Emotional Budgeting

A wise steward budgets resources with limited quantities because humans tend to spend all their resources on the immediate problem.

Budgeting is twofold: an acknowledgement that a resource is finite and a plan predetermining priorities. When a decision arrives we can say yes to the best and no to what is lesser.

I have been budgeting my money for about five years now. I’ve budgeted my time for three. Deep Work taught me that willpower or focus is a similarly limited resource1.

I have come to realize that emotional strength is a limited quantity as well. A long day of stressful interactions and decisions reduces my ability to delight in and engage with my family at the end of the day. In quarantimes, when I am working from home and living at work, the symptoms of emotional drain have been greater. Without the natural rhythms of hallway banter my experience with work can become a constant eight hour stream of possibly stressful interactions. Even on a great day, the weight of potential problems can be enough to deplete my emotional energy. I leave my home office exhausted more often than I’d like to admit.

I should take a moment to say: “emotional budgeting” is a phrase that I’ve been using in my head. There may be existing books and articles using a different name, or someone using this name for a differenct concept. I like the phrase because I believe in a stewardship model of resource management, and while I applaud aspects of the “self-care” movement, I find the phrasing and movement to be too self-focused for my faith.

What I refer to as my “emotional energy” may be simply “empathy.” It is the limited resource that allows us to listen intently to others, to concern ourselves with how others think, and give us the power to place ourselves in their shoes. When you have a difficult conversation with someone about a point of conflict and you end up drained, lethargic… unwilling even to commit to light-weight, pleasant conversation… that’s what I define as “low emotional energy.”

To fight this drain I took the same approach as with any budgeting problem: I started by tracking my “expenses” and “income,” I predetermined my priorities, and I continue to adjust and learn.

Tracking

Journaling

To track emotional energy I employed a simple journaling and review practice. Just noting in a journal or text-file that “difficult conversation about Project Y, feeling tired” is sufficient to teach us what topics drain us.2

I still practice bullet journaling. As I go through the day I list out meetings, projects, and events. At the end of the day… I’ll typically prepend a smiley based on how different notes made me feel.3 One trend I’ve noticed is that whatever mood I start the day in is typically the mood that will define the entire day. This is a powerful insight… and really speaks to the importance of starting my day in scripture and prayer before I grab my phone. If you start tracking your mood with an open mind you may discover similar patterns. There are many similar tools, and many wiser folks with counsel on this.

Budget Busters

Returning to the metaphor of financial budgeting: When my wife and I started budgeting, we programmed into our budget all the categories and recurring transactions we could think of. We were surprised by all the things we forgot to consider… tires wear out, registering our cars, that wedding gift, etc. Over time, we learned to count on all the “budget busters” and make allowances.

Two of my emotional “budget busters”:

  1. Career Review season. Whether the reviews are trending good or bad “review season” still is a vulnerable time with the potential for stressful conversations. So I’ve learned to build into my schedule more “supply” of emotional energy when review season comes around, and to forgive myself for being a little drained.
  2. Social Media “doom-scrolling.” It doesn’t matter how good the day is, if I drift into the infinity pool of sadness that is social media around election season… I’ll lose a lot of energy. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Predetermine Your Priorities

Once I was tracking my energy I realized I was losing more energy in my workday than I thought. I’m going to assume that most people expend the most emotional energy into what is immediately in front of them… which is work. I therefore assume most folks would need to re-prioritize towards their health, friends, and family.

You may need to take some time with your tracking information and determine what area of your life is lacking the emotional attention that it deserves. If you have a trusted friend or family member they can help you determine which relationships or aspects of your life need more attention.

There are different ways to represent this new priority, but simply knowing it is sufficient as we move into the next phase of adjusting and learning.

Adjusting and Learning

Having learned a little bit about myself through tracking my emotional energy and how it’s affected by “budget busters,” and having rekindled desire to give my little family the best of my emotional energy4, I started devising strategies.

The strategies that have helped me can be largely grouped into two categories: “refilling the tank” to give me more energy, and “limiting the leaks” to help me maintain energy.5

Refilling the Tank

Through my journaling, I’ve learned that if I have certain meetings back to back (especially in the morning!), I’ll be pretty drained by lunch and have very little energy going into the evening. I’m still able to work… I just have less “words” to share with my family. 😓 Therefore I’ve started intentionally planning to refill the tank.

Here are some examples:

Gratitude

A very important strategy for staying positive throughout the day is logging any and all positive interactions for which I am grateful:

  • a colleague shares some encouraging words.
  • my daughter brings me a crayon-scrawled gift.
  • quiet time is particularly fruitful.
  • lunch is delicious.

All of these are great things to remember! At the end of the day, I’m looking into the next day with more positivity if the log of the previous day is filled with blessings… otherwise I tend to remember only the bad. This is a high-value activity that also lines up with the need to track your emotional state, so definitely try this.

Rest and Play

At the office I’d automatically refill the tank by visiting with colleagues, playing ping pong, taking walks. Perversely, while working at home I feel guilty enjoying the same activities! Intentionally giving myself permission to leave my desk for a restful activity has been critical to having a balanced day with emotional energy left at the end.

Being on “work premises” allowed me to embrace restful pauses in the workday while not feeling like I was “abandoning my post.” Leaving my desk at home feels like treachery? I don’t think this thought pattern is healthy, and I’m trying to fight it. Worse still it affects the way I treat my “coworkers” at home. At the office I happily invest in relationships because I am “at work.” If a colleague needs me to help them move a desk I happily drop what I’m doing… however at home I feel guilty for leaving my keyboard to help my wife move a dresser! It’s irrational.

My ultimate contribution to work is focused effort resulting in positive progress… not keeping my butt in seat for the whole day. If I allow myself to spend time on the most important people in my life, (i.e. step away to have a dance-party with my daughter for fifteen minutes) I’ll wind up with more energy to expend on work and family.

Intentional Conversation

In a remote work situation there is a lot of responding to task-based communication: meetings, email, chat … but not much opportunity for informal visiting. Without the intermittent chit-chat colleague relationships can warp into viewing people as a list of their demands. We forget to check on other people instead of the projects they owe us.

I’ve found intentionally engaging in “just visit” time to be a great reminder of why I like working with such nice and interesting folks. It relieves some of the emotional drain by rekindling friendships. I no longer just dread your list of demands… I want to continue our conversations and see how you are doing.

Limit the Draining Interactions

This strategy is a little harder. Depending on your role at work you may not have much control over your schedule.

Thanks to journaling I have learned to predict if a day could be an emotional “budget buster.” If I have any control of my schedule, I’ll try to insert some rest time or use one of the other techniques above to recover.

A simple tactic: I try schedule date night on a different day than the “heavy” day. It’s just wise: if I’m going to prioritize listening and loving on my wife I should choose to select an evening where I’ll have as much as possible to give.

Intentional Practice

While I’m honestly not sure how to do this perfectly… I have been attempting to deliberately practice this skill and get better at it.

When I realize that I’ve had a “draining” day, this is a great opportunity to practice my listening and not default to my selfish relaxation habits. As a christian, the command to love on my wife is not relaxed simply because I had a difficult day at work. 😝 One mini-habit that has helped me is to quickly and quietly set an intention for the next interaction or meeting: how do I want the next person to perceive me? I choose my demeanor and consider how I can serve that person. It’s been helpful to me and rescued me from defaulting to whatever my tired face depicts.


This is all something I’m still thinking about and working on… so I’d appreciate any thoughts you have about it. I highly doubt that this is a new idea… there are probably whole books and genres dedicated to this.

If you have any thoughts or research, I’d love to hear about it.


  1. Cal Newport. Deep Work. Grand Central Publishing, 2016. A large part of being an effective worker is limiting the distracting environmental leaks that reduce my daily supply of willpower, and spending it first on the work that most deserves my best focus. Over the past year I’ve sought to increase my supply of focus by deliberate practice and decrease the amount of distraction. My full review from 2019

  2. To identify distractions from focus, Cal Newport recommended simply noting the sources of distraction on a sticky note, forgiving ourselves, and trying again. Very similar thing. 

  3. I actually have several systems for tracking my emotional energy both on a daily, weekly, and monthly level… but start small and learn from yourself. Everyone is different. 

  4. I’m going to focus on my particular journey of trying to refocus on my family in a stressful work season, but pretty much any self-care advice could apply here as long as it aligns with your priorities. 

  5. You could basically use the same categories that Shawn Blanc uses for margin: increasing ability and decreasing commitment. It’s same thing. 


Changelog
  • 2020-11-03 19:55:32 -0600

    Grammar and spelling corrections, thank you mom.

  • 2020-10-26 22:52:34 -0500

    Add italics

  • 2020-10-26 22:30:43 -0500

    New Post: Emotional Budgeting