The non-linearity of productivity

I happen to be going through a very productive time right now. I’m working on a project that I’m very excited about, and the threads are all coming together to create a very satisfying tapestry.

Of course, there are long stretches of time when I don’t feel very productive at all. I’ll noodle around, trying this or that, but nothing really compelling results.

I’m wondering what the relationship looks like between productivity and time. Is there a pattern to it? Are these things cyclic? Random? Contingent on the phases of the moon?

If only we could find a correlation between time-varying productivity and some specific external factor. Maybe we could use that knowledge productively.

Perhaps, if I knew I was about to enter a fallow period, I could choose that time to go on a relaxing vacation. Or perhaps, if I knew that a firestorm of creative energy was about to burst forth from my brain, I could be ready to make the most of it.

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Maybe I should try to tackle it the next time I’m feeling productive.

14 thoughts on “The non-linearity of productivity”

  1. Its a pretty interesting Question you’re facing. Personally I think there are three things that block me from being productive:
    1) Not knowing the goal: Things can look crisp but in fact the goal is blurry. Toxic.
    2) Not seeing the goal: Getting the point but no reason why to go there.
    3) Conciously underestimating the effort: You know that its more work but you got to or want to squeeze it anyways. Lack of clarity for me results in lack of empathy.

    Therefore the following things appear to work for me from time to time.
    1) Recognizing that one of problems 1-3 exist
    2) Forcing myself to take 5 Minutes and a postit to at least make some random plan
    3) After that Plan: Gither going for a walk, grab a coffee or do something else.
    4) Next decide wether the problem is still relevant and decide wether to proceed

    Best, Guntram

  2. One of the downsides of this post getting listed on Hacker News is that it is starting to attract trolls. Fortunately, these comments are moderated. I suppose it is good, every once in a while, for me to get a glimpse into the minds of people who seem unhappy with themselves. But maybe not too often. 🙂

  3. Interesting question indeed. Adding on top of the 3-problems + 4-step resolution plan, not being or feeling productive can also come first, and then you end up not seeing the goal, reason to go there, or tasks to perform to reach it.

    So far, one of the things that work for me is simply having a number of different processes, goals or tasks to choose from, and if one doesn’t seem to get me productive, I just switch to something else instead of wasting more time on it, and then I come back to it at a later time. Sometimes I’ll revisit the task/problem/goal and try to ‘divide and conquer’ it, which works quite well at times.

  4. Good point. Thinking about your comment, I realize I also do a variant of that. It’s good to see your clear description of that strategy. Thanks!

  5. Oh my. One of the trolls has now started making off-topic comments about the U.S. President. I guess that’s a subject on everyone’s mind these days.

  6. i’ve been most productive and had most fun when i have been in the biggest heat. And interestingly, also in the life outside of work, at the same time. Motivation on 200%.
    Then vice-versa, when there’s nothing on horizon, and nothing worthy to do, all other possible stuff is also stuck at nowhere. Not even looking at it. Motivation on -100%.
    Kind of chicken and egg..
    My way to overcome those holes is a) have plenty of different things / dimensions to be able do something worthy (be it work, home, fixing a tap or playing with kids), and b) leave the sliding “car” to drift all by itself for a while, in order to see where things are heading. Although it takes lots of time.

    But i dont think these are “programmable”/predictable as u want it to be… More like a quantum principle, the more u try to control that, the closer u stay to 0..

  7. Ah, brilliant observation! Reminds me of advice I once heard from a friend about skiing: “Don’t look at the tree.”

  8. I have a post on my blog about this: <– An Organic and Creative Study Method for How My Mind Works. I utilize a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique, to branch out organic. I'm still working at it. In this way I'm attempting to fuse together the organic and creative "right brained" thinking, with the efficiency and effectiveness of "left brained" workflows. I want the best of both worlds.

  9. Thanks for the good questions and very good comments!

    Here’s what works for me, it’s probably a generalization of what was said before (but it can be applied to the personal side as well): Whenever I’m feeling down or unproductive, I try to articulate why, brutally honest and directly on paper.

    Surprisingly, once the problems are down on paper, they’re much easier to tackle: either they’re completely outside of my control (being a religious person, I find relief in thinking that whatever happens it’s God’s will) or I can influence them, in which case, **TADA** they’re now a TODO, which can be fixed.

    Once you’re at the TODO level, you can prioritize based on how much time it takes and how much happier it would make you. And don’t hesitate to talk to your peers, I found that many times we were sharing concerns or frustrations, and once everyone is onboard, it’s much easier to get buy-in from our exec/manager/PM/TL/+1 whatever.

  10. Oh, and one more thing: some problems can’t be solved completely, they’re simply too uncertain/complex/interconnected. To get over the initial bump, plan the first step towards one of the possible solutions and with it. Then execute step 1 **AND PLAN STEP 2**. Execute step 2 **AND PLAN STEP 3**… and before you know it, you’ll see the big picture, and you’ll have a solution.

  11. These are all wonderful suggestions, and I’m seeing a pattern: All of the strategies involve lifting out of the linear question “how do I solve this”, and placing the mind into a different context.

    This makes sense to me. When we shift our mind into a fresh context, we shake things up and allow our subconscious greater freedom to come up with new approaches. Which is when the really good stuff happens.

  12. Thanks to the reader who caught the typo in my original post. Note to that reader: No, you were not the troll I was talking about. Your suggestion was both constructive and helpful, and very much appreciated. Although your subsequent comments did go a little off the rails.

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