Boost productivity: Manage your energy, not your time! ⚡️

May 30, 2024 | Agile Values, Leadership, Mindset

Did you know: The average worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes a day?

That’s a jarring 30% of an 8 hour work day. What happens the rest of the day? And why do we spend time “at work“, if we‘re not productive anyway?

While the study I cited above lists many distractions that interrupt productivity, I want to focus on why we let ourselves be interrupted so frequently in the first place.

I believe it‘s in part because people focus on time management rather than energy management.

The myth of time management

To be more productive, we need to manage our time better – or so we‘re told.

And while arranging tasks in your calendar and timeboxing meetings can certainly help, this approach ignores one crucial fact:

We‘re humans, not machines.

We cannot run 24/7, especially not if we‘re asked to solve tough problems, be creative and innovate (i.e. doing knowledge work). Our brain power takes a significant hit after about 90min of knowledge work. Beyond that point, we‘re far less productive and even produce more problems than we solve at a certain point (ever worked late banging your head against the wall and then, after some sleep, could solve the problem in a breeze?).

So take breaks before you think you need them!

The advice science would give you is to take a short break every 90min or sooner. Get up and move for an added benefit.

Of course there are more reasons why time management falls short. Most notably that we often forget to eliminate non-value adding tasks in the first place (long meetings, anyone?). But today I want to focus on the aspect managing our brain power and mental energy.

Energy management

I‘ve learned that managing your energy is more important than managing your time. You can organize an 8 hour work day neatly into discrete chunks of work, but that doesn‘t guarantee you‘re productive.

We‘ve all had these days where you feel exhausted after 8 or 10 hours, and you didn‘t achieve much. Your brain is dead and work feels like a chore. And then we‘ve all had these days where you breeze through an important task in 3 hours, creating more value before lunch than on a regular 8 hour work day. I had great ideas and the stamina to work through tough problems. Work feels almost fun.

I don‘t know about you, but I‘d like to optimize for more of the second kind of days.

The more of these days I can create, the more prodcutive I will be – even if I decided to go home each day after the three hours! And if I added another 3 productive hours in some of the days – jeez!

The truth is, an hour of work does not equal an hour of work when it comes to productivity. And the difference between a productive hour and an unproductive one is energy.

Strategies for energy management

Identify energy drains

The first step to manage energy – and keep your sanity – is to find and eliminate common energy zappers.

As Elon Musk often says: The best part is no part, the best process step is no process step. Think hard whether what you‘re doing is really bringing you, your team and the company closer to the goal.

Meetings! That‘s what comes to mind first for many people when we talk about energy zappers.

Not all meetings are unproductive, of course. But make a concious decision whether you‘re getting or adding value in a meeting. Have the courage to decline an invitation; or if you‘re setting up a meeting, have the courage to not CC half the company “just to be sure“.

If you‘re in a meeting already and you feel you‘re not getting or adding value, speak up! Either change the course of the meeting or politely leave.

Look for other energy zappers as well. Constantly searching for documents in three different tools? Simplify and use just one tool for the job.

Regular retrospectives can help teams identify energy zappers. Remove them quickly. Remove more stuff than you think is okay – and add it back in if you went too far.

Regular breaks

Take breaks. At least once every 90min, maybe even more often.

Get up and move during those breaks! Don‘t check social media. Grab something to drink, do a few push-ups, enjoy a few minutes in the sun.

For many deep work tasks, the Pomodoro technique can be an insane producivity boost while keeping your brain fresh throughout an entire day.


Do I really need to tell you as an agile practitioners about the power of prioritizing?

Also remember: Not everything on a backlog gets done. That‘s expected. As long as we also work on the highest priority stuff, we‘re guaranteed to make best use of our time and energy.

Rest and recovery

Don‘t work late hours going on your last leg. It‘s okay to work longer in flow moments, but if you‘re brain needs a rest, don‘t push on.

Overall, aim for a sustainable pace. Instead of working late and then needing to recover, establish a work habit that leaves you always recovered. That‘s also better for dealing with the unexpected and makes companies more resilient.

Use techniques like TDD (test-driven development) to be able to go home once you feel your energy drain. Don‘t force yourself to “just finish that thing, because it‘s now all in my head now“. TDD works perfect in combination with the Zeigarnik effect (aka Hemingway cliffhanger trick).

Also use your rests for recovery. Eat well, sleep well, go for a walk, spend time with family and friends. All these activities do not only rest your brain, but recharge your energy!


Managing our time is short-sighted. While it can help to some degree, what we actually aim for is energy. If we manage our energy wisely, we can get more done in 3 hours of work than on time-managed 8-12 hours.

I‘ve learned through many years, many teams and corporations: Managing energy beats managing time every time.

How do you manage your energy for better productivity?


Thank you for reading The Agile Compass. I’m Matthias, here to help you help those around you become agile.

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