Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Working through a Motivational Slump

I've written before about the fact that I "only" work 40-45 hours most weeks, increasing to 50 hours or so only when I have deadlines to meet. I think that I can do this and still continue to advance in my career because I've figured out how to be very productive during those 40 to 45 hours. I have a reputation for getting a lot done, and it is well-deserved, if I do say so myself. (And its my blog, so I can do that.)

Maintaining high productivity is easy when my motivational levels are high. The trick is to maintain acceptable productivity when they dip lower. I've been in a bit of a motivational slump lately. I don't kid myself- I have not been as productive as I could be these last few weeks. I'm bringing my B game to the table, not my A game. But frankly, my B game is good enough, at least for a short period of time. I can't afford to let it slip to my C game, though.

How do I keep my productivity up during these inevitable slumps? Two things: lists and rewards.

I've written before about how I use lists to help keep myself on task and keep my work hours down. As I describe in that post, I usually just keep a master to do list and a list with the most urgent upcoming tasks. When my motivation slumps, though, my lists multiply. I write a daily to do list and use that to keep myself focused during the day. I write "intermediate" to do lists of things that have to be done before some key event (like a presentation, an important meeting, or a vacation), and use those to populate my daily lists. I print out the plans for the projects I am working on and highlight the most urgent tasks. Basically, I surround myself with reminders of what I am supposed to be doing, and I increase my opportunities to get the satisfaction of crossing a task off a list- sometimes finishing one task allows me to cross something off of three or four lists or project plans. That makes me happy. I love crossing things off my lists.

My second key strategy is to give myself little rewards. Finished a particularly annoying task? That earns me a five minute walk outside the building. Had a productive morning? I get to go buy a bag of chips to eat with my lunch. Not all of my rewards are so strictly tied to visible progress, though. When my motivation is low, my work limit falls, and I find that I need to allow myself to refresh at night more than usual. So my beer intake goes up- instead of only having a beer or two with my husband on Fridays (our practically sacrosanct "Friday night beers"), I'll crack open a beer after the kids are asleep several times a week. I'll let myself blog instead of checking work emails, or I'll watch a TV show with my husband instead of trying to knock a home chore off the at home to do list.

I know from experience that these slumps pass, and I'll be back to my usual motivation levels before too long. But I don't have the slack in my work life to let the slumps just run themselves out. So I pull out my lists and rewards, and muscle through.

What about you? What do you do when your motivation slumps? 


  1. Anonymous4:42 AM

    We've got like 3 unfinished posts on the subject...

    But I would like to add:

  2. I'm a huge list person too, and I find crossing things off a list to be motivating. So, when I'm not working as productively as I could, I will break down my to-do items into smaller components. That way, I'm crossing more things off my list and at a faster rate.

  3. When I feel unmotivated I try to get more exercise - for me, it soon leads to a feeling of having more energy.

    And also, I try to never fight the feeling. I had a day last week when I was on a roll and getting a lot of things done, so I just went with it and put more time in. Then yesterday I was just tired and unmotivated, so I stopped work early and watched an old Star Trek episode on netflix and called it a day.

  4. I make lists, but when my motivation starts to fall, soemtimes I don't care about crossing things off the list either. Sometimes it helps to identify the cause of the slump - sometimes it is because it's been two weeks since I got consecutive days with enough sleep. Sometimes it's because I'm not really confident about *how* to do the tasks on my list. I noticed that having Labor Day weekend, which is the first weekend I've been able to sleep in 2 days in a row, nevermind 3, I have been SUPER motivated this week.

  5. the milliner7:19 AM

    Interesting. I never made the link between increased list making and dipping motivation levels. But I think I do that. When I'm highly motivated, I'm so into what I'm doing that I don't have time to check the lists or everything just kind of works out. But when the motivation goes down, I do go back and start revising my lists again.

    I definitely look to the cause of why I am unmotivated. Usually, it's because my work has tipped too far for too long out of creative/fun work. So, I try to address getting back to that either temporarily (if there is a more systemic reason for the tipping away from creativity) or by just realigning my priorities if it's something I can change immediately.

    And like @Hush says, when I'm hyper efficient / in the mood to work hard, I try to go with it so that when the inevitable slumps come, I can afford to take it easy (easier).

  6. These are good motivational tips for getting through the work slump, which we all have no matter how much you like/love your job.
    I need to remember these!

  7. I so hear you about the slumps. I definitely try to look at why - whether it's what I'm doing at work, if I need a new job (I've switched within my company a TON), not getting enough sleep, stress @ home, etc.

    But, when I'm having one of those low-motivation days, I use the technique I found on of figuring out my 3 Most Important Tasks that I NEED to do that day. If that's all I get done, and I can't take it anymore, I just call it a day. But getting those 3 things done means I've accomplished something, so I'm cool with that.

  8. Academic work for me has a certain rhythm. I go through periods of intense creativity or just intense busy-ness, and then I run out of steam and need to recharge before the next bits. So for me being in a slump is usually a sign that my brain is tired and needs a little break. I have small cycles like this during the day and longer ones that establish themselves over the semester. Sometimes trying to work through a slump is even less productive than watching BSG on Netflix (which is what I spent a lot of my summer doing, frankly, because I was burnt out). A person can only stay focused for just so long. I don't have very many "brainless" tasks that I can do during slumps, so I usually just let myself zone out. I should be doing yoga, probably.

  9. I'm big with lists too. When things get really bad, I default to doing the most easy of tasks on my to do list...or do something not related to work but productive in some other way, like paying a bill online or balancing my checkbook. Sometimes just the act of doing something/anything productive makes me feel like I've got it in me to tackle the real stuff.

    I have learned though that I do need real breaks though after a period of intense work productivity though. I have to recharge from being spent or the slump lasts longer. Would love to hear other people's tips too

  10. Well said like a
    motivational speaker. I'm always looking for good advice from others who do it in a daily basis. Thanks for sharing this and I'll keep this in mind and try it out.


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