Do You Protect Your Mental Energy?

Table of Contents
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Quick Takes:

  • Mental Energy is one of our most important assets
  • It's a renewable resource that we don't actively take care of
  • Instead, we allow ourselves to sap our mental energy on non-factors
  • On the other hand, we can also spread ourselves too thin and waste mental energy on too many projects
  • In order to be successful, treat your mental headspace with care

Mental headspace is the most important real estate you can own. Sure, that in-law unit you saw on the Home and Garden channel would be nice, but it would do nothing to free up your mental energy. The capacity for our minds to focus, whether on exciting things or on menial tasks, is our most lucrative asset. It’s a currency we can use to invest in, well, anything really.

Yet, while our mental energy is the linchpin in the pursuit of our goals, we often do nothing to protect it. We let our email, our boss, our clients, our friends, our family, and even our thought loops sap our much needed resource. We understand inherently that our mental bandwidth is important, but we then turn around and waste it on non-factors, i.e., things that don’t advance us forward in our desired direction.

When was the last time you had planned on doing on something important, but then let a phone conversation or Facebook chat or a harmless surf of the web get in the way? In the short scheme of things, this isn’t really an issue, I mean, what’s 30 minutes of un-productivity and vegetation here and there? In fact, and I’ll state it clearly, sometimes 30 minutes of vegetation is good for you. But, when we set out to complete a task, goal, or project, especially when time is of the essence, every 30 minutes where mental energy is spent unwisely is 30 minutes wasted, compounded exponentially.

The Domino Effect

Let me explain. Say, for a moment, that you desire to be promoted at your current company. For you, your goal is a positive annual review with your boss, with whom you have a good relationship. I’ve stated it before, but since you have no direct control over a promotion, you’ll have to strategize and achieve the specific types of actions and initiatives your boss will be looking for. Nothing new, I know.

Now, you’ve surmised that one of those deliverables is increased internal communication between team members. You occupy a role that stimulates a lot of internal discussion, and your boss wants you to be the proverbial “lubricant,” and no, that’s not sexual lubricant, that’s proverbial lubricant. Keep up.

Anyway, boom! Well, you’ve got the task that will move you in the direction of your goal: increase the effectiveness of team communication. The result will be a more positive annual review and a stronger case for that promotion you covet.

But, alas, time wasted is time compounded. You walk into work on a Monday with the intention of implementing some new strategies you schemed up over the weekend. However, with fantasy football season going strong, and your team in first place, you spend the better half of the morning researching waiver pickups and trying to negotiate trades (guilty as charged, trust me). With the morning gone, work, especially menial tasks, begin to pile up, and you spend the rest of the afternoon playing catchup on things that are urgent but not important.

That’s ok, you think to yourself, I’ve got time before my annual review. I’ll spend the evening re-thinking some of my strategies and start implementing them tomorrow. Unfortunately, your menial tasks took you to the end of the day and right through 5pm, and you head home tired, mentally exhausted. Have you been there before, when you’re so mentally out of it after work that all you can do is crack a beer and sit on the couch? I have.

You get home and crack that beer, sit on that couch, and get lost in Monday Night Football. It’s a shitty game, but who cares, it's flashing stimulus on a screen and an excuse not to think. More please. Watching the game to completion (maybe the only thing you do to completion that night), a few beers deep, you crawl into bed, completely forgetting to think about your work deliverables for the next day.

So far, your decision to spend that Monday morning research fantasy football has resulted in a wasted morning (from a goal perspective), a wasted afternoon, and a wasted evening. And guess what? It doesn’t stop there.

You wake up the next day overtired from the night before, missing crucial REM sleep to revamp your tired brain. Somewhat bleary eyed, you head into work on Tuesday semi-unmotivated, and let the morning get away from you again, this time trying to wake yourself up for the workday. The cycle repeats itself on Tuesday, except this time you’re creating a new routine for yourself. A few weeks like this, and before you know it, wasted mornings will be a normalcy and not an exception.

All of a sudden your annual review is looming, and you’ve done nothing except the minimum expectations. Enough to keep your job, sure, and maybe even enough to garner a positive review, but certainly not a glowing one. That one fateful Monday morning sapped your mental bandwidth when you invested it on something other than your goal, so that it created a domino effect, slowly depleting your mental energy one day after another, until you lost the discipline to push yourself in the direction you wanted.

Don’t be Overzealous 

Now that we understand how the depletion of mental energy can cause a negative domino effect, let’s see how that domino effect can start, this time due to the overallocation of mental bandwidth. Mental energy isn’t just wasted on the unimportant things in life. It’s possible, through overextension, to over-allocate our mental focus so that the most impactful tasks, goals, or projects are pushed to the wayside, unable to be given the proper bandwidth.

Think of your mental energy like currency that can be invested. Like your time, it’s one of your most important resources, and is non-renewable from a daily perspective. When you wake up in the morning, your energy is at 100 percent, and that energy depletes throughout the day, until you have little or none. All days aren’t created equal, and it’s possible to have different energy levels from day to day, but there’s always a ceiling on the amount of mental bandwidth you can access, and there’s always a floor, and that floor is zero.

So, while your energy can be wasted on unproductive tasks, it can also be wasted on too many productive ones. This is the curse of motivated people. There are so many things to achieve, and so little time, that a lot of us allocate our mental headspace to too many goals or projects. It’s the act of becoming an entrepreneurial martyr.

I think of my projects as buckets, of which each requires a specific amount of time and energy to fill, so that the project can be completed successfully. If you have too many buckets, and not enough “water,” you won’t be able to allocate enough key resources to keep the bucket filled. Effectively, you become a jack of all projects and a master of none, unwittingly half-assing everything and achieving suspect results for all.

For me, I try to cap my projects at three, sometimes to no avail and admittedly to my detriment. With a struggling, and growing, small business, a continuous writing project, and a podcast on the horizon, my mental energy is spread pretty thin. But those aren’t the only three things I want to do! I can picture myself saying, stomping on the ground like a third grader who didn’t get his way.

However, each time I try to take on more projects, I end up hurting myself, both mentally as well as physically. I’m not a cutter, I mean “physically" as in the physical measurables of my work.

A entrepreneur friend of mine recently started a new surf apparel company. With the Holiday’s fast approaching, he suggested that our companies team up to throw an event, promoting local apparel and alcohol brands in the Bay Area. Great! I thought, I love parties, sounds like fun.

So we started planning. We called event spaces, reached out to clients and apparel partners, and began putting everything together. Only problem? Call me naive, but planning an event is a lot of work. The time needed to coordinate everything was vast, and with operating cash outflows needed before any revenue could be made, it’s also pretty stressful. And when you have a stressful project that takes a lot of time to work on, you have a recipe for energy depletion, especially when it isn’t your main focus.

But, again, I love parties, especially hosting them, and the event was something I really wanted to do. We both had concerns, he had just inked a deal for a retail space in a San Francisco mall and I was helping my clients with their 4th quarter push, but we trudged on.

Our concerns grew, and it got to the point where I was stressing about the event everyday, losing the ability to focus on my other projects, all of which were more important. One day I thought to myself, as I’ve thought before, what would I be thinking about if this event wasn’t constantly on my mind?

Well, I could be working harder on growing my business, for one. I could free up more creative thoughts for my writing project, too. And I could start strategizing for the impending podcast’s marketing push. All three of which were more important, and more beneficial, to my life and the way I wanted to live it. So, reaching out to my event partner, we discussed our reservations and mutually agreed to push the event to the spring of 2016, when we would both have more time and energy.

While the event seemed fun, it was not only taking time out of my day, but it was also taking up too much mental headspace, creating never-ending thought loops of worry. These thought loops crowded out any productive thinking I could’ve had on my other projects.

Exponential Can be Positive, Too

But, just like physics, there’s no set direction in which your mentally energy can be funneled. The allocation of your mental bandwidth can start an exponential domino effect in a positive direction as much as it can start a domino effect in the negative direction.

With mental energy as the linchpin, find a project, or a set of interrelated projects, that can be used as a leverage point. What task, goal, or project, if given the necessary mental bandwidth, will either become easier over time or yield you exponential returns? That’s what you should focus on first. Other projects are fine, but they should be related enough to the main project that they help with its buoyancy.

Focus on an initial project that can become a main source of cashflow. Work hard at it, help it grow, and understand that it’s your number one income source. From a financial perspective, this should be your most important project, but passion also comes into play, trust me. With this project as your base, you can allocate your time in ways that add passion projects and potential incomes sources to your life.

In my situation, for example, my small business should be the number one concern. Is it my deepest passion? Do I have the most fun doing it? No, but does it give me the freedom to pursue my other passions? Most definitely. So I understand, then, that the growth of a small business, in this scenario, is the most important, because it funds the entire lifestyle.

Built correctly, a small business can free up hours of free time in a singe day. It’s also a playground for learning new skills and having new reference experiences. Through these experiences, it’s given me the opportunity to work through thoughts and ideas, so that I can share them through my writing. And that’s not to mention it’s a huge source of raw material. As a passionate writer, by focusing my mental energy on business first, I’ve actually strengthened my craft and have allowed myself the opportunity to pursue it.

I already know that the podcast, whenever it decides to come around, will strengthen the first two projects. The podcast idea actually started as a mastermind between a friend and myself, and has since grown into weekly recordings that will eventually go live. The mastermind already gives me a testing bed to think out my ideas and hear about new ones, and once it becomes a podcast, I’m sure that its value will only increase. Currently, through energy spent on my mastermind, I’m able to generate ideas and seek support for my business and my writing.

So, through a blend of dumb luck, regretful decisions, and lifestyle design, I’ve created a three project ecosystem that each help move me in the direction of my ideal life. Mental bandwidth is allocated proportionately, based on the importance of the three. The addition of even one more project might tip the system out of balance. Is three the key, though?

Not at all. It all depends on how much mental energy you have, how important a specific project is to you, and how many projects you’re already working on. You could have enough mental bandwidth to take on six projects of low-level importance, or you might be working on something so important that it takes your full focus. There’s no rule of thumb other than to ensure you have time and energy to focus on a project before bringing it into the fold.

Through a deep breath and a calming step back, look at the projects that make up your life. Do you have enough energy to do them with vigor? Is an important project of yours slipping to the wayside? Or, conversely, do you have too much mental free space and should be looking for something to fill it?

These types of questions will help you understand where your mental energy is, and where it should be going.

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