At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy, and Priorities Working in Your Favor

By: Carey Nieuwhof 
Published:  Sept 14, 2021, First edition
ISBN: 978-0735291362
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have


Why Should You Read This?


Early in At Your Best, the author Carey Nieuwhof says the main reason people are interested in time management is not about time but about dealing with stress. Specifically, the overwhelm you feel from not having enough time to do all the things you feel you need to do.


This pressure comes from social media and self-improvement gurus. Both promote the idea that if you do it right, you can have it all. You just need to find the right tools and the right systems.


The problem is many of those methods were designed for a time with different challenges. For most of history, we were short on resources, opportunities, and had few choices. So, the standard approach of focusing on prioritization, scheduling things in, and knocking out your task list worked for the most part.


Unfortunately, that isn’t enough. For the most part, our stress comes from having too much rather than having too little. Examples include:


  • too many demands
  • too many opportunities
  • too much information
  • too many distractions
  • too many choices
  • too many people vying for our attention
  • too much stuff on the calendar
  • too much thinking that independence is about doing it without help


When you face the constraint of 24 hours in a day, part of you says you can’t do it all. And that voice is right.


There are many things you can do, but that doesn’t mean you should do everything.


Nieuwhof says how we treat and view time is fundamentally the problem.


Specifically, there are 2 misconceptions:

  • Time isn’t what gets work done. What gets work done is your energy. Consider if you could get 10 uninterruptable hours, but the price was you were exhausted during that period. Would you make much progress? At best, you move the needle, but the quality isn’t going to be great. At worst, nothing happens, and the work is crappy. Yet, folks do this all the time. They value time over energy when energy is the currency for progress.
  • Related to the above, not all hours or tasks are equal. How you operate at 2 am is not going to be the same as at 2 pm. Chances are you are more productive at some hours than you are at others. The same can be said of tasks. For things you find enjoyable, you can spend hours without a break. But then, there are tasks where spending 15 minutes will seem like an eternity in the desert.

The point is none of the traditional time management techniques consider any of the above. Instead, they assume energy is infinite, and task difficulty is irrelevant. You just need to figure out how to put X tasks into Y hours.


The problem is when you adopt such thinking, you just increase the risk of burnout.


In At Your Best, Nieuwhof argues that the solution is to create Thrive Cycles – a framework that aligns the activities best suited for your daily energy highs and lows. With this approach, you make the most progress since you do your best work when you are at your peak.


Below are 4 takeaways that illustrate Nieuwhof’s answer to doing your best.

Takeaway 1: You Have More Things to Spend on Than Your Budget Allows


As mentioned earlier, modern stress comes from having more to do than time and energy allow. As Nieuwhof writes:

… I was so consumed by the requests coming at me, so distracted by the infinite sea of information that’s available to anyone online, and so rattled by regular interruptions that I squandered the day. My time scattered in a million directions. I was so unfocused. I kept falling into the trap we all fall into: spending the most time on what matters least, and the least time on what matters most. I never intended to do that; it’s just that’s almost always what happens.


If the above sounds familiar, things get worse if you are competent. He adds:


… the opportunities available to a capable person always exceed the time available.

To illustrate the above, Nieuwhof says consider the following:


  • If your organization grows 10x, you won’t get an extra hour to handle more stress
  • If you double the size of your family, you aren’t going to get an eighth day
  • If you become CEO of a Fortune 50 firm, you aren’t going to get a minute more to deal with the pressure


So, what’s the solution?


First, acknowledge you can’t do everything. This may be unsettling for those who suffer from the fear of missing out (FOMO) or the fear of better options (FOBO), but the reality is the universe offers more than you have time or energy to consume.


Second, recognize that you have a limited capacity or budget for doing productive work. Nieuwhof discovered this critical insight when he examined how top performers operate. He noted that, like everyone, they have the same number of hours. But what differentiated them from the masses is they recognized that having a 100 item to-do list doesn’t help if you only have the energy to get 10 things done that day.


Nieuwhof claims most people have at most 3-5 hours of top productivity available in them per day. Top performers understand and accept this constraint. So for them, they figure out when those hours are and prioritize spending them on critical tasks.


By comparison, the rest of us make 2 mistakes. First, we are reactive. We fit what we can when we can, like Tetris blocks, regardless of our energy level and task importance. The outcome is sometimes we get it right, but a lot of times we get it wrong. For example, just because you don’t have any meetings from 3-5 pm doesn’t mean it’s prime time to do deep thinking. Your intellectual firepower during that window may be no greater than a potato.


Second, we act as if we have limitless energy, and we have 16 hours to play with (assuming you sleep for 8). But as Nieuwhof says, only 3-5 of those 16 hours are peak. And those numbers are closer to your maximum than average. In other words, on any given day, your best maybe 1-2 hours at most.


Why? Because bad things happen to good people. Things don’t always go the way you expect them. In other words, just like running Apps on your smartphone, you may find some of your tasks are sucking out more energy than you expected.


So, treat your 3-5 productive hours as your maximum daily energy budget. You don’t want to squander them on non-critical tasks because once spent, they don’t come back. And as will be discussed in Takeaway 2, like cash, these productive hours can get “stolen” if you don’t protect them.


So, Takeaway 1 is you have more things to do than time (or energy) available, so you need to be selective on what activities you want to focus on.


Takeaway 2: What You Don’t Protect Is Open for Others to Exploit


Before going into details of setting up Nieuwhof’s time (energy) management system, it’s essential to recognize that even if you identify and create your energy budget, what you have is just the setup for your best work. If you’re not careful protecting it, this resource can get hijacked.


As Nieuwhof writes,


“Your priorities get hijacked in three significant ways: by tasks you didn’t prioritize strategically, by your own tendency to get distracted (I am so guilty of this), and of course, by people. “


The first two are under your control. It’s the third element that is notoriously tricky and problematic.


Consider the following scenario:


You’re at a business meeting, and it’s winding down. You stare at your calendar and notice you have a rare block of free time on Saturday morning. You have some commitments, but they aren’t until later in the day. Mentally, you think, “Hey, I can finally work on my earth-shattering side project.”


Then, one of your business buddies comes by and says, “Say, what you are doing next Saturday morning?”


If you answered, “Uh, nothing.” You may experience a brief, “Nooooo! I can’t believe I just said that.” ‘Cause you know the follow-up response from your coworker will be something along the lines of “Great, do you want to do …..”


And the next thing you know is those 3 beautiful hours you had for yourself, well, they just went to your buddy…


The moral of the story is those empty spots on a calendar represent fake freedom. Unless you claim them, those open spots are signs to the universe you’re available and that’s technically true. You left that door open to your coworker, who can now take that time from you.


Of course, you can slam the door in their face by constantly saying “No,” but most of us either feel guilty or aren’t that fast-thinking in lying. Of course, you could agree and then apologize later to say, “I forgot about an appointment I had.” This gives you back the time but do this often enough and you seem flaky.


We fall into the above trap because we think we own our time until we don’t.  Consider if you had penciled in the time on Saturday. This action gives you a couple of benefits. First, you’re committing yourself, and that is a signal that this event matters. Second, you don’t have to expend mental/emotional energy to lie since the time is spoken for. Finally, since you’re protecting that time from being stolen, you avoid the regret and bitterness of having it taken from you.


That isn’t to say you can’t be opportunistic.  Consider, you could say to your coworker, “I’m booked, but what’s up?” And then, hearing what their request is, you can choose whether to stick to your schedule or adapt. But the point is you are in control and can decide what’s best.


In a corporate setting, if meetings are taking up your calendar, that’s because you are letting the world know your priorities are with others.  Nieuwhof makes the case that a significant time sink is when people want to use your time and energy to push their agendas, NOT yours.


He doesn’t state the above as a negative commentary on society, but recognizes that everyone, including you, focuses on getting the things done that are urgent and important for them. It’s rare for them to make progress on your priorities unless it aides them. And ultimately, it’s you who decides to deprioritize what you’re working on for them.


Consider if you don’t block off time to do what’s essential for you, then you’re not valuing your time. If you find listing yourself as unavailable on the calendar to be an anathema, then think of it as having a meeting but with yourself to get stuff done.


Takeaway 2 points out that an open calendar is a standing invitation to the rest of the world that you’re available to do their bidding unless you claim and own it.


Takeaway 3: Key to Success is Creating a Thrive Cycle


So, if you limit what you work on and protect your calendar, you can now leverage your energy to make record progress on the things that matter. Again, Nieuwhof states this differentiates top performers apart from everyone else.  He writes:


“Most people concentrate on managing their time but never think about managing their energy. But leveraging your energy is where you start to see exponential results. When you leverage your energy, you’ll realize you’re capable of producing not just more work but much better than you thought possible.”


The key is creating a Thrive Cycle, a framework for doing what you’re best at when you’re at your best.  This cycle attempts to focus your time:

  • By recognizing you have time to do anything you want, but you can’t do everything.
  • By acknowledging you have a limited number of highly productive hours, where you will produce better results than any other time.
  • By calling your most productive 3-5 hours your Green Zone and focusing on identifying, protecting, and prioritizing these times.

Using the Thrive Cycle, Nieuwhof claims you can do more in those peak 3 hours than you would in 10.


To find your Green Zone, monitor your energy peaks and valleys throughout the day. The Green Zone is your peaks. Once you find them, block them off from interruptions on your calendar and schedule your Green Zone activities in those time slots.


So, what are these activities? Nieuwhof says the best Green Zone candidates are tasks at the intersection of what you are passionate about, what you are skilled at, and what has the most impact. His rationale is when you are at your best, you should be doing the activities that energize you to get more done for the same effort.


So, what about the rest of your time?  For that, Nieuwhof says you have the Yellow and Red Zones.


The Yellow Zone is where your energy levels are moderate. You’re not at your best or your worst. These times are best suited for doing moderately important tasks. These are activities that don’t require you to be at your “A” game, but “B” or “C” level performance is good enough.


He did note that some folks may not have Green Zones because of their life situations. For example, due to illness or taking care of others, they may not be at their best in terms of energy levels, in which case Yellow is the best you can do.


The last one is the Red Zone, and these are your energy valleys.  And they are unavoidable.  For every rise, there is a fall.  But unlike the other 2, Red is not just about what activities to do but what tasks to avoid. For example, as your thinking and clarity are at their lowest, do not do anything critical during these periods, such as making any crucial decisions.  Hence, tasks best suited to this zone are ones where the repercussions of mistakes are not significant. Routine activities are good candidates.


Takeaway 3 states to make progress on your goals, harness your energy levels at their peaks, and apply them to your most energizing tasks. This creates a virtuous cycle since you can make substantial progress by using your energy efficiently.


Takeaway 4: Your Thrive Calendar is Your Sword and Shield


Vital to the Thrive Cycle is your Thrive Calendar, where everything comes together. Once you know your Green, Yellow, and Red Zones and have identified the corresponding work activities, block off your calendar accordingly. When you do this, the calendar acts as your sword for hacking your way to progress and your shield against attacks on your time, defending your weak points.


Nieuwhof suggests considering 4 elements when setting up your calendar:

  1. Decide what you will and won’t do within each zone; this is so you are aware of your energy burn rate.
  2. Decide whom you will and won’t meet with; again, some folks are energizing while others are draining, so you want to be mindful of who you spend time with.
  3. Decide when you’ll do specific tasks within each zone; don’t waste productive energy on non-critical tasks.
  4. Decide where you’ll do your work, especially your Green Zone; you don’t want to squander your peak hours in a bad environment


All of the above is to protect your energy levels, so you are at your best when you need to be.


Takeaway 4 is using your calendar strategically to ensure you are leveraging your strengths on your priorities.


Cons: Gaps and Issues


In terms of gaps, the book doesn’t go into how to recover your energy. Topics such as the importance of sleep, diet, exercise, and hydration are not covered. But those are more nice-to-haves and are the main topics of other books.  My speculation is Nieuwhof’s view is if you scale back, focus on the things that matter, and use your energies effectively, then you shouldn’t have to do anything extra to recover.


Regarding issues, I enjoyed this book very much and found very little to be lacking. If I were to complain, it would be that Nieuwhof’s definition of Green Zone activities might be hard to fulfill in reality. He states that it’s the intersection of what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and what makes the most impact. These are all crucial attributes, but it may be challenging to hit all 3.


For example, Nieuwhof warns that you shouldn’t use your Green Zones for tasks you dislike. But that may not be feasible. There will always be critical uncomfortable actions that you can’t postpone or delegate, then you have no choice but to do them in your Green Zone.  You could argue that Yellow is another possibility, but Green creates a better product if these tasks are essential.


As such, my Green Zone may be shorter since the work may not be as energizing as in Nieuwhof’s case.

Generally, if I enjoy something or am good at it, the barrier to doing it is not very high.  Hence, my fight is with impactful but not enjoyable tasks, or in the case of deliberate practice, areas where my skills are still in progress and I’m struggling. Hence, my Green Zone activities focus more on impact than the other 2 areas.


So, what this means is when I do demanding activities in my Green Zone, I recognize that I will be in Yellow and Red (or maybe just Red) right after. This means I can’t have an ambitious schedule for that day. I just need to plan accordingly.


Summary and Recommendation


In summary, Carey Nieuwhof’s view of time management centers on how you leverage your energy to get things done and is illustrated in the 4 takeaways below:


Takeaway 1: Recognize that there are more things to do than your available energy so choose your activities wisely.


Takeaway 2: Claim open spots on the calendar before someone takes them from you.


Takeaway 3: Create a Thrive Cycle to harness your energy levels at their peaks and apply them to your most energizing tasks, so you get more done for the same amount of time.


Takeaway 4: Use your calendar strategically to leverage your strengths to protect your priorities.


Overall, I recommend At Your Best as a Get It. Compared to most time management books, the Thrive Cycle and Calendar offer more realistic and practical solutions to how you should juggle your priorities. As he states, the primary challenge is we will always have more to do than our energy levels allow. Having too many tasks or spending your peak moments on non-critical things increases your stress and burnout risks. Instead, follow what top performers do by doing your best work when you’re feeling your best.

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