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How about sorting by energy?

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  • How about sorting by energy?

    I've started pre-sorting my lists by time, energy and priority as well as by context.

    I describe this in my blog here:

    The sorting by energy level required seems to be particularly effective,
    resulting in increased overall energy level and motivation.

    I'd be interested in hearing whether others have done this, and any comments
    people may have.

  • #2
    The 'time' field I use to label each action has changed from being a number of minutes to list of:


    These are composites of time and energy.

    A μ is a micro-task, something I can do in-between other things in about 5 minutes. There are no energy requirements for a 5 minute task, so I can pick them off when my energy is low.

    PD1, PD2, PD3 and PD4 refer to multiples of 25 minute chunks of time using The Pomodoro Technique. This is when I need to make myself just focus on getting a task done. There's a certain concentration ability combined in here.

    Devt - means Development. It's anything that requires more creative thought, such as study, researching something, the Natural Planning Method, etc. As well as being awake, I need to have an open-ended space of time and be calm enough to sit and ponder.
    Last edited by pxt; 04-18-2011, 07:00 AM.


    • #3
      Too structured

      Theyre too structured for me (both your descriptions).

      in terms of energy, personally I find it hard to say whats a 'low energy task' in advance. Suppose I have to lug a few boxes upstairs. If Ive spent the day on my feet it could be a high energy task. on the other hand if I spent it in a series of high pressure meetings, it could be exactly the kind of mindless task I can handle, where as I might not have the energy to sit at my desk and send out another high pressure email. You have physical energy and mental energy.

      But there's more - sometimes I can't be bothered to think creatively, but I can plough through some boring data inputting. There's creative energy too. Sometimes I can have energy to talk to people but just cant face another minute at the computer. On another day they're similar in terms of energy, but after 8 hours staring at your screen that face to face gets a lot easier.

      Better than scoring tasks by energy 1 to 5 is simply deciding, in the moment, "What can I actually be bothered doing right now?" My experience is thats a very easy decision to make, you just know in a second whether you can be bothered.

      RE time, unless you have a considerably more routine job than me, its not possible to know in advance how long something will take with any degree of accuracy. Sure, I can tell if its a couple of minutes, the better part of an hour or all afternoon - but its hard to say more accurately than that. It also assumes you wont be interrupted in that time, that you definitely have everything you need at hand and that you have done the task, identically, before. I tend to find my life is a bit more messy than that.

      As for priority, my experience is that the interplay of day to day life makes pre-labelling priorities worthless. What counts as a high priority can change within a single day. Boss walks in in a great mood? That difficult conversation about project money just became a high priority. Big potential sale phones out of the blue? Everything else gets lower priority. Project plan rejected? Rapid politicking becomes a priority. What seems like a priority in your weekly review can be hopelessly out of date by the time it comes round to doing it. Again, the best practice Iv read is just to decide in the moment.


      • #4
        Originally posted by cwoodgold View Post
        I'd be interested in hearing whether others have done this, and any comments
        people may have.
        I tried it at one point but I found it was not effective for me. I did a lot better when I had a variety of actions in any given context and could pick the ones that I was able and capable of focusing on at that time.


        • #5

          pxt: Interesting! Like you, I don't further pre-sort the very short tasks -- in my case, this means 2-minute or less. So there is a bit of a conflation of time and energy right
          there. I like the feel of your "Devt" category: rather than thinking "This is difficult,
          this will take a lot of energy" it's a more positive thought like "I need a calm time
          when I can be creative and not be interrupted".

          bishblaize: That's fine: different people will need different techniques. For me, even
          if it only takes a second to decide whether I have the energy to do something, if the
          answer is "no" then spending that second has a small but significant cost
          in terms of reducing my overall motivation and also making me
          less likely to feel up to doing that same action on another occasion.
          Even if the answer is yes, it won't tend to be whole-hearted because the
          process of deciding involves awakening whatever internal forces might
          push for a "no" answer.

          Re time:
          What I actually do is record how much time I need to have available in order
          to feel comfortable starting on an action. I'm predicting how I'll feel when I
          start, not the end result. The time may be longer than how long I think the
          action will take, if I want to make sure I won't be interrupted (like with pxt's
          "Devt" category). Or it can be shorter than how long I think it will take,
          if I don't mind being interrupted and continuing the action later. The times
          are approximate. For example, if I have about 10 minutes available at home
          and want to get some things done, I like having a list of quick actions so
          I don't have to read over a longer list and regretfully reject a lot of actions
          I wish I had time for.

          For example, if I'm planning to leave the house in 10 minutes and am
          already ready to go, I won't choose that moment to turn off the water
          in the house and start taking apart the kitchen tap.

          Re priorities: David Allen says priorities are always changing. I find
          that for me, they don't change all that much. For example, if something
          is a priority because I've made a promise to someone about it,
          that fact isn't likely to change. If I get new information
          which raises the priority of an action, I can and often do immediately
          update it in my planning system; I don't have to wait for weekly review.
          Anyway, the priorities I assign are approximate, and at any time I
          still have the option of reading the entire list. I usually don't read
          only the first item, but the first several, and choose from among them,
          and occasionally I read more, to check whether some are out of place.
          I can adjust the priority levels at any time.

          In my previous system, I occasionally put a star beside an action
          to mark it as high priority. I found that that worked well. Often, later
          on I would decide it wasn't that high a priority after all and might even
          decide not to do it at all; however, usually, the starred actions got done
          in a reasonable time, and if I was in a hurry I could quickly glance at
          a list to check whether there were any starred items, without having
          to read the whole list, and it gave me
          a reassuring feeling that there was probably nothing very urgent I
          was forgetting to do, as well as an opportunity to quickly do the
          starred action if appropriate.

          Oogiem: well, I'm just starting on it, so I might decide to stop or modify
          it. I still do have a list of a variety of actions I can choose from,
          no fewer than before; they're just sorted, and I usually choose not to
          read them all. We each need to find the system that works for us.

          General comment: some people might prefer to sort actions into categories
          like "physical work", "computer", "calculations on paper", "creativity",
          "human interaction", etc. rather than an energy level. This would be like
          sorting by context, except the point isn't what you're constrained by
          your surroundings to be able to do (e.g. whether you have a computer
          available), but the type of action you feel capable of doing, or prefer to
          do, at that time.


          • #6
            What would you do if your energy is at min for two days in a row when you have the deadline for a key customer project?


            • #7
              Tight situations

              Paolo52: From your other posts, I gather that energy level is not a significant
              constraint for you: that you're pretty much always able to do the next action
              on your list. So this situation would presumably never come up for you
              (except possibly you get sick sometimes). You may not need to do any
              sorting of actions by energy level.

              Maybe it wouldn't tend to come up for me, either. When something is
              urgent, maybe adrenalin kicks in or something. When the kitchen sink
              is overflowing, I don't stop to think "let's see: am I sick? Am I tired?
              Do I have the energy to walk quickly over to the sink and turn off the
              water?" I just do it. So if there's an important deadline in 2 days maybe
              the upcoming deadline gives me the energy.

              However, assuming it is a serious problem -- maybe I had insomnia, maybe I
              was sick, etc. -- I suppose I would do some combination of the following.

              I think there are three main types of strategy available, and depending
              on the situation I might use one or a combination of more than one.

              Strategy type I: Apply more resources to the project. This could include:
              Improving my own energy level, perhaps by getting more sleep or exercise; Cancelling other activities to spend more time on the project, so I can still get it
              done even if working more slowly; Delegating some tasks to others.

              Strategy type II: Change the set of tasks to be accomplished.
              Sometimes as a deadline approaches I realize I was planning to
              do something in a way that was more complicated than necessary.
              I cut things down to the bare bones of what's really important and
              focus on just doing that. This might or might not include some
              communication/negotiation with others.

              Strategy type III: Change the deadline. This may not always be
              possible; but what if you were really stuck in the hospital unable
              to do anything for a few days: the world would still continue to
              roll somehow. A quick phone call to let people know you won't
              be meeting a deadline and why, a couple of days ahead, can be
              better than disappointing them at the last minute and may give
              them a chance to plan differently -- maybe it will turn out they're
              running behind schedule too and are relieved by the change.

              Even better is to be proactive and get things done well ahead of
              deadlines so such urgent situations don't come up. I'm not claiming
              to be terribly good at that necessarily, but I think the GTD system
              helped me be better at it. Ideally, one tends to prevent problems
              before they occur, so things are rarely urgent and you have freedom
              to choose among a number of actions at any time.

              How this fits into the system of sorting actions by energy:
              if the actions required a high level of energy and it was possible
              to do them a few days earlier, then I would have been more
              likely to get them done early, under this system, because of
              sorting the doables in order of highest energy first (after
              sorting by priority).

              At the beginning of the workday I look
              at all the high-priority actions, regardless of energy level, to
              make sure nothing's getting missed. Generally I have lots of energy
              in the morning anyway, but if not, I would still look. If there are some high-priority,
              high-energy actions that I don't feel able to do, I can plan to try to get more sleep or
              something; in any case I would be aware of the actions
              if there was a problem. The purpose of the system is not
              to totally ignore urgent things, but to allow the mental freedom
              of looking at a list of actually doable things, rather than a list
              that also contains things I'm probably going to decide not to do right
              then anyway.


              • #8
                Many gtd apps offer this criteria (energy) by default and it's a part of Four Criteria for Choosing
                1 | Context
                2 | Time available
                3 | Energy available
                4 | Priority

                I personally don't sort by energy because I don't really have low energy as long as I sleep enough and eat healthy (actually a raw vegan diet 80/10/10, not exactly necessary but works for me). Also I haven't been sick for the last 5 years and so on.
                Nothing wrong with sorting by energy if it works for you. It's completely useless for me though.

                Originally posted by cwoodgold View Post
                Re time:
                What I actually do is record how much time I need to have available in order
                to feel comfortable starting on an action. I'm predicting how I'll feel when I
                start, not the end result.
                Brilliant idea, I'm going to try it, makes a lot of sense. I use time criteria but not for all actions currently
                Last edited by May; 04-18-2011, 03:25 PM.


                • #9
                  I tried doing this but my app doesn't have those criteria and it was too hard to setup. Also I found having to put in the extra detail was too hard so I would have about a third tasks with that info and none of the others did so it made a mockery of it when sorting.
                  So I gave up and now do it intuitively.
                  Besides, with the pomodoro technique and eating healthy I now find I can make my energy last a lot longer and be more even throughout most of the day and so this helps.


                  • #10
                    Totally Agree

                    Originally posted by Paola52 View Post
                    What would you do if your energy is at min for two days in a row when you have the deadline for a key customer project?
                    I agree! Energy level has a small bearing on how I do my work but it falls to the bottom of my considerations for the most part due to hard deadlines. Deadlines and contexts are the primary filters for me at work.

                    I consider energy level more for personal things around the house but even at that, it usually just takes a quick scan and I can easily determine what I feel like doing assuming the completion date is discretionary.


                    • #11
                      "Energy" may be a more complicated topic than it looks on the surface..

                      Just some questions I have wondered about. I am not even sure what discipline would study this type of thing. psychology? Human factors?

                      1.What are mental and physical energies? Are our perceptions correct? We know when we are low, but do we know when we will be "just high enough"? Can we learn to be more accurate?

                      2. How does time or the perception of time fit in? Some actions require a block of time to get into the right level of mentation or physical flow. Sometimes it is not the energy level but rather do I have 45 minutes to work on the task that needs 45 minutes (e.g., practice piano)?

                      3. Do I even know how much time and the level of energy I need to complete the proposed action?

                      4. Does the perception of the task's relative pleasantness or its urgency affect how we perceive our level of energy and the level of energy required.

                      5. What kind of self-study would be useful to do?


                      • #12
                        Time is time required for starting

                        Thanks, May!

                        Actually, my original blog was accidentally missing its last 5 paragraphs. I've added
                        those, and an additional paragraph based on the comment of mine you were
                        replying to. The updated blog is at the same link:



                        • #13
                          Interesting questions

                          Jamie Elis, you raise some interesting questions.

                          Some people may prefer to use multi-faceted ratings. Some may
                          not need to rate energy at all. I find a single rating from 1 to 9 is
                          useful, which includes both mental and physical energy, and both
                          the state required to decide to start, and the energy to actually
                          do stuff.

                          As I said above, I'm looking at the conditions when starting, not
                          really predicting how long something will take. I imagine:
                          If I think have an hour available, will I want to start something
                          like this? I think I can predict fairly well what my mental state
                          will be. Enough to be useful, I find.


                          • #14
                            Having contexts by energy is level is something I've been doing the last couple of months. And to be frank, it works great.

                            Here are the contexts I use:


                            I usually procrastinate when I'm low on energy. With my GTD setup in Omnifocus, I have a perspective called "Procrastinate" that has a focus on my low-energy context. So whenever I feel like procrastinating or I'm tired, I just look at this low-energy list and try to complete whatever I can. That way I can still be somewhat productive.

                            The key to make this work though is that all the low energy tasks are non-urgent in nature and but still need to be done at some point (no due date). Things like
                            • Cleaning your room
                            • Sorting folders in your filing cabinet
                            • Any chore
                            • Organizing my folders on my computer

                            Since I'm a knowledge worker and I do 99% of my work on my computer, my thinking is what I consider my "high energy" context. I've divided those in sub-contexts to differentiate certain tasks, but the idea behind is the same: all these tasks require a lot of thinking and focus.

                            I work from "home" (that changes a lot since I travel so much) so all my low energy tasks can fall under that. Wether that is cleaning out my suitcase or clearing out items on my desktop, they're all the same. If you work in an office, you could have @Low-Energy:Office and @Low-Energy:Home if you like.