Do You Agree with These Four Levels of Mental Energy?

I love coming up with different schemes–and here’s a new one. I was thinking about the mental energy required by the different tasks of my life, and it struck me that this energy could be divided into four categories, in descending order of mental demand:

1. Contemplative energy—planning, deciding, creating, inhibiting (holding myself back from saying, doing, or thinking something), setting priorities, making transitions

2. Engagement energy—talking to other people, reading or observing with my critical faculties

3. Audience energy—watching or listening passively

4. Habit energy—mindlessly executing a habitual behavior

One conclusion: when I feel too tired to do anything except Level 3, I should probably be in bed.

To be satisfying, watching TV or checking Facebook should feel like Level 2 activities, not Level 3. Watching Homeland is a different experience from flipping through the channels. True, occasionally  Level 3 is just what I’m in the mood for, but I don’t want to make a habit of it, or let myself sink, without realizing it, from Level 2 into Level 3 (which tends to happen within about thirty minutes).

As I wrote about the other day, in Epiphany: It takes a lot of energy to decide to go to bed, weirdly, when I’m very tired, I tend to stay up too late. These four levels help show why. I’m stuck in a Level 3 activity, and don’t have the energy to boost myself into Level 1 activity.

That’s the value of Level 4. If I make bedtime into a habit–“At 10:30, I start getting ready for bed, in the same way, every night”–then I don’t have to use any precious Level 1 mental energy to get myself to turn out the light.

What do you think of these four levels–did I get it right? What activities did I overlook that should be plugged into this framework?

  • Interesting that you put inhibiting at level 1, because for me it seems to be at level 3.

    • Jacqueline

      I think, for me anyway, holding back deliberately from doing or saying something takes a lot of energy, particularly for me choosing not to argue a point too far or to have the last word knowing that it makes for a bad atmosphere. Whereas when I’m tired its easy to say something thoughtlessly that could be taken the wrong way.

      • gretchenrubin

        I’m exactly the same! LOTS of energy needed.

    • Douglas Peacock

      For me, it might seem like 3 on the outside, but it a “highly charged” 1 on the inside! In terms of a withhold of statement due to fear not feeling comfortable (possibly the same thing), I find contemplation taking over at a rate to try and work out how to conquer the problem. It can last that long that it gets buried after a while, with other inhibiting on top of it, and I don’t have it there to consciously work it out. No, I don’t find inhibiting audience oriented at all!

  • Makes perfect sense to me!

  • Emily Holzmer

    I like the categories you’ve outlined. If I were to add one more, I would add Execution Energy somewhere near level 1 (I can’t decide if it belongs above it or below it…). I can plan any number of activities, and that requires some energy in itself, but executing those planned activities requires energy of a different kind and at some different level.

    For example, I can do the purely mental parts of an activity, say, making music, in advance. I often find myself practicing in my head, and that does require some level of energy. But actually putting my fingers to the keys, strings, etc. requires a different kind of energy. Mentally there is a different kind of energy required that accompanies that physical task too. Or to use your example, I can plan to get ready for bed at 10:30 any (or every!) night, but making that decision to do so and actually doing it require very different types of energy.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, there’s definitely that aspect of physical energy that’s necessary too.

  • Jo Vdmey

    I think that there is something more like an emotional energy or the outside influence energy. This would be like a unexpected crisis or illness or draining external emotional energy. That type of energy is very draining. Especially as I have a chronic pain illness.which fluctuates. It the unexpected things that I can’t plan for that is so draining.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great point. Crisis energy – when you have to spike up all at once, without warning.

  • I like this list and the way you’ve outlined it. I agree with Emily that Execution Energy should be added. I would probably place it above Level 1 because it takes an extra leap of energy/power to go from contemplation to action. One thing I have noticed, though, is that being in constant contemplation tends to tire us out so that we have nothing left and collapse in a semi-catatonic state. It’s important to balance ourselves out a bit.

  • Nicola Davies

    I am trying to use that Level 4 energy a lot more to free up energy for level 1. If I routinely do washing and clean up before going to work, I find that my mind is free from nagging worry and guilt about the jobs waiting at home. I am more productive at work and feel freer and less guitly doing the things that sustain my creativity.

  • Lola

    What about the energy required for writing or other high cognitive load mental tasks. I think social engagement is most demanding, then writing and high cognitive load tasks and then your other levels

    • gretchenrubin

      Interesting. Are you an introvert? Good point that for different people, different tasks would demand different levels of energy.
      Writing is Level 1, “creating”

      • RES

        Level One contains both planning and creating, which isn’t a perfect match for my experience. I enjoy creating detailed plans and don’t find that to be very taxing. I enjoy writing but have to put a whole different level of energy and focus into it, and I find myself completely drained after a writing session. (Worn out in a good way.) I often use planning to procrastinate on a writing project, so I know that, for me at least, they are different types of energy.

        • Debora

          Planning and creating tap into different parts of the brain. Interesting to think of those differences in the context of Gretchen’s hierarchy of mental energy. I’m going to have to think about that!

      • Debora

        This adds another layer of complexity to the 5 levels!

        • Debora

          Temperament, that is.

      • Carly

        Yep – I’m an introvert and I would DEFINITELY swap levels 1 and 2. Add an interpersonal element to any level 1 task (e.g., planning, strategising or creating collaboratively) and it immediately gains a big energy cost for me, whereas I can spend the day on solo contemplative tasks and end up simply happily tired rather than exhausted. Also, Jo Vdmey talked about crisis energy – what about the smaller spikes we need to get us going on things we don’t want to do? I know I need a little burst of ‘initiatory’ energy just to start tidying up the spare room :-). Maybe there are a range of things that help us to have energy spikes – crises, deadlines… I love/hate a deadline to really get me moving!

    • calwinter

      Exactly what I was going to say! Though there are people who don’t require any energy and some who even give you some of theirs. It’s probably bad if a person fits into level one!

      • calwinter

        I meant level four…but both might be true.

  • Shannon Born

    I love writing. I enjoy putting my thoughts on the “page” and slogging through the mass of discourse in my head, then reading the final product. I detest starting…. I feel this anxious drain of energy as I think about the prospect of sitting down in front of my computer to begin such an arduous task. I believe the energy lies somewhere in the middle of that disparate moment.

  • Douglas Peacock

    Yes. I agree. I would probably put creation as 2., in terms of it’s physical content. Having said that, the spirit / mind / brain creates within. Personally, I think you must be pretty accurate. I found some headings and found that they crashed, awkwardly, with the four energies in the article. The product of this was that a lifelong “thought dramatization” that I had, which was rather irritating to say the least, is now in the history books. I was forced to admit that I had misunderstandings on the meaning of “dramatization”. I would say that this exercise is a therapy as well as a quiz! The dictionary came in useful here – Me dramatize, no never, there was a perfectly good reason as to why it was happening and so it couldn’t be a dramatization as such, but that is what it was! The truth – bang, end of problem! Find more headings by all means, but watch that any hidden problem is not sailing off into the distance as a result. I would say that Crisis and Execution energies are sub headings under 2. Engagement Energy. It might not be a person you are engaging with and it might be a person who is engaging with you, but it is all engagement.

  • Douglas Peacock

    Shannon Born. Me too, I call it “panning for gold”. I just start writing what is the top plate so to speak, the gold turns up along the way. It goes backwards, engaging with your contemplation, rather than contemplating your engagement, and then engaging with the gold later, when the pattern is there. Not being at the top of the mountain at the start – so to speak, I put down all dual options. divided by “/”. Then I don’t get “blocked” on route. It has taken me a long time to believe in my long time statement that “all things come home to roost”. So I worry about what I missed and consequently lose the current thoughts too. Bad system. It was probably only a lead up to the next bigger step anyway – let it go!

  • Totally agree. My wife wants television to be a level 2 activity all the time. I want it to be a level 3 activity. I want to watch Homeland and she wants to watch hgtv. If TV is a level 3 activity, I’d rather do something else, like read.

  • JM

    Very interesting divisions. I agree about trying to stay away from level 3 and think that level 4 can be very useful. Level 1, however, doesn’t necessarily take more energy than level 2; it could depend on the person. Some people are naturally bigger thinkers and/or find sociability more difficult making level 2 a bigger energy sucker for those people.

  • cjsbequus

    Very interesting. I never thought about why I often get annoyed with my husband when we watch television together. He definitely sees it as a level 2, I want it to be a level 3. Maybe realizing that I can relax a bit and not see him as an interruption to my following the program but as a reaching out to interact with me.

  • Douglas Peacock

    Yes, OK Contemplation is the right word and Creative is under 1. in the article. It took a bit of work with the Thesaurus, but it works.

  • Diana

    Gretchen, Very helpul description of energy. I think that each level has its place in our lives. Just as we have smooth muscle (level 4), cardiac muscle (level 2), and skeletal muscle (level 4), each level has its uses with the exception of level 3. I find I use this level for escape but then I guess that is useful in the right time and place.

  • Renard Moreau

    [ Smiles ] It is something to consider.

    Since many of us are into the habit of wasting energy, that article of yours could be of help to many.

  • Ella

    It’s not my construct, but I am not sure I would put engagement with others in the same category as engagement with entertainment. Watching Homeland – being fully engaged in it – does take some energy, but FAR less than attending a cocktail party (and I am an extrovert). Writing a brief (level 1) takes less energy than attending a cocktail party. I think social engagement (at least, with people who are not members of my immediate family) takes more energy than anything else.
    Where does the mental energy associated with physical activity (either gearing up for it or actually doing it) fit in?

  • Goldberry

    Very interesting! I agree that I need a separate level, even higher than 1, as “execution energy” – for tasks that are more complicated, or new, or require decision making in the process. It’s about thinking and doing at the same time.
    Also, for me, reading critically takes different energy (less energy? I am not sure, maybe just different) than being engaged in talking to other people.

  • So true!

  • nielmalan

    Wow! I wish I thought of it like this! I’ve been using level 4 to give me energy for level 1, but I never thought that there might be other levels in between.

  • Alise

    I think you missed the energy of teaching. When you are facilitating a group of learners it takes a lot more energy in the engagement category than the other things listed there. Four hours of teaching is far more energy demanding than 4 hours of Facebook, or even socializing at a party. When you are the face everyone is looking at it takes a lot of energy.

    • HEHink

      Glad you mentioned this! I teach, and after reading these 4 levels, my thought was, “Well, no wonder I can’t think any more at the end of the day! I’ve been using the two highest levels of mental energy at the same time almost all day long. No matter how well I have planned my teaching for the day, there are constant alterations of plans and activities to meet students’ needs, plus constantly assessing and evaluating what they have learned and need to do next, so Level 1 is always happening. There is also constant engagement with students, so Level 2 is going on at the same time. Throw in the physical engagement of constantly moving around the room, and you’ve got a recipe for exhaustion.

      • gretchenrubin

        Good point – we are often using more than one level at a time. That takes a LOT of energy.

      • Erin Berry

        I had this same thought when I was reading the post – I’m a teacher as well (4th grade) and by the end of the day, I’m just totally zapped of mental energy. I’m always using more than one level and multi-tasking at the same time to keep up with the ever changing needs of 23+ students. I try to make as much in my class as possible habitual because it does cut down some on the mental energy needed – for me and my students.

    • gretchenrubin

      I think teaching is “creating”

    • Marie

      I was thinking the same thing, but naming it “performance.” I both teach and call dances, and being on stage and managing the whole whole evening, and yes, performing and being “on,” takes a lot of energy. It came be very energizing too, but maybe that is the adrenaline talking. You could call it creating or shaping group energy, but that feels different to me than, say, writing or contemplating.

      Lots to think about – thanks, Gretchen! I’m going to try to be more aware of my energy levels tonight and find the point at which (or before) I get too tired to put myself to bed!

      • gretchenrubin

        Great point, yes “performance” is excellent addition.

  • Douglas Peacock

    In conclusion, I would say that the “Contemplative” word is stretched to clearly apply to all of the categories noted. Having said that, I cannot think of a better word. The opening statement says “I love coming up with new schemes” and at the bottom “What do you think. Did I get it right”. There is no statement in the article that says “This is law”. This article is fun and a good quiz that makes you think. It is also a ‘new scheme” which, by my studying it, has given me what is the biggest psychological win of my life, another poem added to an already considerable list of previous achievements. I detect intuitive over logic? Reminds me again of my favourite Chinese Proverb “A bird does not sing because it has the answer, a bird sings because it has a song”. That does not mean that the bird does not have the answer! I think that the 4 levels are interesting and suitably not rigid. Did you get it right? I would have a difficult job saying no!

  • Tanjay

    I picture the different levels as action “plateaux” (I would add one more at the top: the creating plateau: ie. actually doing a job like writing, working, teaching, etc.) The energy expended actually comes from going from one level to the next. For example, I may happily be functioning on Level 4, planning and the like, but to reach Level 5 (creating), I know that I will have to expend a lot of (mental and physical) energy to get to that level. Once I have reached that level, however, I am happy and “in a groove.” The reverse is also true. I release energy to get to the lower rung, and I am able to relax. The amount of energy needed to achieve each level of activity is dependent on the character of the person and also that person’s circumstances (i.e., if they happen to be tired, angry, fearful, etc.)

  • Douglas Peacock

    Energy from not being yourself.

  • bill

    To play lightly,and have some fun before going to bed is an effective way for sleep because one can wind down, and have a good atmosphere ready for sleep.

  • Ron Fasol

    Better start making arrangement to go to bed at a fixed time, it explains why I am always so tired! Agree fully with your insight. Thanks

  • Bob Agard

    I think you got it about right, Gretchen. I like the added crisis energy. Today I got stuck in the snow, and had to come up with lots of physical energy fast, and keep at it for hours! I linked to you here:

  • Deb

    This e-mail spoke me. I read it and the next couple of days, I was struck by the power of its application. I am a Yoga teacher and have had the pleasure of sharing this mental energy insight with my classes – turning your breath into contemplative energy – creating your inhales and exhales – beautiful shift.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so glad to hear it struck a chord with you.

  • Maria

    contemplative energy and audience energy are the most abundant for me because they fit who I am. Engagement energy is my most finite resource and I’ve learned to guard it zealously because it seems to take me forever to recharge. Living in a large city like you do, Gretchen, would zap my beyond replenishment.

    • gretchenrubin

      Very interesting point about the background energy required by the place we live…for me NYC is energizing, but for others, just the opposite.

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  • Kim Wiltshire

    I agree that these are all energies that I often go through throughout the day. I do think there are more than what is listed. I think there is the energy of flow. The energy where you are not consciously thinking but your energy is being expelled. Let’s say I am painting without contemplating. I am still exhibiting energy into the painting but my mind is void of any conscious thought. I also think this type of energy is found in “play.” If I am playing (dancing, chasing my dog, being silly) I am exhibiting playful energy but I am lost in the “play” and not exhibiting any CONSCIOUS mental energy. This is the type of energy that is expressed when you let go of thinking. I think this is the type of energy I strive for more often. I’m curious if this makes sense to anyone else.

    • Destry Summers

      Hi Kim, that makes sense to me because I run out of the mental energy and focus needed for thinking easily. That’s when I either have to do something creative- where there are no boundaries and no real thinking required or something mindless like doing a puzzle, going walking or passively reading a book. It does have kind of a relaxed openmindedness about it.

  • I think there’s a lot more to it Gretchen, you may have to study and analyze this some more!? There are more categories that should be there, like Kim stated in here post. I take the approach from a scientific POV seeing how stuff fits in accordance to the dynamics of how stuff works. When you understand stuff from the (8) modalities, the (13) aspects and the (24) influences it falls into place and makes more sense. Research and observation are only part of the process, analysis is part of the process, understanding (Grids), (Latices) and (Networks) is part of the process. The (Human Energy) system and how it is applied is highly complex, it took many, many years of gathering data and researching this stuff…(37) years in my case) just to piece together some of my theories so they made logical sense!! I love the work you do here, I wouldn’t “follow you” if I didn’t and you have some interesting insights that I’m curious about. Science is the approach using (3) “hats”…(1) Like unto a “Private Investigator” you investigate=(research and observe), (2) Like a “Psychologist” you =(analyze and see how theories fit) and (3) like a doctor=(you prescribe). I fit works it works, but if there’s a flaw then theory is flawed and it’s back to square (1)!! I bet you are your own “guinea pig” in your “experiments” it seems that way from reading your posts. I enjoy them and seeing what you have to say. I admit I am my own “guinea pig” in my “experiments” and when I put my theories together I see what others think when I share them with my team and friends for analysis. Dive deeper into it and keep up the good work it only gets better!!^_^

    • Destry Summers

      Hi, I’m interested in this Human Energy System. Do you have any references I can go to for more info. A book maybe. I feel like I am really sensitive to human energies and want to know more about it. Thanks, destry

  • Cynthia Zygadlo

    Might the descending order also be predicated on what type of person you are? An extrovert might rank engagement energy as the mental energy that requires the least amount of exertion. Or, for me, as a Lark, time of day factors a lot into the mental energy required of all tasks. Earlier in the morning, any of categories, while requiring energy, might also be energizing. As day turns into night, all tasks require more mental energy, but can also be quite energy draining.

  • Destry Summers

    I was searching all over trying to find info or opinions about mental or human energy levels and here I found myself at my sisters favorite authors site- you. I have some similar theories but mine involve Mental Stimulation Levels and are more about what you “feel like doing” or have a desire to do being based on what your brain needs at the moment to feel comfortable.

  • David Sider-La France

    these are great, but please, consider deeper, control of energy is the key. for contemplative. it is like a mineral, each thought, is like a fish in the river of thought stream, you can catch one, then decide if it is worth keeping, if it is not, simply, release it, and begin to consider the next, in school, I was taught the golden rule, treat others as you would wish to be treated, this is not enough, if we wish to explore the human psyche, we must train a young mind to differentiate singular thought. eventually you will be able to control thought patterns, thought structures, and then reach the point of what I would currently consider to be “Brain Powered” where you can quite literally, close your eyes, and build a house in your imagination, assemble it piece by piece in utter clarity, then disassemble it in the same manner, make variations and explore techniques inside your mind before ever having to to touch pencil to paper… It is my belief that this should be started as soon as a child reaches the concept of mind stage. Your work is very great! Keep it up! your very close to becoming brain powered yourself!