The Battery

I keep coming back to what it means to recharge. The metaphor that has been working most for me lately is the idea of a battery.

In the green, I have plenty of charge. Everything is possible.

In the orange is the ideal place for “active rest”. But if that’s not an option, I can keep going.

In the red, everything is a struggle. I am in the human version of “low power mode”. Service is diminished, and I need to be on the charger, or I will keep cutting out.

Trying to recharge, I operate from three lists:

  • Adventures and real breaks. These happen infrequently.
  • Planned recharging activities, like a date night, seeing a friend or spa trip. These happen a couple of times a week (mostly).
  • Unplanned low effort activities. Picking up a novel from a backlog (note: no decisions), giving myself a facial, watching an episode of something with my partner. These happen most days.

Of course there are also the things I do when I don’t make an active decision to recharge. Mindless doomscrolling or playing a game.

It takes energy to plan, so things that require planning need to be arranged in the orange (or green). The low effort no planning activities are actually the most crucial. Decisions take energy, so making those activities as easy as possible is critical.

Decisions increase the activation energy of a activity. I.e. reading might be recharging, but trying to choose a next book is not (for me). In the red, there is no activation energy.

Some activities also require significant activation energy. For example, generally, I find writing a recharging activity. But it has a relatively high activation energy. I need to sit at my desk, open up the editor, come up with some kind of idea. The best thing I did for my writing was to reduce the activation energy – I bought an iPad Pro with the fancy keyboard, and I keep it on the sofa, to pick up and write something (anything) when I might not muster the drive (activation energy) to make it to my desk. I drop random ideas into a notes app sync’d across all of my devices, so that at any time I can just go through and see if there’s some idea to flesh out, so I don’t have to think of one.

The other side of recharging is: what drains you? There was a lot of talk early in the pandemic about how much time and energy people freed up by not commuting, and how they were happier and more effective as a result. I never got the boost of losing a commute, and in this timeline, I feel like I drain more quickly and recharge more slowly. Paying attention to why has been illuminating.

  • Having set times and needing to make phone calls made the activation energy of working out much higher and the quality lower. I leant into Peloton classes instead.
  • Heavy meeting days are exhausting, and it’s easy to think it’s just “zoom fatigue”. The battery metaphor helped me understand that “only” 6-7 hours in length on Zoom used 10-12 hours of energy. I realized that beyond the time on Zoom it was the context switching and lack of breaks. I reorganized my calendar as much as I could, and reframed my expectations for myself to make those days less depleting.
  • People management is more draining when people are stressed / unhappy, which in this timeline was more regular an occurrence. I gave myself more space to manage that, and looked for ways to expand my toolbox.

One of the core things I’ve taken from this exercise is that when something feels “disproportionately” draining, that’s not automatically me failing at something, but an opportunity to learn something about myself. Getting curious about why helps me understand things more fully – which makes it easier to address them. I’m hardly alone in finding some things oddly exhausting, and it’s always fascinating to see what other people find draining. One question I like to ask is, “if you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?” – the answer illuminates what for them is particularly hard, which is useful to know even if there’s little to do about it.

The biggest change for me, however has been to accept being at zero. It sucks to be at zero, but fighting and judging it doesn’t change it – actually it makes it worse, because fighting and judging are exhausting activities. Only once I can let myself be at zero without judgement do I begin to recharge.

If you want to start analyzing your battery, a some things to try:

  • Every day for a week (or a month!), reflect on what was most draining, and what was most rewarding. At the end of the period review, and see what patterns emerge.
  • Make a list of low activation energy activities that recharge you. See if there are things you can do to reduce the activation energy of them – e.g. identifying things to read or watch to reduce decision making, or buying supplies for crafting or facials or whatever is your jam.
  • Make a list of planned activities and see how you can make them more regular occurrences. Schedule standing dates with your friends or partner, or set aside time to book advance tickets or appointments for things you know you’ll enjoy.
  • Think about how you can reduce the activation energy of things that you know you enjoy but sometimes struggle to start.
  • Pay attention to where you are at when you finish your work day each day. If you finish in the red every day, your rest time is likely to be lower quality. What would finishing in the orange 1-2 days a week give you, and how could you make that happen?

One big difference is for people who enjoy planning, it can be a recharging activity that is self re-enforcing when what is being planned are recharging activities. For people who aren’t planners (it me) planning may be a chore to accept in pursuit of an overall happier life.

What is personally recharging or draining to you will be different, but the first step is identifying what that is and deciding what – if anything – you want to do about it.