Changing the pendulum-swing work mindset

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If you can relate to the tendency to swing back and forth between periods of massive hustle and activity, to periods of sluggishness, slow movement and hesitation, you will benefit from this post. Many people, especially creative folks, tend to operate this way and it is fairly natural for us to have fluctuations in the energy and focus with which we approach our work. We follow our moods, our natural energy levels, our emotions, our hormones. It is part of being a proud owner of the artistic temperament.

The problem with this is, our work fares best when we have a pretty consistent work achievement level. While a stop-start work ethic may be in tune with the ebb and flow of our human natures, it is likely not going to get us as far as we want in terms of work success. Taken to extremes, this approach to work tends to leave us working at a frenetic and frantic pace when we’re in the upswing, to the point that we thoroughly exhaust ourselves. We then tend to be barely able to move until we’ve recovered from our period of overcommitment and working ourselves too hard.

This type of lifestyle is tiring and wastes much energy and potential on both ends of the swing. When you’re moving too quickly trying to get everything done, you’re not going to be thoroughly focused on the work at hand. You will find you lose concentration, your mind keeps hopping from one thing to the next and you are unable to put 100% into whatever you’re presently doing, because you’re already thinking about that next thing.

Then, when you’re in the recovery phase, you’re too tired to do anything and your work piles up as it waits for you. This, of course, gives you every reason to double down and work even faster and harder the next time, which feeds into your exhaustion…and the cycle continues.

If you know what I’m talking about here because you’ve experienced it, then you’re probably wondering how you can get ahold of yourself and rewrite this unhelpful pattern you’ve developed. And know this right now: it’s not easy. If this is the way you’ve been working and living for as long as you can remember, then you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. But the good news is that it is possible and that if you are mindful and consistent, you can do it.

Imagine a pendulum swinging back and forth, back and forth. If you continue putting force into the swing of the pendulum, it will swing up higher on each end. If you stop applying that force, the pendulum slows its swing and eventually will rest in the middle. That slow easing of the pendulum is what you want to achieve. It is better to do it this way than to try to arrest the pendulum in mid-swing, because as humans we tend to respond better to gradual changes rather than sudden ones.

So how do we apply this analogy to our lives?

This is something to do in stages. First you need to slow the upward swing a little. You do this by making your working pace in the hustle period a bit slower and going about each task with more mindfulness and intention.

Obviously, you’re probably going to be concerned about not being able to get everything done, so it’s vital to learn how to prioritise your tasks. You must ensure that the things you REALLY need to do are the ones you’re doing. Read this if you have trouble with the skill of prioritising.

Then, you need to plan for the downward swing. It’s time to apply intentional, planned break periods to your schedule. How you do this is up to you and the demands you personally have on your plate. (I take 1 day off in every 7 days, and 1 week off in every 7 weeks. I find this works well for me.)

Your break periods are as set in stone as you can possibly make them. During your break periods you should abstain from your regular work as much as you possibly can (if you’re employed by someone else then do what you can to make your break periods relaxing and refreshing).

In your next break period, try to keep some momentum and energy in your break period by doing other things that interest you. These may be things that you really enjoy but generally don’t have time for during a work period.

The next cycle around, slow the upward swing a little more. It’s okay to work hard but you will need to pay attention to the signs that tell you when you’re pushing yourself too far. They may be different for you than they are for someone else, but in general beginning to feel like you do not enjoy your life, like work is all you ever do, like you just want to escape, like you couldn’t be more exhausted and so on are pretty good indicators for me.

Remember to continue to prioritise your work so that the most important things are receiving the most immediate attention. Aim to work at a consistent but not-forced pace until you reach your next work break. Then, when you reach that break period, keep an energised but reduced flow of movement, doing those things that refresh and inspire you.

Continue tweaking your work/rest balance as above, until you are maintaining a good flow. When you’ve hit a good balance, you will no longer feel totally wiped out at the end of your working period, although you will likely be ready for a break and something different to work towards and think about. And by the end of your rest period you will feel energised and ready to dive back into your work with vigour and enthusiasm.

Now, this sounds pretty great on paper doesn’t it? But this hustle/exhaustion-swing thing you have going on currently is habitual and it’s probably pretty comfortable for you right now, and because of this you may initially struggle with making changes. Remember, it takes time to build up a habit and it takes just as much time, if not more, to change one.

If you find yourself reverting back to your old ways, don’t give up! The more often you try to change an old habit, the more likely that one day, your new habits will stick. Just keep trying, as long as it takes. You can and will eventually rewrite that habit pathway in your brain. The pay-off in increased work yield and quality is worth it!

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