How to Trudge Through a Productivity Valley

Apparently my productivity likes to operate in cycles. Almost like clockwork it seems like my productivity shifts between one or two weeks of being fully functional and operating at the peak of my abilities and is then followed by about a week of being mired in a valley of "bleh." During this 5-7 days of living in the "productivity valley" I find myself questioning why I'm doing everything I'm doing and if I'm even on the right path. It's like I go on two week benders of productivity before being slammed with a weeklong hangover.

Needless to say, it's unpleasant.

Last week I was in the middle of one of my productivity valleys so I thought I'd share a little bit about what it was like and how I eventually broke out of it.

What To Do When You're Stuck in a Productivity Valley

During my latest productivity valley I could barely look at the meaningful projects on my list. They filled me with dread or left me completely empty. Either way, the thought of actually working on any of them and making substantive process seemed crazy. Instead of completely throwing in the towel, though, I was able to fall back on a couple of habits that helped me continue to make forward progress and not just crawl back into bed every morning.

Maintenance Work

One of the "areas of responsibility" that encapsulates to-do items and projects is simply called Administrative. It ends up holding lots of odds and ends that aren't directly related to business or school projects but still have some bearing on my life. For instance, I currently have an active project related to finding a new place to live, a task to contact my teammate about getting a discount on a new hockey stick, and a task to update some of my passwords with 1Password. Since these tend to be pretty unimportant and non-urgent tasks they tend to accumulate over time. Last week I was able to knock out a ton of these. In a similar vein, sometimes I will tag tasks that are really easy to do so I can do a simple search for everything I have to do that I have designated as "easy" and I can spend my day feeling "productive" without having to do anything very taxing. Obviously, this only works if you don't abuse the system by only doing easy stuff every day. Try to save these maintenance tasks for when you're mired in a productivity valley.

Eliminate Cruft

I hate cruft. Cruft is what inevitably accumulates in any system that isn't cleaned out very often. In the realm of knowledge work, cruft accumulates everywhere information flows. Email inboxes, project files, to-do lists, Someday/Maybe lists, files and folders -- all of these places will get crufty if you let them. Last week I spent a lot of time going through my digital file cabinet (Evernote) and making sure the only notes in my active notebooks were actually connected to active projects. I also went through Things and eliminated projects that weren't going to get started any time soon or I knew would never get done. I also decided to get on the anti-Someday/Maybe bandwagon and either scheduled Someday/Maybe projects to appear in the future for reconsideration or removed them completely. I even went through my wardrobe and got rid of some clothes I don't wear very often, got rid of extra office supplies I didn't need, physical files I no longer needed direct access to, blogs I didn't want to follow in my RSS reader, newsletters that weren't bringing me value in my inbox, and unfollowed people on Twitter and Facebook who weren't enhancing my life in some way. By the end of it all I felt much lighter and ready to take on new ideas.

Just Relax

Perhaps part of the reason this productive/unproductive cycle exists is as a subconscious reminder of the need to just relax. When I'm being very productive I tend to work very hard and push myself pretty far. In a way, it's only natural that my body responds by forcing me to take it easy every couple of weeks. To a certain extent I need to just learn to go with it a little bit better and use the time to rejuvenate and refocus for what's to come.

How Do You Get Out of the Valley?

There are a couple of tricks that work occasionally, but the only surefire way I've found to snap out of it is to just let enough time pass. It almost never lasts longer than a week and I often wake up Monday morning after a week of being stuck in the valley to a ton of energy and excitement to get back to work. If you can't just let nature run it's course because you have an imminent due date or some other reason, I've had some success with the follow strategies:

1. Shock yourself out of it: If I'm stuck in the valley and I need to get out of it I can often shock myself out of it by breaking completely from my typical daily habits. In the past I've had success with pulling an all-nighter to work on something important. Sure, I'm tired as hell the next day but if I'm able to power through it I often come out feeling more motivated on the other side. Your mileage may vary and I actually haven't done this in years -- I have a feeling I might be getting too old to have this work. On the flip side, you could also try getting up much earlier than usual and working on something meaningful while the rest of the world is asleep and you can feel like you're getting a head start.

2. Lower the barrier to getting started: I think much of the problem of being stuck in the productivity valley is centered on the idea of getting started on something. When you're feeling unproductive the thought of starting on a major project is usually overwhelming. To combat that, try lowering the barrier to entry by setting a timer for five minutes and only forcing yourself to work for that long. More often than not five minutes of work is enough to get you past the dread of getting started and much closer to finding flow in the task at hand.

3. Break your projects: Similar to the idea above, sometimes getting started seems impossible because our projects are too intimidating. "Work on thesis... are you kidding me?" was the gist of what I thought to myself early last week. Luckily, I was able to make a little bit of progress by biting off one tiny piece of that project (I think it was, "draft one paragraph about indie work growth") and only focusing on that. Take one of your important projects and break off an almost ridiculously tiny piece of it. Just like working on something for five minutes seems borderline silly, get equally silly with what you commit to do on a big project. You may find that just getting started on something is enough to get you moving out of that productivity valley.


Because I'm stubborn I still think I can figure out a way where I never have to experience the productivity valley. I have some ideas about how I can change the way I approach my work and how I can notice I'm heading into the valley before I find myself in the bottom of it and I'll be sharing them as I experiment with them on myself. In the mean time, I hope these ideas help the next time you find yourself stuck.


Perhaps The Workologist Newsletter can help get you unstuck on a monthly basis? I send it out at the beginning of each month and I save my best article idea of the month for the article I write in each issue. You can sign up here and as a thank-you you'll receive a download with my e-book, Work Better.

Photo by Akuppa John Wigham