Energy Mismatch: The Main culprit responsible for Productivity Imbalance.

If you look back on the memory model we talked about in a previous lesson, you’ll find that freeing up your attention is the first step to learning. To summarize the insights from it:

  • You can only encode what you can pay attention to.

Now let me get one thing straight: I’m not going to tell you to “listen to your professors” or recommend something as vague as “do active reading.” (Whatever the f*ck that means.) What we’re going to do instead is eliminate what’s blocking your potential to concentrate on processing information.

But let’s go back to this later. First, let’s agree on one thing:

The purpose of the Productivity element in your study system is to free up your attention so you can devote its full capacity to processing raw information.

That’s because without attention, there is no learning. Can you imagine Making a Wooden Table, but every time you put something on top, the Wooden blocks turn into tomatoes or something? That’s what happens with poor concentration — the items in working memory to get messed up, making you unable to build something meaningful with it.

The opposite is true: when there’s nothing that messes with your attention, you get to build your Wooden Table, and even have 3 days to think about where the Wedges should go, and you can finally place the Braces inside the Table’s edges to hold it’s Legs. Since attention maintains the items in your working memory, the items stay long enough — allowing you to integrate these into the meaningful whole.

We don’t live in a fairytale, of course, so attention gets messed up in rather ironic ways. For example:

  1. When you’re spending more time ruminating on unfinished tasks rather than finishing your current task.

These aren’t your fault; that’s just how our psychology works. But solving these problems requires an entire system for task management, so let’s focus on a single, more common (but easily solvable) concentration problem — a problem of energy mismatch.

Note: I may be using “attention” and “working memory” interchangeably here because, in the context of studying, problems in both attention and working memory simply equate to “not being able to concentrate.” Also: My readers aren’t memory scientists who’d cite my writing for research.

One of the major problems to attention is “energy mismatch”

I define “energy mismatch” as the misalignment of the energy demands of the task and the energy you currently have from your fluctuating energy supply.

The concept is simple: When you’re doing cognitively demanding tasks at times when you’re lethargic, you’re needlessly exerting more effort just to fight the lethargy.

Energy mismatch also creates massive time sinks

Practically speaking, though, when you’re too tired to do a hard job, you take longer than usual. Instead of just studying a textbook chapter for 1 hour from, say, 8–9am, you’re studying for 2 hours, say, from 1–3pm — just because your energy level at 1pm is too low for the energy demands of the task.

And that’s just crazy, isn’t it? From the hypothetical example, it’s taking you 100% more time just to do the same thing, when simply matching the energy allows you to use the extra 1 hour to rest instead — leading to better energy for more demanding tasks.

The scary thing is, I’ve found this time extension mostly true in my experience. It takes me 2 hours, from 12–2pm, to finish the same task that I can do from 8–9am.

But that’s only for a single task.

Just imagine how much time (and stress) is wasted just because of this simple thing. That should give you the reason why most students who “grind” their way through college — or more famously, those who “work hard until you drop” — lose precious study time for their other subjects.

Working harder when it’s unnecessary is counterproductive.

The solution, of course, is Energy Matching

The good news is, inverting the problem leads directly to the solution. When you study when you’re most energetic, you’re able to study better. As a result, you’re not just able to learn with a higher intensity of focus, but you’re also likely to finish the material faster. (This reminds me of the Theodore Roosevelt story in Deep Work. Great read, by the way.)

On the flip side, when you fully rest — or at least, do non-demanding tasks — when you’re lethargic, you’re making the most out of these otherwise non-ideal times.

Now, all of this should be self-evident already, so how do we do this properly?
I propose three steps:

  1. Do the cognitive demand test for your recurring tasks

Step 1. Do the “cognitive demand test” for your recurring tasks

By “tasks” I mean the things that demand energy to get done.

To make this easy, your first step is to list out the tasks you do most often. I recommend this because recurring tasks are the “quick wins” of long-term efficiency; any improvement on a recurring task is multiplied across time.

NOTE: Sleep and napping, by definition, are not “tasks.” But, you have to prioritize them — along with getting enough sunlight to regulate your body clock — to support your mental performance. After all, all exhausted people perform poorly — surgeons, pilots, athletes, CEOs, and students included. So plan out your sleep first, then plan out the other tasks around that sleep schedule.

For most students who live alone, your list would likely resemble this:

  • Laundry

Next, for each item, test whether they’re cognitively demanding or not. Ask this question:

Does this item require me to think hard?

If the answer is yes, then it’s demanding. It is, in Cal Newport’s definition, Deep Work. Otherwise, if the answer is no, then it’s not demanding. It shouldn’t be any harder than that.

I’ve bolded the cognitively demanding tasks below:

  • Laundry

Notice that I didn’t make “Workout” a cognitively demanding task. It may be physically demanding, but it does not require a lot of thinking to finish. Revising may be cognitively demanding, but not so much that you need to think extremely hard to do it. It’s just moderately demanding. Learning new topics — textbook reading, especially — that’s cognitively demanding, for sure.

Step 2. Determine “high energy zones” and “energy black holes”

Now that we have defined cognitively demanding tasks, we now ask the question to determine the “high energy zones”:

What are the times of the day that I have the most energy?

Usually, mornings are best because any kind of “mental fatigue” hasn’t accumulated yet. And this is true even when you didn’t sleep enough.

Some parts of the day would have “meh” energy, but there are some that you’re at rock-bottom. Those are your “energy black holes.”

Sure enough, the most accurate way to find this out is by taking out all stimulants and sleeping at the same time each day. But, there’s no need to be perfect at this as long as you can approximate the high energy zones. Sometimes you’ll find that your initial guesses were wrong. So what? You can adjust, so what’s the big deal?

Now what if it’s impossible and you don’t have control over your schedule?

Then don’t worry about it. Energy matching is simply a tool to take advantage of a known opportunity to concentrate better. The goal isn’t to have a perfect schedule of 100% productivity and “feel good all the time”; our goal here is to just take advantage of what we can control.

In my experience, I’m actually most alert early in the morning and late at night. That is, by definition, my hours of “100% productivity”. But, it’s impractical to work during those hours because when I run errands for the family, it’s only during the “regular” day. And, like a normal person, I sometimes have trouble falling asleep when I use my phone (with blinding screen brightness) at night, even when I prioritize it.

So instead of obsessing over “why I couldn’t study 100% productively for 10 hours like that clickbait Ivy League YouTuber who gets A grades without attending class,” just try to make the most out of what you’ve got. If you can only control 1 hour of your high energy zone, then make sure to protect that hour. But don’t worry about the rest if you can’t influence them. It’s a waste of time and energy.

Step 3. Plan cognitively demanding tasks at your high energy zones and non-demanding tasks (or better yet, recovery periods) at your energy black holes

Here’s the sweet part. You can take advantage of tasks that are not cognitively demanding by batching them at your energy black holes. Better yet, you can schedule naps at this point so you’ll wake up having more energy for your “high energy zones,” allowing you to work on hard tasks with better mental clarity. (But don’t do it past 3pm to avoid sleep problems.)

In your case, if you’re, say, trying to learn for midterms, then you could choose to do extra revisions at these energy black holes, or do some reading for the easy subjects on a PDF in your smartphone while lying down. These tasks, while important, don’t require much cognitively, thus making them good candidates for your energy black holes.

But, if you only have cognitively demanding tasks, then you’re better off resting at these periods. I doubt that we’ll ever have that fantasy life of exclusively having cognitively demanding tasks, though :)

As a final note, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to match your energy every single day. Sometimes you’ll wake up later than expected. But that’s okay.

Okay, but I really don’t have control over my schedule, do I? Which means there’s no hope to become productive.

Again, the goal isn’t to have a perfect schedule. The goal is to strategically use energy matching whenever possible. That means not worrying about it when you can’t, and taking advantage of it when you can.

So I’m not telling you to exclusively follow an energy-matched schedule every single day. I only want you to take advantage of these moments whenever you have the chance because it’s an untapped opportunity that’s easy to implement.

Lastly, this does not mean that you “should not” do cognitively demanding work during low-energy periods. You certainly can, but if given the chance that your schedule is totally up to you, then energy matching should be a no-brainer.

Now, if you find yourself constantly judging yourself based on unrealistic standards of productivity, then let me give you a piece of advice, just in case.

Stop watching productivity videos. They make you miserable in three ways:

  1. They give you a delusional world of 100% productivity when it’s not possible all of the time.

You don’t need the perfect physical or mental conditions every time to be “productive.” And that’s not unproductive at all; it only means that we’re not at peak condition.

Summary: To concentrate better, match energy supply with task demand

When your ability to concentrate is subpar, it’s difficult to learn new information. One of the problems that stand between you and concentration is energy mismatch, i.e. when you do cognitively demanding tasks at times when you’re naturally lethargic, you take longer than usual because it’s harder to concentrate at that point.

On the other hand, when you do a cognitively demanding at times when you’re energetic, you’re able to concentrate better on the task and are also likely to finish it faster. Also, when you do an easy job — or better yet, when you fully rest — when you’re lethargic, you’re making the most out of the times when you’re otherwise performing at your poorest. I called this Energy Matching, and it’s done in three steps:

  1. Do the cognitive demand test for your recurring tasks

You don’t need to follow these steps if you don’t have complete control over your schedule, but it serves as a guideline to help you make the most out of the time when you do have control over it. (On weekends, for instance.) If your schedule only allows you to do demanding tasks at your low-energy zones, then screw that. But I doubt this is true all of the time.

Wait — what are we doing this for again?

We’re doing this to free up your attention so you can devote its full capacity to processing raw information.

At this point, it should be obvious that focusing on two different things at once — except for things that don’t require thinking, like ‘making instant coffee’ — is equivalent to talking to two people at once. It’s hard to understand a thing any one person is saying, let alone remember them.

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Disputant

Dissident Hindu. Medical Student. Calisthenics Advocate. Knowledge Management Enthusiast.