Picture This

You wake up on a Monday morning at 5:15 a.m., fifteen minutes before your alarm goes off. Feeling energized and refreshed after a relaxing weekend you think to yourself, “Today is going to be a great day. I’m going to get a head start and smash my goals.”

You walk into the kitchen, grab your morning coffee, and sit down with a good book about becoming a better leader.

Thirty minutes go by and it’s now 5:45 a.m. As you look over the long list of tasks that you have to accomplish today, a small burst of anxiety rushes over you.

You put down the book, gulp your last bit of coffee, and rush to the shower. After your shower you check your emails on your phone. Over the weekend, 100 emails have accumulated in your inbox.

Another wave of anxiety hits you.

You have three meetings you must attend today, one of which you are leading. With the recent turnover at the office, you also have to hire three new employees, as well as train the two employees you hired last Friday.

On top of that, you have two projects due this Friday. As you look at your list and the time each of these tasks will take, you begin to think today may not end up being such a great day after all. In a rush, you miss your breakfast and drive off to the office.

After work, you get home at 7:00 p.m. and think back on your day. The three meetings you were in were not very productive as you kept becoming distracted by your ever-growing inbox, the new-hire training did not go as planned, you did manage to schedule a few interviews, but you were unable to get much progress on the two projects due Friday as your time was eaten up by responding to emails.

Going to bed, you feel like you worked hard, but did not get much accomplished. Hoping tomorrow will be better, you shut your eyes and drift off to sleep.

Time and Energy

How many of you start each day expecting great things from yourself, yet at some point during the day you get lost in the myriad of tasks and demands coming at you, ultimately ending your day feeling unaccomplished? I know this has happened to me more times than I care to admit.

Here is the thing: Time and energy are the two finite resources given to us each day.

You have to decide where your time and energy are most effectively expended every day in order to be as effective as you want and need to be.

In addition to determining where your time and energy are most effectively spent, you have to put the habits and structure in place to execute what you need to get done.

In our current information age, we are bombarded with emails, phone calls, texts, and a laundry list of things to do that suck away our time and energy.

While we cannot avoid the aforementioned ‘time and energy suckers’, it is our duty to ourselves to put the right structure in our day and safeguard our time and energy like our success depends on it…because it does.

Conventional wisdom would have us break down our days into a list of tasks according to relative importance and urgency. Attacking them in order of importance

However, outside of this more traditional paradigm, is there an even better way to strategically structure your day?

After hundreds of hours of research, the answer to which I’ve arrived is a definitive “Yes.”

Structuring Your Day with the Brain in Mind

At the core of everyday decision-making and problem-solving is our own personal supercomputer, our brain.

While our brain can do amazing things, there are limitations to what it can do at the level of conscious thought each day.

The area of our brain responsible for driving our daily decision-making and problem-solving is known as the prefrontal cortex. Sitting just behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex is by and large what separates us from other animals and was the last brain structure to form during our human evolution.

Without your prefrontal cortex, you would not be able to control your impulses, set goals, solve complex problems, visualize things you have never seen, or think creatively (Rock, 2009).

This sounds great, right?

Not only do we have a supercomputer between our ears, but we have a highly evolved structure in this supercomputer’s hardware that has made us the most dominant species on our planet.

To the uneducated observer, it would seem like this supercomputer should make for an impeccably efficient assistant.

However, like any device in known existence, there are limitations to what our brains can do on a given day.

The prefrontal cortex, in all its magnificence, is an energy-hungry machine, devouring glucose at a rapid pace (Rock, 2009). Fifty percent of our glucose, the key source of energy for our cells, is used by the brain on a daily basis.

This makes the brain the most energy-hungry organ in the body (Harvard, 2019). Although it only uses 1% of the total glucose consumed by the brain on a daily basis, the prefrontal cortex is one of the least energy efficient structures in the brain (Rock, 2009).

Quite unfortunately for us Type-A overachievers, our glucose reserves are finite and there are few things we can do to substantially increase them aside from adequate sleep and the consumption of small healthy meals throughout the day.

But why am I telling you this and what the heck does it have to do with time management?

Let me explain.

You see, it is your ability to make difficult decisions, solve challenging problems, engage in abstract reasoning, and control your impulses that will largely determine the degree of success you will experience in life.

Unfortunately, the energy (glucose) fueling your brain is finite.

Which means that, in order to make better decisions, solve those problems, set those goals, and control your impulses, you must understand and work with your brain to be as effective as possible.

Given that our ability to GSD throughout the day is determined primarily by the availability of glucose, we must structure our days and efforts to work with this quirk of human biology, not against it.

Here are a few ways to do that.

Daily Neurohacks for Optimal Performance

The key to peak performance, it seems, is not to simply tackle your most important tasks first. But rather, to structure your schedule around the amount of cellular energy you have at a given point during the day.

You see, every task and activity requires some amount of glucose to execute.

However, different tasks require different amounts of glucose to perform.

For example, driving a car, which is a task most of us complete on a daily basis, is such a highly automated behavior that is uses a relatively nominal amount of glucose.

However, solving complicated issues in a meeting or negotiating a new deal with a potential client, uses a significant amount of our reserves.

So, rather than prioritizing your tasks by urgency alone, you must take into consideration the amount of energy each task will require.

The first practical strategy you can implement to leverage this principle is to stack your most mentally intensive tasks toward the beginning of the day and separate your to-do list by the amount of energy each item requires.

This will allow you to accomplish the most important tasks during the period of time when you are most mentally alert.

For example, if you have an urgent, but relatively easy task to accomplish (like answering emails, organizing files, or recording KPI’s), you should schedule the task for later in the day–despite its apparent urgency.

Furthermore, you should schedule breaks between mentally intensive tasks with less draining activities (even those unrelated to your work) to ensure that you can sustain peak performance for a longer duration of time.

Think of your brain as a small muscle.

If you were to do a few sets of ‘all out’ heavy squats followed by ‘all out’ heavy leg press, and deadlifts, it’s safe to assume that your physical energy will be spent after those exercises and you’ll be done for the day.

However, if you approach the workout different, by beginning with high intensity squats, followed by an isolated and low impact movement (like a leg extension) before progressing to your next compound exercise, the total duration of the workout will be longer and energy conservation will be greater because you gave yourself a short break between the most taxing movements.

Similarly, stacking less mentallyintensive tasks between more intensive tasks will increase your endurance and ability to conserve glucose throughout the day.

Breaking up your daily tasks into three colored blocks (perhaps black, blue, and green) and assigning one color to high mentally-intensive tasks (black), one color to moderately mentally-intensive tasks (blue), and one to minimally mentally-intensive tasks (green) is an excellent strategy that will help you structure your day effectively (Rock, 2009).

For example, here’s the schedule I’ve created by using this principle.

The Neurohacker’s Time Management Principle in Action

Let’s take the idea of structuring the tasks of your day according to how much glucose they will use and apply it to our initial story.

You wake up on a Monday morning at 5:15 a.m., fifteen minutes before your alarm goes off. Feeling energized and refreshed after a relaxing weekend you think to yourself, “Today is going to be a great day. I’m going to get a head start and smash my goals.”

You walk into the kitchen, grab your morning coffee, and sit down with a good book about becoming a better leader. Thirty minutes go by and it’s now 5:45 a.m.

As you look over the long list of tasks that you have to accomplish today you are confident that you can get them done because you not only know which tasks are important, urgent, and time-consuming, you also have stacked the more mentally-intensive tasks towards the first half of your day, and separated them with less mentally-intensive tasks so that your mental stamina remains high throughout the day.

You have also color coded the tasks in black, blue, and green according to how mentally-intensive they are. The meetings you have today are at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 1:30 a.m. You know these meetings will require your full attention and are mentally-intensive, so you plan the other tasks that you have to get done strategically around them.

After you finish your morning reading you eat some oatmeal and eggs, shower, and are off to the office. Upon arriving you check your inbox and see it has accumulated 100 unread emails.

You have two hours before your first meeting, so you decide to take the emails and prioritize them according to importance and urgency, as well as how mentally-intensive they will be.

Knowing that your mind is freshest in the morning, you take the next 45 minutes and answer the emails that are highly important and urgent and that require a good deal of thinking.

You get through the toughest 15 emails with one hour to go before the meeting. You know you have other mentally-intensive tasks to do, but you also know that you have just used quite a bit of your finite mental resource (glucose) answering tough emails, so you decide to stack that task with an easier task of going through job resumes and scheduling interviews for later in the week.

Finishing that task in 50 minutes, you head into your first meeting of the day ten minutes early and prepare. After the meeting (a mentally-intensive activity) you look back at your emails and choose to answer some of the ones that are not as mentally taxing.

You get through another 35 emails with 10 minutes to spare before your next meeting. After your second meeting, you take the next hour and train your new-hires, knowing that the task is not very mentally-intensive because you already know the information you are teaching by heart.

Following this training is your third meeting, the one you are leading. You get to the meeting 10 minutes early and set up. Having structured your day according to the amount of mental energy you will expend on any given activity has served you well, and even at 1:30 p.m. you still have a good amount of mental energy to expend at this meeting.

After the successful meeting, you take a break to eat (mental break), then begin planning how you will complete the two projects due on Friday. After two hours of sorting through this, you finish off the last of your emails, and head to the gym. When you get home, you plan your next day’s tasks in a very similar fashion. You then reflect on the day and think, “Man. I worked hard today, and I got a lot done.”

Key Takeaways

  • Our brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is an energy-hungry machine.
  • Glucose fuels the cells in our body, especially our brain. Glucose is a finite resource.
  • Our prefrontal cortex is what allows us to make complex decisions, solve complex problems, think and reason abstractly, set goals, control our impulses, and think creatively.
  • Our prefrontal cortex needs glucose (energy for our cells) to function properly yet uses glucose in a very inefficient manner (i.e. very rapidly).
  • Some tasks are more energy-intensive than others.
  • Structuring your day by attacking more mentally-intensive tasks towards the beginning of your day, as well as separating highly mentally-intensive tasks with less mentally-intensive tasks will help to conserve mental energy and stamina throughout the day, allowing you to think smarter all day.

Key Strategies

  • Stack mentally intensive tasks towards the beginning of the day.
  • Separate highly mentally-intensive tasks with less energy-intensive tasks to give your brain a small break so that it can perform well throughout the day.
  • Break up your daily tasks into three colored blocks that indicate how much mental energy they will consume.

Conclusion

Neither you nor I are superhuman. We are all bound by the laws and constraints of nature and, unfortunately, one of those laws is the finite nature of high performance.

By following the steps laid out in this article, you will take an important first step towards unlocking your potential and increasing your productivity.

What do you think about the principle in this article? What was your biggest takeaway? Let me know in the comments below.

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Derick Stonecipher

Currently working as an Organizational Psychologist at the American Bath Group, one of largest bathtub manufacturers in the U.S., Derick Stonecipher has a passion for helping others pursue personal and professional excellence through the sharing of information and ideas. Having completed his master’s degree in Organizational Psychology, Derick directs a number of programs at the American Bath Group, including their Employee Engagement and Leadership Development programs. Derick has been writing and presenting content for the past four years covering topics including neuroscience, psychology, leadership, self-management, time-management, employee engagement, among others. Outside of these passions, Derick and his wife, Theressa, have a love for traveling and the outdoors. Having visited nearly eight countries in the past two years, Derick and Theressa have no plans of slowing their exploration of the world.

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