Why productivity is cyclical and how to deal with it

Note to my clients: if you read this, be aware that none of this affects any of your projects 🙂

Is it just me, or does productivity come in cycles? Sometimes I’ll go weeks at a time and absolutely tear it up, getting tons done on client work, personal projects, etc. I feel great, motivated, etc. Other times, I struggle to get anything done and never really get into the groove. Why is that? I mean, I do get stuff done, but it just feels like such a freaking chore and I have to force myself to power through. These cycles seem to last several weeks each, perhaps a bit longer. I have a few speculations that I’ve pulled from thin air on why this might occur:

Natural biological process
It might be that there’s some natural chemical process in the brain that makes some people more or less productive and that this process tends to be cyclical in nature. I feel like perhaps I’ve read something about this…if it’s true, I’m not sure how much I can do about it other than be aware of it and try to use it to my advantage? For the record, I think this is the most unlikely of the three scenarios.

Reflection of what I’m working on
Perhaps I’m just more excited at times about things that I’m working on because they’re more interesting. This one is hard to evaluate, because I’m not sure if I’m feeling unmotivated because of boring projects or if the projects seem boring because I’m feeling unmotivated.

Motivational momentum
I think is probably the most likely scenario. Basically, I think that certain people (myself included) swim better against the current. When things aren’t going well and I’ve got a lot of pressure (both external and internal) to get stuff done, I tend to build up a lot of motivational momentum and push hard to get things done. On the way up this hill of accomplishment, things are good, as I’m getting a lot done, keeping up with all my responsibilities, etc. It feels great. But as I accomplish more and more, that pressure and stress begins to dissipate, and so does some of the motivation. At this point, I begin to crest the top of the motivational hill and the old feelings of being unmotivated begin to return. Over the next few weeks, stuff begins to gradually pile up again and the pressure and stress begins to build. But until it hits a certain point, my motivation doesn’t seem to really kick in. Once it does, the cycle starts over.

This has been an issue my entire life and I’m just now getting to the point where I can deal with it more effectively. In college, I dealt with it by keeping my schedule absolutely slammed so there was virtually no room for error. I finished 75% of my bachelor’s degree in 17 months and graduated with a 3.9 GPA. I say this not to brag, but just to point out that I had virtually no room to slow down or slack off. This is highly effective, but it carries two huge price tags: risk and stress. The risk is that you’re juggling so much that if you drop one thing, it can all come crumbling down. The stress comes from the fact that you have no margin for error. These two things feed off each other, as the high risk stresses you out and the high stress increases the risk that you’ll make a mistake. Obviously, this is not a viable long-term solution.

The core problem here (for me, anyway) is relying too much on motivation, which is a fickle emotion. It can be incredibly useful, usually at the start of a venture, to kickstart your efforts and give you that critical early boost in the right direction. But if you rely too much on it, you’ll find that it never lasts long enough to get you where you need to go. The primary reason that people fail is because they give up, and I believe that the primary reason people give up is because they rely too much on motivation. The going gets rough and they find that the only fuel they really had was an emotion that’s now gone, so they just kind of let things die out.

Here’s what I’ve tried to do: replace motivation (emotion) with decision (habit). This is the primary reason that I do my seven daily habits. These habits were carefully chosen as things that I want to accomplish daily to get me closer to where I want to be, regardless of whether I feel like doing them or not.

That doesn’t mean that motivation has no place in productivity and self-improvement, but I think that you can’t rely too much on it. To the extent that motivation does play a role in my productivity, I’ve tried to replace external motivation with internal motivation, where I’m pushing myself harder rather than waiting for other people to pressure me. As an example, one of my daily habits is to look at my goal plan every single day. I also carefully track my goals from month to month, recording what percentage I accomplished, and preparing a new plan for the next thirty days. I also carefully track the amount of time that I work on various projects and initiatives in my life. I do all these things not because I have some weird fascination with data (at least not primarily so), but because by carefully tracking my productivity and advancement towards my goals, I am often motivated to push myself harder because I’m not moving as fast as I would like. The adage that “what gets measured gets managed” is true for the simple reason that when we’re confronted with the data about how we’re spending our time and the results of our efforts, we’re often encouraged and motivated to improve.

I’d love to hear what other people’s thoughts are. Have you experienced cyclical productivity? If so, how do you deal with it?