Using Energy Levels as Contexts

Most of the time my work doesn’t feel like “work” at all. But I know that it is because there are times when it definitely does. Like the times when I have to write when I don’t feel like writing. But those moments come few and far between.

Still, there are things I have in my task manager that require more energy than others, and since locations are really not all that crucial to me considering I work and live at home, I tend to use energy levels as indicators when it comes to next actions and projects.

This isn’t a new concept — Sven Fechner over at SimplictyBliss discussed this as a key point in his talk at The OmniFocus Setup. But since OmniFocus doesn’t handle multiple contexts, I have started to use energy levels in the app as my the main contexts for my tasks and projects.1

The question as to what contexts get assigned to what tasks is, as a result, dependent on how much energy I’ll need to complete them. That kind of judgement requires some real honesty on my part. If I’m not honest with myself about what level of energy a task will take to complete, I’m likely to give it too much (or too little) weight. There’s nothing worse than to give more things a “high energy” context even when I know they don’t all deserve that context.

The projects often inform the context I’ll be using when it comes to energy levels as well. For example, home-based projects require a different judgement regarding energy levels than work-based ones. If I feel more motivated to get outside and do some household maintenance, then I’d be looking at the high energy contexts for any projects that revolve around that project. If I’m feeling sick, then I’d be exploring all of my low energy tasks, regardless of project so that I at least make some form of progress.

Let’s explore my “energy contexts” and what tasks often fall into each one.

Low Energy

Things like doing the dishes, scanning receipts, and reading are generally low energy tasks. Even when I don’t feel like doing the dishes, I’m not going to assign it a higher level of energy than “low” because I know that once I’m doing them the energy I’m expending is fairly low on the scale. Emails can (and do) fall into this context as well — as do phone calls — but not always. If I’m having to deal with a fairly invloved response of some sort, it might require more energy to deal with. That’s why I don’t have a task called “Read email” in my task manager. First off, reading email in that sense is more of a project anyway, and not every email I receive contains an action item.

It’s interesting to note that by doing enough of these types of tasks I can often gear up to the next level of energy. It’s almost as if these are “first gear tasks” and that they give my productivity engine the break it needs from time to time.

Other tasks that often get assigned this context include: Updating beer cellar in Evernote, doing laundry, and catching up on podcasts.

Normal Energy

I used to call this Medium Energy, but found that too many tasks were landing in the context simply because of a bad naming convention. By using “normal” instead, I’m gearing closer to the low end of the scale rather than the high end — which is what I really need in order to clearly look at the tasks in the next context level.

Still, a lot of tasks do wind up here — mainly communication-based ones or higher-end household chores (mowing the lawn, weeding, cooking, etc.) because they require that much more energy to do efficiently and effectively. I decided to go with “normal” rather than “average” because I felt that the latter devalued the tasks more.

Other tasks that often get assigned this context include: Editing the Mikes on Mics podcast, writing smaller blog posts, conducting my Weekly Review, and most general housecleaning.

High Energy

As expected, this is where the tough stuff lies. The big writing, the big planning, the big tasks that require a ton of focus and, obviously, a lot of energy to complete properly. The trick with this context is being really selective about what goes in here — just as I do with the low energy context — so that I don’t give The Resistance a chance to rear its ugly head more than it already does.

I’m also likely to tackle these tasks only on heavy-lifting days — I reserve my light-lifting days for tasks that live in the other two contexts.

Other tasks that often get assigned this context include: Working on a book/book proposal, writing guest posts/longer blog posts, and major household maintenance.

As I mentioned earlier, location doesn’t mean a ton to me in terms of task management — and I use location-based context for errands. In fact, errands are the only tasks that get contexts that fall outside of the energy level contexts at this point.

These energy-based contexts have served me well over the past few months — and as I’m ramping up to work on some bigger projects and challenges I have no doubt that they’ll become even more valuable to me in the future. If you find that your productivity is stalling — or become stagnant — you might want to give energy-based contexts a try and see if they’ll give your efficiency and effectiveness a much-needed boost.

1 Other task management solutions do offer mutliple contexts — or tags — and I’d suggest pairing up energy levels along with any other contexts you are permitted to use in your application of choice. OmniFocus does allow for Perspectives to be created, which can be used alongside energy levels as well — but I’m not going to dive into that this time around.