shows that mental energy, or willpower, is a limited resource. There’s a maximum amount of energy you have in a day. And at a certain point you hit that limit, making even the simplest choices - like what you should eat for dinner - feel like impossible chores. But when you’re operating a small business or moving projects forward, decisions need to be made. There’s always work to be done, and you’ve gotta show up for it. So what to do? Energy budgets to the rescue!
The first step of any good budget is getting the lay of the land. Before you can do anything differently it’s good to get clear on what you’re doing now. You should start by asking yourself a simple question: How are you spending your time? It might be helpful to keep track throughout your day and make notes as you go from one activity to the next. Pay attention to which habits fuel you or take away from your energy supply.
Just like a financial budget, you want to get a sense of how much energy you tend to spend on which things. How much energy does it cost you to do the things you normally do? You may realize you feel more drained after scrolling through Facebook than before you started. And maybe walking the dog makes you more energized (turns out moving around and getting outside actually gives you an energy boost)!
Getting a sense of what you’re spending will let you know whether you’re over budget, what’s giving energy back, and where you could be over spending.
Learn to identify when your budget is running low so you don’t end up crashing later. How many times have you felt uncomfortable or overwhelmed, but you pushed through anyway? Only to feel the effects later on when you catch a cold, have an emotional breakdown, or even miss an important detail on a critical project because you’re so wiped. Naveed Ahmad, the founder of Flourish, says, “Sometimes life taps you on the shoulder with a feather, sometimes it hits you with a brick, and sometimes it runs you over with a bus. Learn to listen when it’s just a feather.” Catch yourself on the track toward burnout before it’s too late.
You can get a pretty good sense of where you’re at when you listen to your body and intuition. We said it in 2015 and we’ll say it again: learn to tune in to your body’s signals that you’re reaching your limit. Whether you feel a pit in your stomach when you’re asked to take on another project, or irritation creeps in when you’re invited to the third meeting of the day. Learn to tune in to the signs while they’re mild as a feather so you can say no before you’re hit with a brick.
Do you ever think about how much time you spend deciding what to wear or what to make for dinner? The energy spent on these simple choices adds up throughout the day. You know Albert Einstein as the genius of all geniuses, but did you know he wore the same outfit every day? That’s one less decision he needed to make, and one less item drawing from his mental energy bank. You can give this a try yourself by rotating through a few outfits throughout the week, or trying the 100 day dress challenge like this community. If you wouldn’t dream of wearing the same thing every day, pick your outfits the night before instead. That way you still conserve your mental energy in the morning so you can spend it on more valuable things throughout the rest of the day.
Productivity enthusiast and founder of Bulletproof, Dave Asprey, suggests setting a limit on the amount of decisions you can make in a day. This makes you pay more attention to what decisions are worth making, and what you can delegate or pass off instead. Rather than take care of everything yourself, see what your colleagues can pick up! When you’re spending less mental energy on tons of small decisions earlier on in your day, you have more of it to spend in other areas.
Just like your muscles fatigue when you’re working out, sometimes you can experience mental fatigue during and after tasks that require a lot of critical thinking. It’s important to listen to your mind and body as you engage in your work so you know when you’re at a stopping point. If you’re working on tasks that take lots of mental energy, but push through even though your mind is tired out, you could be prone to error. The key is to learn to recognize when your body’s signaling you to stop so you can pause before it impacts your work. When you’re stuck on a problem and can’t move forward, that could be one sign it’s time to get up from your desk and take a lap.
Take a quick break between big tasks or decisions to maintain energy and regain mental stamina. When you take the right kinds of breaks, you’re giving your mind a chance to rest and recharge. A good break will give you a much-needed energy boost. So choose something that contributes to you, like taking a walk or chatting with a coworker in the break room. Making healthy breaks a regular part of your day will set you up to have more energy and feel better in the long run.
Now’s the perfect time to ask, “What’s really worth my mental energy?” To answer this question, first you need to get clear on your priorities. We’re used to thinking about priorities when it comes to work. And that’s still helpful! But this practice doesn’t just apply to your work life. After all, work is only part of your day. Other areas of life still take mental energy, like relationships, self-care, and family. When you’re thinking about your priorities, Asprey suggests asking yourself, “Who matters to me? What do those people want from me? What do I want from them?” Energy budgeting isn’t only about becoming more productive, it enables you to have more energy to give outside of work, too. Some things are top priority, like being present with your loved ones, or making time to do something for yourself (dust off your bass guitar and start that cover band you’ve been dreaming about 🎸). And some things should be let go entirely, like binge-watching Netflix as soon as you get home, or doom-scrolling Facebook.
Take a look at the inventory list you created earlier. Which activities are nourishing? Which things give you energy, get you excited, and make life feel meaningful? And which activities are draining? Which ones take an emotional or physical toll, or have a high mental cost? The activities that feel good to you and the mission-critical items that have to get done should go to the top of the list. Items that are mentally draining and not really essential can be put aside or moved to the bottom of your list.
Your energy budget is uniquely yours. Everyone has different priorities. It’s important not to compare yourself to others! What you can do in a day might be significantly less or more than your colleague, and that’s okay. It’s better to tune in to your own limits rather than basing it on what you think others think you should be doing.
And that means getting good at saying no when you’ve reached your max! If you’re asked to attend a meeting when you’re already swamped, let your teammate know you won’t be able to make it. If it makes sense, offer a different time that’s better aligned with your bandwidth, or suggest an email exchange if it’s not vital to have a face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) meeting. Sometimes a “no” to someone else is a “yes” to yourself. When you get through the week with your sanity intact, you’ll thank yourself for honoring your energy boundaries.
Budgets aren’t just for finances. Dialing in your energy output throughout the week can be hugely beneficial to your workflow and quality of life. Reduce stress and burnout by creating an energy budget that fits your personal lifestyle and unique limits. You’ll be glad you’re no longer driving yourself into the ground to get every little thing done when you focus on what really matters instead.
When I'm not writing blog posts and help articles, I'm chatting with customers. I help you get the answers you're looking for so GQueues runs as smoothly as possible for you and your teams. And who would I be without my oatmilk latte in the morning? ☕️