When you’re an individual contributor, you focus mainly on time management. There are 24 hours in a day. You allocate them according to what’s most important to you.
As you progress in your professional career (and as your personal life gets more complex, such as raising multiple children or caring for aging parents), it makes sense to optimize your life around a different kind of metric.
Instead of managing time (e.g., hours), I find it more helpful to manage mental energy.
I’ve developed a phrase that I call “Mental Energy Units,” or “MEU” for short.
I first got introduced to the idea of managing energy, rather than time, from the book The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. (It’s a great book, I highly recommend it.)
Here’s the main idea.
Time and energy are not the same things.
Let’s say you have 16 waking hours in a day.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s also say you have 16 mental energy units per day (roughly equivalent to 16 productive waking hours).
Some activities consume far more MEUs than the hours it takes to perform the actual activity.
For example, dealing with a rude and obnoxious prospective client might take up one hour of my day, but it might easily consume 16 mental energy units.
One bad conversation at 9 am can ruin my whole day.
If you calculate the value of dealing with that client from a return-on-time-invested perspective, it might make sense to keep the high paying client.
However, if you instead optimize for MEUs, then that one-hour client phone call is ruining your entire day at work and that evening at home.
When I talk to a good friend for one hour, it not only doesn’t use up any mental energy units, it actually creates energy for me.
The same is true when I go dancing or spend time in nature.
These activities produce MEUs.
When I write, the first one or two hours of writing is one-for-one. One hour of writing consumes one MEU. However, when I’m at my 3rd or 4th hour of writing for the day, the “cost” goes up. By the time I reach my 5th hour of writing for the day, each incremental hour is costing me three to four MEUs.
If I spend an entire week writing five hours a day, by Friday I am so mentally exhausted that I want to throw my computer out of the window.
As you might imagine, I tend to stop writing before I get to that point.
Most people have a very low awareness of their energy levels. Those that do have such awareness often don’t manage and optimize their life around that unit of measure.
Everyone’s “Hour-to-MEU” ratio varies by individual and across activities.
When I think about doing personal and corporate taxes, the MEU load is 7 MEU units per hour devoted the topic of taxes. I hate the complexity and detail of taxes. This is why I have a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) who deals with most of it for me.
When I avoid one hour of dealing with taxes, I free up 7 MEUs.
When I write articles like this one, that typically uses up one MEU per article when I’m writing at a modest pace.
When you think about your energy in this way, as an investable and consumable resource, it prompts you to make different decisions.
When that telemarketer calls you on the phone, they are sucking up your MEUs. How long are you going to stay on the phone before hanging up?
When you have a toxic person in your life, they are sucking dozens of MEUs with every interaction. How long are you going to allow the status quo to persist?
When you work in a job, profession, or industry you despise, an 8-hour work day is consuming 20+ MEUs each day. This is known as burnout.
Don’t just pay attention to and manage your time. Instead, pay attention to, manage, and optimize your life around your mental energy.
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