Sustaining Productivity

I have mentioned on here before that Scott H. Young is one of those go-getter, bootstrapping entrepreneurs that I admire (and wish to emulate).

He’s always challenging himself (and, unlike me, seems to complete his goals more often) and makes it look easy. But he had this to say recently in one of his newsletters:

Q: How do you sustain your productivity for weeks or months at a time?
 We’ve all experienced it–you’ll get motivated, finish tons of work and then a week or two later, you’re back to feeling lazy again. What gives?
I struggled with this problem for a long time. I would have surges of motivation, followed by long crashes where I didn’t get much done. After each, I wasn’t sure what had gone wrong.
Now I realize that productivity is best seen like the ebb and flow of a tide. Surges of motivation followed by slower periods. You can extend the surges for a bit, but there always comes an ebb at the end. The secret is to not fight the cycles, but to ride them out.
As a result, I’ll try to switch gears every 4-6 weeks. For a burst, I’ll be intensely work focused, getting as much done as possible and pushing ahead aggressively. During the MIT Challenge, I sustained this for the first three months, working around 60 hours per week.
However, I also balance that by allowing myself to settle into a routine for a period of time and let the habits I’ve built work on autopilot. During the months following, I worked less (more like 40 hours) but I got almost the same amount done and had almost no stress. I didn’t try to force myself to work harder, but I let the down tempo last for a few weeks before I started up again.
Anticipating and riding these rhythms isn’t easy, and I haven’t mastered it myself. But I’ve found it’s a more sensible strategy than trying to be 100% on at all times (or to pretend that you can keep everything in perfect equilibrium).
Make your learning routine a habit.
That means set aside a certain amount of time, every day, at the same time each day, for your learning goal. Even if it’s only twenty minutes in the morning.
If there’s any activity you want to sustain, but tends to get neglected, this strategy works well. Be extremely consistent when setting it up for the first month and then it will just become part of your life. Your time and energy will adjust to the new routine after a few weeks until you don’t notice any difference.
The other strategy–to use willpower perpetually to motivate your learning–is exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. Without setting your learning as a habit, it will always be drowned out by noisier and more urgent occupations.
Banging out a story during NaNo is thrilling (if hectic), but when November is over, do you keep working on what you’ve done, or do you go back to life and the routines you interrupted for a month, leaving your fledgling story to wallow in neglect in some file?
I think Scott is right that the key is to keep at it (whatever “it” is–in our case, writing) after the initial thrill is gone, albeit it at a greatly reduced rate. That might mean writing for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week post-NaNo, rather than writing for a couple of hours 7 days a week, as you might do in November. That way, you’re always making forward progress, and when you have more time or more motivation, you can put on an extra burst of effort. Professional writers all seem to agree that you need to write every day, even if you aren’t inspired. (In my novella, The Widow, the male lead is a painter, and he adheres to this idea: when he is not feeling inspired to paint , can’t come up with a new idea, etc., he paints Bob Ross landscapes until he gets out of his funk.)
Now that I’m starting to settle into my new job and apartment, I’m looking to establish a routine that will help me get my miscellaneous stuff done: sewing projects, procrastiantion projects, proofreading The Flames of Prague, plus some time to write new things and more Bloodsuckers. I’m thinking I might devote one hour per evening (more if I want to) to getting these things done.
  • Monday: Sewing (I also have medieval meetings two Mondays per week, and I can do hand-sewing while I’m at the meeting, thus multi-tasking.)
  • Tuesday: Proofing The Flames of Prague
  • Wednesday: Anti-Procrastination Day (this is for finishing up all the things that have been languishing forever–like my illumination, drafting my Last Will and Testament, various jewelry and craft projects, blog post series that I haven’t had time to finish (yes, I’m talking about you Medieval Monday), etc.)
  • Thursday: Write The Bloodsuckers
  • Friday: Date night w/ hubby
  • Saturday: Synagogue and/or packing
  • Sunday: Packing, cleaning, and/or moving; drive back to Chattanooga
That’s the plan, anyways. As my husband says, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” so I’ll check back in in a month or so to let you know how my various projects are going.
Do you have something you want/need to accomplish? What’s your game plan for making it a routine/habit?

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