School from Home Prep: Mapping Your Energy to Hack Your Schedule & Productivity

This week’s energy tracking form is here. If you want to keep one for yourself to edit (to add the times for tracking), please select File —> Save a copy. 

Hey Tribe,

This podcast is being recorded after teaching my first week of the (much anticipated) Fall 2020 semester. I’ll share the high and low lights with you soon; maybe if you’re starting later than we are, you can learn from our launch. I am capital T Tired, but I’m also relieved. The kids are showing up. We are finding and working out the glitches. Things will be okay.

And, thank you again for sharing this podcast and reaching out to me. It’s beyond exciting and very humbling to see the impact of my work reaching the adults and kids who need it! Thank you!

I hope you’ve had a chance to connect with your upcoming teachers, if you know who they are. Doing a little recon like we talked about in episode 29 is so helpful to turn worry into action and to get some actual info to chew on (rather than the imaginative speculation we tend to create when left to our own projections). This week, we’re trying a little self-reflection that will go a long way! Today I want to teach you how to map your/your child’s energy levels and focus times and then use this information to plan for distance learning (or working from home).

If you’re a human, chances are your energy levels change throughout the day, probably even day to day. Things like how much and how well we slept, our nutrition status, and how much we’ve already worked are pretty well-known factors that impact our feelings of alertness or sleepiness. But, do you have a good idea of when you and your child are most alert? When you brain is most capable of deep focus? When you need some “dumby” work so you can skate through a bit?

Mapping your energy levels can give you a great sense of your overall energy level trends on typical days. This in turn can help you schedule your difficult and easy work into time slots that match your energy levels. Have an important paper to write? Put that on your schedule where you find you’re best able to focus. Have daily computer-based easy stuff, like typing practice or quick math facts review? Maybe those go into that “slump” time of day, when you’re awake enough to get something done but not alert enough to access all of your brain’s power.

A quick tip for helping your teen: it is actually true that teens are sleepier. The frontal lobe of one’s brain is under heavy construction during the adolescence period, which doesn’t end until your early twenties. For the brain owner, this often means feeling exhausted, even foggy at times…plus, you may notice your adolescent getting toddler-style clumsy again! That’s normal too, as their motor skills catch up with their growing bodies. Brains are so interesting!! I love that this science helps us understand our whacky kids better! Good thing we were never whacky teens ourselves, huh?

Another thing you need to know about your teen is that many studies show that the chemical that helps brains sleep, melatonin, sticks around longer for teens. Yup. They are sleepier in the morning because we have woken them up before their brains were ready. (A great article about it here!) They will fight against the melatonin in their brains to appease the societal demands, but if they’re complaining more than they did as seven year olds, it’s because their brains are working against them in this instance. The flipside of this is that they may also be “on” late at night. To tired adults, this seems so dumb. Don’t stay up late and you won’t be tired in the morning, you ding-dong. But, it’s not that simple. That said, if your teen absolutely can’t adjust their hours and has to be up early, then it’s important to help the find ways to get enough sleep. A good idea is to backwards plan: start at the wake up time and count back the 8-10 hours your teen needs. Add some time to get ready/fall asleep in that backwards count too. Where you arrive will likely seem way too early for your teen, like 8 pm. This is where the research hits the fan, yeah? I mean it all sounds great in theory. This 8 pm time CAN help you at least have a guide time for when to start sleep-supporting rituals, like limiting electronics and their blue light, not eating after the time, turning some of the house lights down or off.

Back to our main idea: how do you map your energy levels and why would you want to? In today’s fast-paced world and now that a lot of the demands on us have pivoted thanks to a pandemic, we overestimate how self-aware we are. If you asked me if I’m a morning person, I’d laugh and roll my eyes. Yet, I do okay, sometimes even pretty great, in the mornings. Until recently, I was not very self-aware of my own energy levels. This meant I squandered a lot of my really good potential focus time and I pushed myself hard at times when I would have been better suited to do a “coasting” kind of activity.

Mapping energy levels now, before your school year starts or gets fully underway, is a great way to hack your personal patterns of focus.

So, how do you do it? Easy sneezy. I’ll make an example chart that you can use, of course. Find it at sarahkesty.com/blog/episode30. But, I also want to teach you how to do this independently and in a low tech way. That way you can teach others and your teen can do it any time he wants to! Take a paper and make three columns. The first column, on the left, is just your awake hours; start with the time you wake up and write the next hour, and the next, until your usual bedtime. Title the middle column “activity” and the furthest right column “energy and focus.” For the next week or so, you will make a brief note of what activity you’re doing and how your body and brain are feeling. Brief notes and consistency are key here. If you’re a student or you’re helping your child do this, take a note of what type of schoolwork he or she is doing; don’t just write “school.” It helps us to find patterns if we know the subject and general activity. Sitting and listening to a 2-hour long lecture in history is a lot different than playing a history review game or creating a project. Same “school” but very different demands for attention. In the column for alert levels, you can make your own key, maybe a 1 -5 rating scale. 1 being “I’m fighting sleep and not winning” and 5 being “I’m so alert and into this.” Overall energy is fine to track. If you or your child notices a difference between body and brain, like “my body feels awake but my brain is toast,” then note that. It’s great info to see what exhausts your child (so we can strategize that struggle too!)

Cool? Yeah, sounds cool, and maybe I’ll stick to it for a day, but then I’ll have things to do and probably forget. Sound like you? Let’s strategize here. You need a reminder, a prompt, to do something every hour over the next week. Do you have anything that could remind you? An accountability partner could be a good start. “Hey, I’m doing an experiment with my energy levels where I check in with myself every hour. I’d love your support by reminding me!” Can you think of other ways to independently remember? Sticky notes could work for a few days, but your brain will adapt to seeing them, and they’ll diminish their effect. Your best bet is to set up a digital reminder of sorts, like an alarm on your phone or in your google calendar. If you’re going high tech with a google sheet or similar, you may even put a link inside the reminder to make it that much easier on future you.

One more idea for making this stick. I realize that surviving a pandemic is a layer of stress that we all have on us right now. Tracking your energy levels may feel like a big ask right now. If that’s how you’re feeling, one last strategy may be to plan for this to be a pain. Yup. Acknowledge that it might be a little tricky, then do it anyway. You can plan to hack your brain’s dopamine system by planning rewards in advance. Cut yourself a deal and write it down on the back of your tracking sheet if you want to. If I make notes at least 80% of the day, I get to have a hunk of chocolate. For your teen, it might be a few extra minutes on video games, a little bit of money, or something else of high value. Your brain will get a hit of dopamine right away when it anticipates it (same thing that causes you to feel good when you look for dessert recipes! Cool, huh). Then, your brain will associate your success tracking your time with the reward and it will actually make you “crave” doing more tracking—because it wants its reward. Brains for the win!!!

Another quick motivation strategy, really to use with any daily task you kind of hate or dread, is to manufacture some competition, with yourself or with your kid! Sometimes I set a timer so I can race the clock when I have to do dishes. I have a “work out day streak” right now that is really working to keep me motivated to move my body every day. Today is day 45 in a row. I feel oddly unnerved by the idea of having to start again at day 1 if I miss a day, and that gets me motivated enough to move it. You can do the same. Make a competition to see how many days in a row of the 7 days you track you can get over a certain percentage of hours written down. Spoiler alert: it will likely be around 80% tops. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s lower than 100%.

Let’s fast forward to when you and your child have tracked your energy levels daily for about a week. What now? Oh! This is the cool part! Put your detective hat on, so to speak, and start looking for patterns. Here are some questions to guide you (PS as always, find the blog on my website for a visual of this very list, don’t feel like you have to write it down now or memorize it):

Spread out the tracking forms in front of you. Give them a quick look over from day 1-7.

*What patterns jump out at you right away?

*What is your energy level usually like when you first wake up?

*About how long from waking up does it take for you to feel more alert?

*Are there times when your brain and body don’t match energy levels? (Like brain feels alert but body is just tired)

*What’s the usual time in your schedule when you report feeling best able to focus?

*Is there a time when you start to decrease energy and focus?

*Do your energy levels seem to match certain types of activities? (Like, you seem to be really tired when writing for long periods but not as tired when doing a science lesson?)

*What’s the usual time in your schedule when you’re a little tired but could probably also get some easy things done?

*What do you still wonder?

Eeee! I’m pretty excited to see what insights you get. Knowing your personal energy levels will help you to match your tasks to the best times of day for you and will help you be more understanding with yourself and your teen. You will likely notice that your teen’s patterns differ from yours. And, you may be able to make some connections between when you’re most likely to argue with each other (when one or both of you is most exhausted).

I know personally, my neuromuscular disease makes my body hurt. I usually wake up in pain in my feet and joints and the pain progresses throughout the day to encompass my hands and wrists at night. Pain is exhausting. So, I know that if I have things to do that will require my strength or things to write that require my hands to feel good (thereby making my handwriting a lot better), I need to schedule them in the morning. I also know that when my body is in lots of pain, my brain takes a hit in executive function; my focus is off, my short-term memory and word finding suffers, and my emotional control is, well, not as strong. Knowing this means I can do my best to schedule important, brain-heavy tasks earlier in the day or avoid scheduling them after a heavy movement day, like my upcoming fundraising bike ride. If there’s something that shows up on my to-do list that needs doing but doesn’t take much energy from me, like light chores or work housekeeping/paperwork, I can plug those into the schedule later in the day. I don’t want to waste my “on” time doing things that don’t totally need me at my best.

The same is true for your child. Chances are they will be assigned some sort of plug-and-play type of skills practice for school. Whether it’s an online math program, typing practice, reading fluency work, there will likely be some skill practice items that aren’t too demanding for your child. If you identify those, then you can plug those into your child’s schedule where you notice the energy slumps. For example, I have coaching clients who have about an hour or two after lunch before they hit their wall. So, we added what felt more like “busy work” to their schedules at the time. For one student, it meant doing the required minutes in an online math program. For another, it meant completing the illustrations for vocabulary squares and reading a couple required articles online. Both students were able to extend their productive time by not pushing themselves; instead, they honored their natural energy patterns and matched up tasks that were easier. An added bonus for both was that after completing the “busy work,” they had a burst of dopamine that sometimes inspired them to do one more task afterward and also ensured they’d get to the “busy work” time in their schedule the next day—because their brains will remember and crave that good feeling.

Some of my high school and college clients reflect that their brains turn “on” around 7 pm. They found that they were using up a LOT of mental energy (and a decent amount of shaming themselves with “should”) if they tried to force the typical daytime working hours on themselves. Instead, when they honored their brain’s alert times and scheduled the trickiest or most important work in the evenings, they spent much less time fighting against themselves, got more done, and had the happiness of work completed help reinforce them the next day. One of the advantages of online learning is that it gives us some flexibility. So, if your child has the option to work at different hours, please explore this. They may still have to attend live sessions for instruction, but allowing them to work and process learning at a more brain-compatible time is a strategy that will have instant positive effect!

This process, like all things EF and dealing with humans, won’t be perfect overnight. And, it won’t be permanent. As your teen grows into an adult, his brain will adjust that sleep hormone to allow him to wake up naturally earlier. The time of late-night work might shift. That’s ok. The permanent piece of this is the valuable practice of mapping and matching energy levels. That will continue to give you and your child insights into your brains and productivity and will naturally highlight where you can strategize spots in the day that you struggle.

Today you learned how to map your energy levels throughout the day.

You also learned how to use the patterns you uncover to develop a schedule that works with your brain and your energy patterns, resulting in better use of time. It’s a great opportunity to explore this now, as distance learning (even if only part time) will allow your child some flexibility in scheduling work time.

If you’re ready for deeper and more personalized help, I’m here for you! Reach out to me at sarah at sarahkesty dot com. We can see how coaching you and your child can change your lives!

Pep talk time!

Hey Kid,

Have you noticed that since you’ve been growing up, your energy in the morning hasn’t been as high? But, you’re able to stay up much later now than you were when you were little? Ever wondered why? Well, it’s your brain, my friend. The chemical in your brain that tells it to sleep, called melatonin, tends to stick around longer in your teenage brain in the mornings. It also takes longer to get into your brain in the evenings. This means you go to bed later and wake up later than you used to. This isn’t permission to stay up all night. But, it is an example of what your grown up learned today.

Today your grown up learned about how energy levels change throughout the day. Your grown up will probably ask you to start tracking your own energy levels this week. You’ll just take a quick note every hour of what you’re doing and how your brain and body feel. At the end of the week, you’ll both look at your tracking charts for patterns. You might notice times each day when you have lots of energy and times when you’re likely to try to nap. That’s ok! It’s great, actually, because you can take what you learned and make a personal schedule that works best for your brain! When you match the types of things you do with the energy levels you have, then you don’t have to fight against yourself as much. It’s a brain hack that has helped so many of my students! I hope it helps you too!

Stay safe out there. Sending you all my love,

Sarah