Karl Hughes
Maximizing for Energy

Maximizing for Energy

When left my full-time job last year, I started thinking about the lifestyle I wanted to build around my business. While I enjoy having structure in my workday, I no longer had to accept the 8-6 workday that startups typically abide by. I could build my working hours around my family, my clients, my preferences, or anything I wanted.

As I’ve internalized this, I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m maximizing life for. My friend Ben Wilhelm asked me about this on his podcast a few months ago, and in this post, I’d like to build out that answer. You don’t get many years on this planet, so you have to know what you’re trying to get out of your short trip here.

I’m maximizing for energy, and in this post, I’ll explain what that means.

What is Maximization?

Once your baseline needs are secured, how do you spend your time? If given a choice between a job that paid more or one that gave you a shorter commute, which would you choose? Do you prefer to take on projects like those you’ve previously completed or those that will push you outside your comfort zone?

Most high-achieving people are trying to maximize for something; that is, they want to get as much of something as they can. Everyone picks a different “something,” but common maxima include:

  • Financial wealth
  • Status
  • Hours worked
  • Personal improvement
  • Knowledge
  • Family or leisure time
  • Energy

I want to stress that none of these is the “right” answer because everyone is different.

Most people float between two or three of these throughout their lives, and that’s fine. After floating between a few of these over the past decade, I’ve come to realize that energy is my preferred maximum.

What is Maximizing for Energy?

How to Fail at Almost Everything book

I never knew what to call this feeling until reading How to Fail at Almost Everything, but I like Scott Adams’ definition of personal energy:

When I talk about increasing your personal energy, I don’t mean the frenetic, caffeine-fueled, bounce-off-the-walls type of energy. I’m talking about a calm, focused energy. To others it will simply appear that you are in a good mood. And you will be.” - Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

I am naturally a positive person, but I’ve found that certain habits result in my having more energy over the course of a day or week. As I continue to figure out what these habits are, I’ve made it my goal to build a lifestyle business that allows me to exercise practices that maximize my energy while minimizing my energy blockers that get in the way.

I’ve found that once I center my life around energy, most of the other things fall into place. With enough energy, I can fight through the tough parts of running a small business, maintaining good relationships, and managing my own psychology.

Again, all of this is very personal. It’s not meant to be a universal guide to living a happier life. I genuinely believe everyone is different, but reading about what works for other people might give you some new ideas to try.

Energy Builders

I find energy in balance. Too much of anything will drain me, so I try to get some of each of these things every day:

1. Sleep, Movement, and Fuel

7-8 hours of sleep, 30 minutes of exercise, and a mostly unprocessed, plant-based diet seems to work for me. When I get the wrong mix here, I can tell. Time and effort invested in your health is a great investment in your long-term success.

Diet is an important part of how I maintain my energy levels

2. Flow

“To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.” - Cal Newport, Deep Work

I try to get 1-4 hours of flow per day. This gets harder as my team at Draft.dev grows, and I have more clients to keep up with, but I need this. Deep work is incredibly satisfying, even if it means people have to wait a few hours for me to respond to their next email.

Without this, I get anxious. I feel unaccomplished and more easily annoyed at everything. This makes vacations hard for me unless I can bring a notebook to write in.

3. Stimulating Conversation

“We don’t need more noise, more variety, or more pitches. There’s noise all around us, but it’s often the idle chatter of people hiding in plain sight, or the selfish hustle of one more person who wants something from you. Our world is long on noise and short on meaningful connections and positive leadership.” - Seth Godin, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work

While I have met some great people on social media, that’s not where we developed a true connection. I try to schedule one or two stimulating conversations every day.

4. Learning

“Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.” - Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

I’ve always learned best by doing things for myself. Experimentation is how I figure things out, so I intentionally leave my Friday afternoons free to experiment with new technology, marketing tactics, or writing ideas.

This has helped me develop a wide range of skills, and while they haven’t all been profitable, the act of learning them gives me energy.

5. Family

Growing up, my dad owned a small business and had a very flexible schedule. Some of my most distinct memories with him are when he picked me up from school, coached my basketball team, and took me to field trips.

When I started my business last year, I committed to being there for my son in the same way as he grew up.

I take him to daycare and pick him up almost every day, stay home with him on Wednesdays, and cancel meetings to keep him home when he’s sick. In the grand scheme of life, blowing a few days of work to be with my children as they grow up is an easy calculation to make.

One of the projects Joe and I worked on on my days off

Energy Drainers

On the flip side, I’ve found some habits and workplace norms tend to drain my energy faster than others. While some of these things are unavoidable or even pleasurable in small doses, I’ve found that I have more energy on a daily basis when I meter my exposure to them:

1. Interruptions

When I went out on my own, I set out to eliminate Slack from my daily life. I am in a few groups with friends, but I treat those more like social media channels: I check them a few times per week and don’t do “urgent” messages there.

“Slack is like a meeting that never ends, but because it’s done facelessly, there’s much less pressure to be properly attentive and courteous.” - Timothy Noah, Down With Slack

I only single out Slack because it’s become a workplace norm in startups, but I find the same problem with social media and email. So, I turn off all these notifications and set a few times per day to check each of these platforms. This takes power away from the apps and helps me find more focused time for flow, family, and fitness.

Slack is a huge distraction

2. The “Standard” Work Schedule

I like to work out during the middle of the day, so I usually schedule a break to work out between 11 am and 2 pm. I pick my son up from daycare at 4 pm, so I take another break between 4 pm and 7 pm for dinner and bedtime, then I do a couple of hours of work in the evening before I wind down at 9 pm.

I also like to work on Sundays because nobody else is working. I get a ton of time for flow and higher-level thinking, plus it frees me up to take Wednesdays off to do chores and watch my son. While this leads to a “typical” number of hours (around 40 per week), most employers wouldn’t be amenable to this kind of schedule.

I also don’t take typical” vacation days. For example, I usually don’t take a break on New Year’s Day or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Instead, I use those days to get more focused time in because nobody else is working. Then, I take another day off when I’d prefer it.

As more teams go remote this year, I expect non-traditional schedules like mine will be more common.

3. Video Games

I’ve always loved building simulators like Sim City, Tropico, and Roller Coaster Tycoon. I’ve gone through periods where I invested too many hours in these games because they offer the same sense of flow that programming and writing do. The problem is that they always leave me feeling empty afterward.

Sim City has always been one of my favorite video game series

I think this is because video games are so ephemeral. Nothing I do in the video game world translates into other areas of my life or helps me get a lasting sense of accomplishment. So, while I still bust out a mobile game for a few minutes now and then, I’ve tried to eliminate video games from my daily habits.

4. Drinking

I quit years ago. Our society tends to use alcohol as a social lubricant, but I’ve found that I build more meaningful connections without it. Plus, it’s not great for your health, and as someone with an addictive personality, “just one drink” was always tough. After a night out, I felt less energy and more malaise the next day.

For me, the fleeting positives don’t outweigh the negatives.

5. Sugar

Another weird thing I’ve found that messes with my energy is sugar. When I have too much, I’ve found that I don’t sleep as well, I eat worse, and I have energy swings throughout the day. Maybe there’s a physical reason for this reaction, or perhaps it’s all in my head. Either way, it’s better for me to limit my sugar intake.

6. Repetition

I’m not a detail-oriented person and I hate repetitive tasks. This is probably why I was drawn to programming early in my career, but you can’t automate everything.

Fortunately, I’ve found that some people love the predictability of doing the same thing over and over again. To help maintain my energy levels, I use my strength as an organizer to set up processes and then partner with other people to handle the repetitive execution.

What Are You Maximizing For?

While my formula for maximizing for energy works for me at this point in time, I expect it to change as my age and life circumstances do. So, I’m curious to hear from you. What are you maximizing for? What have you found works for you? How are you building your life around these goals?

Find me on email or Twitter to pick up the conversation.

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