How I Design My Day To Maximize Mental Energy

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This post is a slight divergence from writing about growth of companies, and instead discussing the growth of myself.  

When I was a kid I was always the one that fell asleep first at sleepovers.  The result?


But it was more than shaving cream on my face at sleepovers.  I was always complaining about how tired I was compared to the other kids.  I had blood work done every couple of years to make sure something wasn’t wrong.  But the doctors response was always that I was perfectly healthy, and that I just probably needed more sleep than others.  

Later in life as I transitioned into the stressful and demanding world of startups, I realized that I was going to have to improve and manage my energy, specifically my mental energy.  Over the past 5 years I have read countless books, tried numerous supplements, experimented with different diets, and changed my routine to try and maximize my mental energy.  

The following is a summary of what has helped me improve my mental energy by leaps and bounds.  I will first explain 7 underlying principles, and then give you an example daily schedule so you can see how I put it into practice.  

7 Principles To Maximize Mental Energy

Principle 1 - Physical Fitness As A Foundation

Overall physical fitness is the foundation for your mental energy.  If you are eating like shit, overweight, and generally not fit how do you expect your brain to be fit?  You don’t need to be completing Ironmans, but general physical fitness is the beginning.  Diet is included in this.  Specifically when it comes to brain function there are certain foods that are healthy fuels, and certain foods that will make you feel cloudy, unfocused, and lethargic.  I’ll save my diet and supplements for another post as this one is focused on the structure of my day. 

Principle 2 - Think Of Your Brain As A Muscle

Just like your arms or legs, your brain needs fuel to do work, exercise to get stronger, and rest to recover.  I think people forget this because the connection between exercise/fuel/rest and the effect on your brain is more indirect.  I can pick up a dumbbell and start doing curls and see and feel the effect on my biceps much more clearly.  

Principle 3 - Sprints and Rests

Our physiology is designed to operate as cycles of sprints and rests (or peaks and valleys).  Our sleep goes through cycles of deep to light sleep.  Our heart beats and then rests.  Our lungs breathe in and then rest.  Scientific studies have shown that to maximize both stamina as well as maximum out put, we are better off doing things in repeated bursts and rests rather than long marathons.  There are two keys to this principle:

1.  Balance 

To maximize output over time, you need to balance the sprints and rests.  Too high of a peak, or too low of a valley are both very damaging.  Thats why too much sleep, is just as unhealthy as too little sleep.  It is also why we should eat more smaller meals through out the day, then eating just a couple very large meals.  

2.  Integration

The second key is to design the things we do on a daily basis (including knowledge work) as a series of steady sprints and rests both on a micro (day to day) and macro level.   Integrate the principle of sprints and rests in eating, exercise, meetings, knowledge work, etc.

Recommended reading on this principle:  Power of Full Engagement

Principle 4 - Order of Operations

Different types of tasks/exercises consume different amounts of energy.  If I’m maximizing the amount I can lift with my arms across a bunch of exercises, I’m going to do exercises that require the most energy first, and work my way down to the ones that require the least energy. 

The same applies to mental tasks with the brain.  Different types of mental tasks require very different amounts of energy.  Aligning the tasks that require the most amount of energy with the parts of the day (usually morning) that you have the most energy and then saving the tasks that require the least amount of energy for later helps you maximize your overall output.  On the low end of the energy requirement spectrum are rote tasks (i.e. copying and pasting, signing/faxing, etc)  On the high end of the energy requirement spectrum, you have mental tasks that require comparing and contrasting (i.e. Prioritizing).  

This can also be very different person to person.  A type of task might be very consuming for one person, but easy for another.  For example, I have found that writing is a very consuming task for me which is why I do it in the morning.  But I know others where it comes much easier.  Pay attention to things that feel easy or like a struggle and you’ll learn what works for you over time.  

Recommended reading on this principle:  Your Brain At Work & Prefrontal Mondays

Principle 5 - Routines

Routines are critical not only to getting stuff done, but maximizing mental energy.  Our brain is constantly looking for shortcuts and ways to conserve energy.  It is why when we are first learning to drive, it requires a lot of concentration and mental energy.  But over time it becomes almost mindless.  How many of you get to work and you can’t even remember the 30 minute drive in?  

Building in routines helps your brain jump into and execute a task with the minimal amount of energy required.  If you have ever gotten yourself on a sleeping schedule, you’ve probably seen this in action.  By going to bed and getting up at the same time every day your body falls into a rhythm.  It becomes much easier to fall asleep, and wake up at the designated times. 

This works with other types of tasks.  A good example is writing.   Almost every top writer recommends to set aside a specific part of the day, every day, to write.  In other words, build a writing routine.  Over time your brain learns that a certain time in the day is “writing time.”  It becomes much easier to get into writing mode and flow.  

Recommended reading on this principle:  The Power of Habit

Principle 6 - Batching

Context switching drains a lot of mental energy.  You basically have to reset your brain every time you switch.  Things that are small, disruptive, and require context switching should be batched as much as possible.  That is why most productivity experts recommend designating certain times in the day for things like email, so you can get them done in a batch rather than as they come in.  The other most recommended tip is to turn off notifications that might require you to switch contexts.  

Principle 7 - Proactive and Purposeful

I have found there are two things that cause me stress and drain my mental energy.  

1.  The feeling that I don’t know what I should be doing.  And the consequence of constantly thinking about what I should be doing. 

2.  The feeling at the end of the day that I haven’t accomplished what I needed/wanted to accomplish.  

I have found that those two feelings are typically a result of spending my time being reactive to the things that come my way, rather than proactive about the things I need to spend time on.  As a result, I try to be as proactive as I can both on a day to day level, as well as a macro level.  

The Ideal Day

I’ll admit, most of my days don’t follow this schedule perfectly.  But thats ok, because it isn’t all or nothing.  

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