Have you ever had an incredibly amazing day or week, with huge breakthroughs… and then thought it would be permanent, when it wasn't?
I've spent immense time investigating this phenomenon. It's as aggravating as anything else imaginable. You're flying along, doing incredibly well, it seems like you've turned up to a higher level of production, productivity, creativity, teamwork, whatever -- only to sink back down, and sometimes worse than before for a while.
What causes this?
Well, there's old fashioned complacency or overconfidence -- which is why Tokugawa Ieyasu made his famous quote that, "after victory, tighten the straps on your helmet."
I think there's two other key factors, though --
First, during a day of intense and immense success, you'll be running hot with stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. This isn't all bad, in fact, it's good -- but it means you'll like over-exert yourself past a sustainable baseline, but won't notice. If you're in a mad inspired frenzy and work 18 amazing hours straight, you'll go to bed with a feeling of immense and complete satisfaction.
But yet, that's probably an unsustainable work pace. By pushing right through normal needs like proper hydration, diet, sleep, exercise, grooming, and dealing with other mundane tasks, you're setting the stage for a backsliding.
It's not even a bad thing. I've started to acknowledge that it will happen sometimes -- after a record-breaking day or week, there's a chance a short crash will set in. If you're prepared for it, it's not such a problem really. It's only when you (mistakenly) think you've achieved a new permanent baseline that you're in line for disappointment.
There's also the problem of regression to the mean, an extremely powerful and rarely noticed force.
After a particularly terrible day, tomorrow is likely to be better.
Why? Regression to the mean.
Baselines change slowly and rarely. If you've had an unusually amazing breakthrough period, it's likely that some of it has come from improved performance (if you've been practicing and training lately), but it's also likely some of it is just a positive variance going your way.
In other words, if you have a day where you accomplish 300% more than is normal, the odds are that much of it is factors breaking your way just right. Some of the improvement could be real and permanent, but likely much of it is variance.
That's fine -- own those days and love those days, and those massive breakthrough amazing days are when you'll stack up a lot of your wins -- but it's key to realize that it might not be a new baseline.
Does this conflict with positive thinking?
I reckon, absolutely not. I've often been seduced into thinking that after a particularly inspired period, that I'd be that way forever. This can have disastrous implications for your cashflow if you think a breakthrough record profitability month is the new baseline, and you hire employees or make investments that will require you to sustain an unsustainable performance.
In terms of personal work, there's a series and sets of tasks that are perfect to be undertaken with a systematic grinding away at them while in a low-productivity state. If you don't detail, prime, or plan any of those tasks when you're high up and you're assuming that you'll stay high up forever, you could be setting yourself up for a big fall.
Whereas if you realized, "Okay. We just had a record-breaking [day / week / month], but let's keep perspective. Let's keep working hard, but let's also realize things will get lean at some point… and take commensurate measures" -- then you'll have the right set of tasks to be done, actions to take, etc., that mean you'll be able to have reasonably productive days even if you regress towards the old baseline.
Expectations are crucial, too, for morale. And this is where the regression hurts the most. It's not just that you go back towards an old baseline with a belief that you can consistently perform much better -- it's that, psychologically, going backwards feels near intolerable to almost all people.
If you performed at "50 units completed" two days ago, and then "90 units completed" today… how will "60" feel tomorrow?
Probably terrible, if you're not ready for it. Yet, if your baseline has been '50 units" for a long period of time, you might have just had both luck AND a breakthrough. Going from 50 units completed (revenues gained, miles run, other fitness training, words written, actions complete, calls made, signups gained, whatever) -- up to 60 units completed is a full 20% increase.
But if you're thinking you're up higher, and then fail to meet those goals, that 90 could be a real false blessing. Demoralization sets in, you don't work as hard and as sustainably in the old paradigm because you think there's a new paradigm, you measure yourself against the new baseline and feel bad you're not reaching it, you might even have damage to your confidence and self-esteem! Yuck!
The answer? Welcome major breakthrough successes, but do so calmly. Breakthroughs might be 100% real and 100% permanent, but don't count on it or make a necessity. If you can capture 20% of the increased performance baseline, you're doing exceptionally well. That keeps you motivated, healthy, realistic, and on-track.
Enjoy the breakthroughs. Be poised to seize the gains if they're permanent. Yes, seize opportunity. But don't immediately ratchet your expectations up to the highest level of short term performance you've had recently -- it's not necessary, and it's counterproductive.
Enjoy those breakthroughs, then make sure to be ready to sure some of the gains while balancing sustainability. Regression happens, if you're prepared you'll get through it and be at the breakthrough's baseline soon enough.
I've also noticed that I can do a lot of foundational work, more or less in the background for several weeks, and then it all bears fruit in one week and I think "Oh, man, right on! I've leveled up!" And then, of course, I have invisible, foundational work to do on the next thing and I'm bummed.
Reversion to the mean is a great phrase for this.
It's the same with weight loss. A big drop one day, while exciting, sets one up for disappointment later. Solution: use something like the weight tracking tool at The Hacker's Diet web site, so that you see the statistical trend instead (using some fancy mathematical formula). Probably you could do the same with productivity.
Hey Sebastian, you previously mentioned having Cyclothymia in one of your earlier posts. Do you think that it's played a role in affecting your productivity/crash cycle?
Harriet Zuckerman, a sociologist, was investigating the roots of scientists who do top-class work leading to breakthroughs and discoveries.
After researching and digging in, the answer she came to was that the scientists who did the most groundbreaking work were not necessarily smarter or harder working, but rather built up an "accumulation of advantages."
By getting slightly ahead earlier in their careers, they'd get more opportunities to make interesting connections, present at events and conferences, get onto interesting research projects, connect with luminaries, find mentors, receive funding and grants, etc.
Any one of those, in isolation, wouldn't make the difference. But over 20 years, the gradual accumulation of advantages put them into places where they had the skills, connections, mental models, resources, credibility, etc, etc, to be working on the right problems with the right people and the right resources/tools at their disposal. And so they'd do breakthrough work.
If you buy the hypothesis, it suggests that it's not any one major point that leads to breakthroughs -- it's about gradually accumulating important, relatively small advantages, and watching them stack up and work as multipliers for you.
Hard work produces near magical results, but we all have an absolute ceiling on how hard we work.
People usually start thinking about working smarter once they're near that limit and getting burned out. Once the realization sets in that you can't work any harder, you've got to get smarter.
To work smart, the first thing you need to do is figure out what you're already doing.