Why is it that on some days you can bounce out of bed looking forward to the day ahead but on other days, despite sleeping well, it is so hard to get up? Why are there some things that, despite your best intentions, just don’t get done? Can you consistently do things when you need to, and do you have the energy and resources to do them when you want?

This blog post is the third in the series of the Umbrella of Life, where I explore an occupational therapy approach to managing the things you need to do and want to do each day. The first blog explored the meaning and purpose of what you do using the umbrella canopy as an analogy. The second post used the spokes of the umbrella to illustrate pleasure and satisfaction from the outcome of what you do. This post looks at the energy needed to do things – holding firm to the umbrella handle.

Exploring the dynamics of energy

There are some tasks that simply drain energy. They tend to be the things that are in the survival category; they don’t give you any particular pleasure; you do them simply because they need to be done. Other activities leave you more energised when you are finished than when you started. Some tasks take a lot of energy to get going and others are very easy to start.

On a still summer’s day, a sun umbrella is light and easily handled as you hold it at different angles throughout the day while the sun tracks across the sky. But in really wild weather, it takes a lot of effort to hold on to your umbrella; a sudden gust of wind can pull you up short and have you trying to make adjustments before the umbrella blows inside out. In driving rain, it’s sometimes hard to figure out which direction to point your umbrella. Different types of weather require different amounts of energy to hold your umbrella in control.

So we can look at occupation (the things you do that occupy your time – see the first blog for a fuller explanation) from the point of view of energy and effort – how much energy certain activities use and how much re-charge energy they give back. This is the third dimension of your occupational umbrella – the handle. You need to learn how to hold the handle so the spokes and canopy point in the right direction, to control the umbrella against a gust of wind and to make adjustments before the umbrella blows inside out. You’ll value having the right amount of energy when you want it and when you need it.

When looking at the energy of a task, it is important to conceptually understand the difference between physical energy and emotional energy. The physical energy is the effort needed to move, balance, coordinate, and think to do things. The emotional energy is the effort needed to decide what to do, to get started, to keep going, to face the challenges, and to risk not achieving the result you would like. Physical effort is easily measured – you can measure your heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen levels as an indication of muscle effort and fatigue. Physical effort can be modified by doing things differently – part of exploring the ingredients of tasks in the previous blog post. But we don’t often think about emotional energy as something that is tangible, measurable, or controllable. So let’s explore some ideas about measuring and taking control of your emotional energy levels.

Energy load and energy re-charge

Different tasks and different ways of doing things take different amounts of energy to get started and to keep going until you finish. The physical effort of starting a petrol lawn mower, checking fuel levels, adjusting the choke, pumping the fuel, and pulling the start cord (numerous times!) is very different to the effort of plugging in an electric mower or getting the hand mower out of the shed. But the effort of keeping going with a hand mower is greater than for a powered mower, and a very different type of physical effort to what is needed to operate a ride-on mower.

The emotional energy needed to get started and to keep going is not always so obvious, and sometimes tricky to separate from the physical effort. Starting to mow the lawn the day after the mower has been serviced compared to when you’ve had nothing but trouble the last couple of times is likely to be very different.

Another example is to look at the simple task of getting up in the morning. We all know there are days when getting out of bed is sooo much harder, and yet each day it’s the same physical activity. Knowing what the day ahead holds has a big influence: getting up when you are heading off to a music festival compared to having a dentist’s appointment to have your wisdom teeth removed; children getting up on Christmas morning compared to a school day; waking with pain and stiffness instead of feeling refreshed. These are all varying emotional contexts that create very different emotional loads for getting started with the same task.

Activities also give back energy – the satisfaction of success, the inherent pleasure of hobbies, the relief of knowing “it’s done”. As you keep going with an activity, you use varying amounts of physical and emotional energy; but these energies are off-set by the re-charge of satisfaction and pleasure as you are doing the task. I play the clarinet, and there’s a certain amount of effort needed to move my fingers and breathe and blow and hold my mouth in exactly the right position. But sitting in the middle of an orchestra playing a symphony is pure magic – I feel no effort at all. It gives me an enormous burst of energy and for several hours after a rehearsal (let alone a concert) I’m buzzing. Even the more mundane daily tasks can give back some energy as we do them. Having a bath or shower can itself be pleasurable as well as something that has to be done. Some people find mowing the lawn very satisfying to see the emerging results of keeping their yard in check. Baking can be energising for some people, for others it is calming, and for some people it is pure frustration and energy-sapping.

So what is it that determines the emotional energy levels of tasks for different people at different times and stages of life? If you look at the above examples of mowing the lawn and getting out of bed, you will see that it is the meaning, purpose, and expected outcome that generate the energy load and determine the emotional effort needed to get going and keep going.

In other words, it is your umbrella canopy that largely determines the emotional load, mixed with your confidence in what you are doing and how important it is for you at the time.

The amount of re-charge energy you get, both during the task and when it is finished, relates to your satisfaction and enjoyment – how well you think you are going while you are doing the task, how enjoyable the task itself is, and the satisfaction you derive from the final result. These are the results of the interactions between your umbrella spokes. The umbrella spokes largely determine the re-charge factor.

Graphing emotional energy

Your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day and the week as you do things and contemplate what you’ve done. It always takes at least some emotional energy to get started and varying amounts of energy to keep going as the energy load interacts with your pleasure and satisfaction re-charge.

You can picture your energy levels as a fluctuating, wavy line in-between two parallel horizontal lines. The horizontal lines represent the two extremes of emotional energy – too much is when thoughts and behaviour become chaotic, uncontrolled and unpredictable and too little is when life is bleak and doing anything at all is overwhelming and effortful. An example that we’ve all seen of the top line – of being over-aroused and highly emotional – is an overexcited child who has so much energy and excitement bursting out that they are unable to control what they are doing. When some people reach this level, they shut down completely and become “paralysed” by their fears and thoughts and emotions; others become very disorganised and erratic. This is the time you may act impulsively or irrationally and make decisions that you later regret.

The bottom line – representing lack of emotional energy – is the line that will be familiar to anyone who has had depression. It is the point at which it is too effortful to get started with anything, too hard to get out of bed in the morning, and the simplest task becomes overwhelming.

In between the two lines, the energy level dips when you start an activity from the effort needed to get started. At some point your energy level starts to increase as your pleasure and satisfaction kick in. For some activities this isn’t until the task is finished; for others it’s almost immediate as your pleasure re-charge overtakes the emotional load of keeping going.

When we are fit and well, our energy levels oscillate up and down but mostly stay well clear of the extremes. Daily life chugs along without consciously thinking about emotional energy. Over the course of a day, a week, a month our energy levels reach an equilibrium as we do things to recuperate, to re-energise, to calm and soothe.

healthy energy levels graph

When the graph shifts

When life becomes challenging, when we are faced with long-term health issues, when our circumstances are not what we wanted or had hoped for, the whole graph shifts downwards or the waves increase in size to look (and feel) like a rollercoaster.

extreme energy graph; roller-coaster of energy graph

This means you are constantly closer to the extremes. There’s very little gap between your current energy level and the bottom line and yet it takes energy to get started with everything. Or you are so close to the top line than any enjoyment and re-charge you get will tip you into overflow.

Taking a dose of energy

If you find yourself near the bottom line of no emotional energy, regardless of what challenges and limitations you face, getting started with doing anything becomes in itself a huge challenge. Anything that takes a large amount of energy to get started will deplete you of all energy and stop you from keeping going. This is not the time to tackle the troublesome lawn mower or to face the ever-increasing pile of paperwork.

This is when you need to find activities that take very little energy to get started and that quickly re-charge your energy levels as you do them. My friend Chris Coop, who is an occupational therapist practising in Townsville, calls these “tick activities” as this is the shape they form when you draw them on an energy graph.

tick activities; burst of energy;

Tick activities are very individualised and sometimes not what you would expect. They are activities that take no preparation (or are already set up), they rely on no-one else but yourself (and therefore are by default something you do by yourself), and that start to give an overall energy boost within five to ten minutes.

Once you discover your “tick activities”, you can deliberately use them to recharge your energy graph (your batteries); to bring you back towards the centre of the graph so you have enough energy reserves to do the things that give meaning and pleasure but which also require energy. As you become more aware of your energy levels and of how particular tasks or activities change your levels, you can adapt what you do and when you do it to have more control of your energy through the day and the week. When you are feeling low on energy, you can take an energy dose with one of your tick activities.

Hook handles on your umbrella

All my illustrations of umbrellas have hook handles to remind you that it is meaning, purpose and pleasure that hooks you into actually doing things. The handle and spokes connect directly to your umbrella canopy. You won’t suddenly find everything you do fun and enjoyable; there will always be things that simply need to be done. But by more clearly understanding why you are doing them, and making changes so that you use the least amount of energy possible for your daily grind, you will have more energy for the fun parts of your day. As you learn to hold the handle in different ways i.e. take back control of your emotional energy levels, you will find yourself being hooked into doing more of the things that bring meaning, purpose and pleasure to your day.

Where to from here?

Try graphing your own energy levels: on a scale of 1 to 10, what is your energy level now?

You can do this generically each day – at a particular time (or times) to see if any patterns emerge of very high or very low energy days. This could help you make changes in your routines and tasks in anticipation of your energy needs.

Or you could explore some tick activites:

  • Choose several activities that fit the criteria for tick activities:
    • Something that requires no preparation or you have set up “ready to go”.
    • It involves no-one else at any stage. The activity can’t rely on someone else being available, nor on it being influenced by whether someone else is willing, able or enjoying themselves at that particular time. It needs to be exclusively about you, your enjoyment and your energy levels.
    • It is something that will only take 10 minutes to complete or that you can stop after 10 minutes and still feel a level of satisfaction or acheivement.
  • Graph your energy immediately before and immediately after doing each activity. (Do the activities at different times of the day or on different days; not straight after each other).
  • Which activities give you a boost of 2 or 3 points on the scale of 1 – 10? It doesn’t matter what the starting point is; the aim is to find activities that boost your energy level consistently.

You’ll be surprised by what turns out to be a tick activity (and what isn’t). Once you discover some tick activities, you can take a 10 minute dose of energy each day.

A cautionary note: Graphing your energy levels and finding tick activities that actually work as doses of energy is often more complicated than the simple exercise above. Emotional energy is related to meaning and purpose (the umbrella canopy) as well as pleasure and satisfaction (the umbrella spokes). It sometimes takes a while to unravel the interconnections between all the umbrella parts. Remember that a life well lived, where you consistently experience pleasure and satisfaction with your day, has more context than a simple 1 – 10 scale, and should have more complexity and substance. So give yourself time to work through this, and ask for help if you get stuck. You won’t immediately start bouncing out of bed each morning. But little by little, bit by bit, you can regain your energy for everyday living.

More resources

This information is an excerpt from my book “Bit by Bit: reclaim meaning, purpose and pleasure in everyday life”. The book explains the whole umbrella concept including more detail about how to work through the process of discovering and using tick activities. It is available in paperback, ePub or Kindle versions.

The first in this series of blogs details the umbrella canopy of meaning and purpose here. Information about umbrella spokes is in this blog post. You can subscribe to my blog feed here to keep up to date with future posts.

My Starting Pack (here) is an email-based workshop that is a starting point for working with the umbrella theory. The Umbrella Stand follows on with 8 weeks of resources to help you explore all aspects of your umbrella, including exploring and working with your energy levels.

Found some resources you think would be useful? Post them in the comments section below.