Measuring your energy levels

Status: Done
Confidence: Possible

I recently ran a brief experiment on myself back in 2012. After becoming ornery about not having enough energy in the late afternoon, I finally decided to measure my energy level throughout the day. I formulated the simplest experiment that I thought would give me adequate data: once an hour writing down L, M, or H (for low, medium, or high) to indicate my energy level. If it were more than once an hour, then when I inevitably forgot for two or even three hours, it would be hard to remember roughly what my energy level was. Similarly, I wouldn’t be able to accurately record anything more precise than a three level measurement when I forgot.

I did it on a little pocket notebook part of the time, and in a text file the rest of the time. I started in the early afternoon the day I thought it up, missed a couple hours on one day, and then ended the experiment after four days since the results were so clear. I could have run it a few days more, but more data wouldn’t have enabled me to make better decisions.

I encourage you to repeat my experiment with yourself. I’ll explain what I did with the data below to give you an idea of what you might try. My own energy levels have shifted around a bit, and my schedule as well, especially since having children (whose schedules trump mine). I get up between 6AM and 7AM now, and my energy levels are shifted earlier, too. A lot of this is driven by habit (including habitual circadian rhythms), diet (especially when and how much you eat of different things), and chemical use (caffeine, theobromine, alcohol, etc.). This technique is more about adapting your day to your current set of habits than finding anything biologically intrinsic.

To start with, here is the raw data. The columns begin when I woke up in the morning, and end when I went to bed at night, except for Wednesday afternoon when I began the experiment.

Hour Wed Thurs Fri Sat Average
8 M M M
9 M M M
10 H H H H
11 H H H H
12 H H M H
13 M H M M M
14 M M M M M
15 M L M M M
16 M L L M M/L
17 L L L L L
18 L M M L M/L
19 M M M M M
20 H M H M M/H
21 H M H H H
22 M H H H
23 H M M/H
24 M M

The first thing to note is how regular it is. My energy levels have a regular pattern that varies by at most an hour or so per day. What does that tell me about how I should organize my time?

It would be a shame to ignore the structure and improvise my day as I go, as I would have to if the variation were two or three hours, as long or longer than the periods of high or low energy themselves. However, a rigidly defined schedule won’t work for me, since there is still variation by up to an hour. It would be wonderful for someone with variation of less than half an hour.

What I can do is make a rough flow of events, and their rough length. Society suggests just such a flow to us: have breakfast when you get up, work until midday, have lunch, work until five, go home and do what must be done to keep your life imploding until dinner, then be with your family until it’s time to sleep. Dinner varies with your background. For many Americans it falls at 17h00 or 18h00. For me it has always been around 20h00. For a Spaniard, it would be closer to 22h00.

Compare this with my energy levels:

Hour Ave rage energy Soci etal event
8 M br eakfast
9 M st art work
10 H
11 H
12 H l unch
13 M
14 M
15 M
16 M/L
17 L e nd work
18 M/L maintain life
19 M
20 M/H dinner
21 H
22 H
23 M/H
24 M

If I did this, I would be starting work before my energy really rose for the day. I would stop working in the middle of my highest energy period of the day and have lunch. Then I work through my medium and low energy period, and have to take care of everything else in my life when my energy is at its lowest in the day. Then, when my energy is finally coming back, I sit down to dinner and relax for the night. This is almost the worst possible arrangement of events for me.

Instead, I’m going to make a few observations and build my own sequence of events. First, those two periods of high energy are sacrosanct. Any sequence of events must put my work into those slots. Fortunately, as long as I make an appearance somewhere in the work day at my day job, no one much cares exactly what hours I work.

I want to take half an hour before to start work and get my mind in the right place before my energy peaks so as not to waste any of it. I also want half an hour to an hour after the peak to the results in order and plan the work for the next period of high energy. So in the morning 9h30–10h00 is a warmup, 10h00–13h00 is work, and 13h00–13h30 or 14h00 is cleaning up and planning the next session. Looking over this, I also know that I’m going to need a light meal, something with plenty of protein and fruit and vegetables—tuna salad and carrots and an apple, perhaps—about 11h30, to be eaten while I work. Similarly, at night 20h00-20h30 is warmup, 20h30–22h30 is work, with a light meal about 22h00, and 22h30–23h00 or 23h30 is putting my work in order for the next session.

Those low hours from 16h00 to 18h00 are the bane of my existence. I hate them, and I’m going to deal with them before I do anything else. I’m going to sleep through them. 16h00–18h00 is hereby my siesta.

Those are the points that I feel really strongly about. Now for the essentials: sleep, food, and exercise. I like to eat my breakfast calmly, but I don’t feel like doing much in the morning before that first big peak of energy, so waking up at 8h00 will work fine for me. I need time to wind down before I can go to sleep at night, so after my last work period I’m going to get ready for bed and go to sleep. It may look like I’ve schedule ten hours of sleep a day, but I’m something of an insomniac. If I find I’m getting more sleep than my body wants, I’ll just get up earlier and do a little reading in the morning.

I’ve already scheduled two light meals during my peak energy times, to be eaten as I work. Knowing my metabolism, I need another light meal, and two full meals. The light meal is to get me through until dinner. I’ll have it at the start of my siesta. The two full meals are breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is before 9h30, probably whenever I get up, and it needs to be rather more than a bowl of cereal. Dinner needs to be done before my evening energy peak, so I’ll say that it happens between 18h30 and 19h30.

Finally, exercise. I need to have at least a medium energy level, and I must not have eaten heavily in the last hour or so. The obvious time is about 14h00, and I don’t need hours. I can have myself to collapse in about twenty minutes if I want. That still leaves nice hunks of time in the mid to late afternoon for dealing with the miscellanea of my life and spending time with people.

In summary, here was my proposed rough order of events for my day:

Hour Eve nt
8 br eakfast
10 f irst work period
11 l ight meal
13 e nd first work period
14 e xercise
15 m iscellanea
16 l ight meal, siesta
18 e nd siesta
19 d inner
20 s econd work period
22 l ight meal
23 e nd second work period

There, a sequence of events that is utterly abnormal in our society, but which was calculated to fit me at the time. Today’s is very different.

Also: realistically allocate your time
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