We each have a limited amount of energy each day, and everything you do uses up that energy; physical, mental, or otherwise.
Your brain is burning roughly 1.5 calories every minute. And that’s without you having to think very hard.
If we are not intelligently using our limited mental energies on things that empower us to think creatively, how can we hope to cope with the challenges we face in life, our careers, or relationships?
Of course the answer is that we can’t. What’s important is not necessarily understanding the impact of our actions, but understanding which of our actions utilize our mental energies in a negative or destructive way and which actions use it in a way that leaves us empowered, stronger, or even with more energy than when we first started.
For example, I love to read. This year I have a goal of reading a minimum of one book every week. I’m off to a good start and a surprising thing has come as a result of my challenge: when I make reading a priority and make the time to get it done, I seem to be more energized and somehow have moretime for other things in my day.
This is the value of spending your time on empowering activities rather than passive or even destructive ones.
When we use our mental energy unwisely we suffer from what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” in his book Finding Flow: the wasting away of our mental abilities, to the point where we cannot use our attention to deal with tasks.
However, when we use our mental energies to accomplish some goal, or to grow ourselves, we find ourselves more energized than when we began.
You can probably relate. Think of a time when you felt effortlessly energized while writing, painting, dancing, participating in a sport, taking photographs, or having a good conversation with a friend. Each of those activities may have taken up a bit of energy from you, but because the acts challenged your talents – and therefore were rewarding as experiences – you benefited from them.
Conversely, think of a time you watched television, sat in a boring lecture, or waited around for a friend. Those moments were likely to drain your mental energies because there was no challenge and no clear reward from them.
Everything uses energy: watching TV, reading a book, learning a new language or how to code, drawing, chatting with friends, and simply sitting in quiet to think.
If you use the energy up on trivial things – like watching a tv show for the sake of “spacing out” – you have not only used up energy, but you have diminished your ability to be energized further.
In many things we do, a cognitive multiplier effect is applied. Tasks that drain us of our mental energy and also don’t give us a cognitive reward in return leave us feeling drained and unable to fully recover unless we catch our breath, through a nap, meditation, exercise, or some other, more stimulating action.
A similar, but opposite effect is experienced when we do things that we can excel at and are challenged by.
In these moments we find ourselves in a state of what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.– These are the moments where time flies by and we find ourselves so naturally enthralled in what it is we’re doing that nothing else seems to matter.
After we encounter moments of flow, we’re much more likely to feel better about ourselves and our creative abilities than if we had done a non-rewarding act like watching TV or browsing Tumblr for hours on end.
The first step is to pay closer attention to how you’re spending your time. If you’re doing things that are not rewarding – that don’t challenge your talents or who you want to be – try to find something else that more closely aligns with those things for you to do. Some ways to do that are in the next step.
The next step is to build momentum through small actions. You don’t have to turn off the tv in order to become a better painter, writer, entrepreneur, or whatever. You can watch movies aboutpainters, writers, or entrepreneurs and the strategies and techniques they learn. As long as your intent in watching the tv is to get something from it (maybe consider taking notes the next time you flop down in front of the tv set).
Simple, but challenging, tasks like trying a new art style, writing in a new form of poetry, taking notes while watching a tv show or movie, or reading about historical greats, are all positive ways that will help you to not only become more creative, but to utilize your time and energy in more effective ways.
You don’t have to invest a lot to get the most from the energy multiplier effect of what you do. As long as you incorporate some way of challenging yourself and growing from the experience, you’re on your way.
Photo by Joseph O'Connell.