The most important metric: building better relationships by managing your energy level

A few weeks ago, my partner and I arranged a big get-together for both our families. Everyone met up in my partner’s house, chatted for an hour, and then hopped over to Mario’s, the famous buffet restaurant nearby. Several more hours of fun, laughter, and talk followed.

Finally it was all done, and my partner and I had some time to ourselves. We were both happy, but tired.

I took a quick nap that afternoon, but still felt somewhat depleted when I woke up. By the time we were relaxing back at my partner’s house after dinner, I was practically in a daze.

As I prepared to head home, my partner noticed my sluggish responses to her, and my thousand-yard stare. She smiled and said, “It’s okay. I know you’re tired.”

That woke me up a little. I smiled sheepishly at her, grateful for her understanding; but inside, I was thinking, “Damn. I messed up.”

I had let my batteries run out.

Personal Energy: A Critical Resource

I don’t need to say much about the difference between having plenty of energy during the day, and struggling along on very little. Everyone knows that they are happier and more productive when their energy level is high. The better you manage and preserve your personal energy, the better you perform at everything. You become a more productive worker, a more attentive and selfless lover, and a happier human being in general. The better you take care of yourself, the more attention and focus you will be able to devote to other areas of your life — including your relationships.

So being thrifty about your energy levels is not selfish; it’s a smart investment that can provide large returns in all aspects of your life.

Aside from what we already understand instinctively about managing our personal energy, I’m going to add two ideas to the concept:

  1. Your energy level (both physical and mental energy) is the most important metric that you must track each day. It’s more crucial than managing your money. It’s even more crucial than managing your time, which is saying a lot. Why? Because just as having lots of money is worthless if you don’t have the time to spend it, having lots of time is also worthless if you don’t have the energy to use that time well. You can have the entire day free to yourself, but that won’t translate to anything meaningful if you are so exhausted that you spend the whole day in a mental fog.
  2. Proper management of your energy level isn’t just about replenishing it when it runs out. It’s also about making sure it never gets too low in the first place. Your performance at pretty much everything you do will suffer as your energy level goes down, so keep it topped up as constantly as you can; don’t even wait for it to go into the red.

Point number 1 is not my own idea. Scott Adams, creator of the successful Dilbert comic strip, believes in the beneficial spill-over effect of a high energy level. In his book, he writes:

When I get my personal energy right, the quality of my work is better, and I can complete it faster. That keeps my career on track. And when all of that is working, and I feel relaxed and energetic, my personal life is better too.

Best-selling author, entrepreneur, and investor Tim Ferriss talked in this blog post about how free time is useless without attention:

Income is renewable, but some other resources—like attention—are not. I’ve talked before about attention as a currency and how it determines the value of time.

[…] is your weekend really “free” if you find a crisis in the inbox Saturday morning that you can’t address until Monday morning?

Even if the inbox scan lasts 30 seconds, the preoccupation and forward projection for the subsequent 48 hours effectively deletes that experience from your life. You had time but you didn’t have attention, so the time had no practical value.

In this case, I consider “attention” to be practically the same concept as “personal energy” (especially mental energy), because the two are so closely linked. I find that my ability to pay attention to things is a direct result of my energy level at the moment.

Point number 2 is inspired by advice given by Dale Carnegie, an author and expert on interpersonal skills. In one of his books, he wrote:

So, to prevent fatigue and worry, the first rule is: Rest often. Rest before you get tired. Why is that so important? Because fatigue accumulates with astonishing rapidity. The United States Army has discovered by repeated tests that even young men — men toughened by years of Army training — can march better, and hold up longer, if they throw down their packs and rest ten minutes out of every hour.

Based on this idea, we can think of both physical and mental rest as something we can do in anticipation of fatigue, and not just as a cure for fatigue. Instead of letting ourselves become tired and then resting afterwards, we can sprinkle rest periods throughout our day so that we never become too tired in the first place. Even if the second method is ultimately no more productive than the first method, the second method will probably feel easier. This is because we will never have to experience heavy fatigue in the first place; and knowing that there is always a short break just around the corner is good for morale.

All right, these are cool things to know when it comes to our personal lives. But how can this knowledge help us improve our relationships?

Once we accept the importance of personal energy level as a resource to be managed wisely, we can avoid a lot of potential conflict with our partners. By keeping our energy levels high, we keep ourselves in a good mood, which drastically reduces the chances that we will say or do something towards our partners that we will regret.

Action Steps

We’ve seen the wisdom of guarding our energy levels throughout the day, as well as recharging before we get tired. Now what are the nitty-gritty tactics we can use to improve our relationships and daily interactions? Consider these examples:

  • Experiment with treating your personal energy level as the most important resource that you must manage. Decide to truly make it a top priority; that is, be willing to sacrifice other things in order to keep your energy level high. Invest your money in healthy food that will keep you energized all day. Make time (if necessary, force time) for activities that can restore your mental energy and peace of mind: adequate sleep, relaxing outdoor walks, meditation, social interaction or isolation (depending on your preferences), et cetera. Even if these activities take some time away from other things that are also pretty important (family management, career, hobbies), remember what Scott Adams said: high personal energy will positively affect other areas of life. Experiment with making the investment.
  • As a personal example, I know that I am an introvert. I know that solitary time recharges my mental and emotional batteries, and interaction with other people drains those same batteries. (This is true even when I am enjoying the social interaction.) I also know that when my batteries are depleted, I become either irritable or cold towards anyone who tries to talk with me. Using my knowledge about preemptive resting, I can tell people: “I’ve enjoyed talking with you, but I feel myself becoming tired now, and I’m not really at my best when I’m tired. Let’s get back together again sometime, but for now, I’d like to call it a night. How does that sound?” While this may sound anti-social or even rude to some people, I know that I can become a lot more anti-social when I’m really depleted! It’s much better to make a polite exit while I still have some battery power left. This strategy works regardless of who I am interacting with: my partner, family, friends, even strangers.
  • Consider keeping a packet of chewing gum or candy with you at all times, in case you need a quick hit of energy-replenishing sugar. I keep several pieces of Juicy Fruit gum with me wherever I go, and it’s made a big difference several times. Some studies (here and here) show that attention/energy/willpower are influenced by the amount of glucose in our bodies; too little glucose, and we enter a state of “ego depletion“.
  • When you’re about to go into a situation that you know will be draining, fill up your batteries beforehand. Eat, sleep, and indulge your introversion or extraversion.
  • During the draining situation, take mini-breaks regularly. Take quick naps if you can get away with it. (Here is a fantastic infographic about the benefits of naps, and strategies you can use when napping.)
  • Finally, make your exit from the draining situation before you become totally depleted.

Now you’ve seen these ideas about the importance of personal energy, as well as my suggestions about how to preserve and maintain that energy. Now we’d like to hear from you. What strategies do you have in place (or plan to use in the future) for keeping your energy level high? Do you agree that personal energy is the most important resource to manage, or do you feel that there are more effective metrics to track? Make yourself heard in the comments.

[To leave a comment, please use the “Leave a Comment” link just below the title of this post.]

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