“I manage my time just fine. I get in at 9 in the morning and then leave at 11 at night, while Joe gets in at the same time and leaves by 5. It’s not fair. I deserve a raise.” A research assistant of mine was rationalizing why he should get a raise as a product of his committed time. I declined his request for a raise, because he couldn’t justify why he still produced the same level of work as his co-worker. I told him it wasn’t a question of managing his time, but managing his focus [or mental energy]. I suggested that he design his experiments on one day, then perform the experiments on the following day. His long exhausting work days were leading to more mistakes, and costing us more resources.

I’m not opposed to giving people raises, nor opposed to giving credit where do. However, the problem isn’t necessarily with time management. Its people’s perspective of time, and what it represents. The age old mantra, “time is money” has been business management’s calling card for decades. However, “time is energy” should be the new mantra for the business of knowledge. Especially, when it comes to mental energy (focus).

Our current ideology of time management developed during the Industrial Revolution, which gave birth to the 40 hour work week. In this concept, time is analogous to that of a gaseous material. It’ll expand to the any volume that you place it in. Therefore, in order to “manage” time, we would need to establish time as the metric goal based on predictable project outcomes.

Now it’s one thing to think about time as far as systems and processes go. However, time is only useful to view when you understand the predictability of the process and the known results. That doesn’t necessarily work for today’s knowledge work environment. This is even more evident in the world of independent research and science, where results are most often unpredictable. Therefore, understanding project-based management and personal energy management is a better way of looking at “time management”.

When we think about management as a project based goals like; publish a manuscript, secure a funding award, hire a new technician, we begin by identifying what are the actionable steps relating to “time”. It forces us to think about the project in the span of the allotted time points. However, in knowledge work, time can become dependent on our available resources. We usually assume its money. One resource which is often overlooked is mental energy (or focus).

Your mental energy matters significantly, because knowledge work requires deep concentration and creativity. Many young research scientists struggle with time management, not only as a product of time, but that of mental energy. The cognitive load that one experiences can be tremendous, especially when it comes to intellectual focus and decision making. This is a critical resource that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The results can be catastrophic when we’re deciding whether to invest our time into completing a manuscript or completing another assay. Therefore, we need to make room to reserve our most critical thinking during times where we’re most refreshed and focused.

If we’re not completely mindful of our energy levels, we can stand to lose a lot more than time. The mental focus and effort toward our work and tasks depletes over time. Therefore, adding multiple projects, tasks, and especially multitasking (task switching; going from task to task, over and over again) will yield very little returns on the invested time and energy. This ultimately leads towards mental blocks, lackluster innovative thoughts, and even mistakes which could be easily avoided if we manage our energy levels.

The 40 hour work week was born out of the industrial revolution, and many of its outdated practices still haunt us today. While, we start to move towards a knowledge work based society, we constantly must push toward new ways of looking are our work environment. It starts by asking ourselves, what values are we creating within that environment? So, in order to meet the new demands of managing our “time”, it requires us to use new solutions that fit and are adjusted to our current biology and resources. It might do us good to look at how mother nature has managed time (ie. circadian rhythm.)

So the next time you talk about managing your time, think about managing your energy levels within that time period. You’ll find a greater yield in productivity, which can lead to more valuable and novel discoveries.

When do you feel the most focused and productive? I often find that I’m most productive around 9 to 11 mid-morning, and again at 6 to 8 at night. That’s when I try to do the most important & mentally draining tasks of the day.

Share with us how you manage your “time”… I mean, energy!