While many jobs follow some sort of seasonality, knowledge work doesn’t.
There’s no slow season when you’re building a company, designing apps, or developing software. But placing that same expectation for nonstop growth and output on yourself is a recipe for burnout.There’s no slow season when you’re building a company, designing apps, or developing software. But placing the same expectation for nonstop growth and output on yourself is a recipe for burnout. Click To Tweet
As we’ve written in the past, we all go through natural ebbs and flows of energy and focus during the day. And one of the best ways to be productive all day long is to simply work with those cycles (i.e. schedule your most important work when your energy levels are naturally higher and vice versa.)
But what if you could take this idea beyond just your daily schedule and start optimizing your time and effort across weeks, months, or even years? That’s exactly what productivity cycles let you do.
The 5 key benefits of building productivity cycles into your personal workflow
If you’re anything like me, you probably try to fit more into your days than is possible. Whether this is due to unrealistic expectations from your boss or yourself (hello perfectionism!) there’s a growing sense that we can never do enough.
It’s no wonder that when we interviewed hundreds of RescueTime users we found nearly ¾ of people leave work and ask “did I accomplish anything today?”
We’re all overwhelmed on some level. Yet, the way most people deal with this is to simply work more. But as we’ve written at lengths about in the past, more effort doesn’t equal more output.
Personal productivity follows a law of diminishing returns. Once you cross a certain threshold, more time spent working won’t produce anything of value (and can even lead to increased stress, physical issues, and burnout!)
Productivity cycles are repeated actions or behaviors that you do on a specific, spaced-out schedule. They’re a way to step off the hamster wheel and get deliberate and purposeful about how you spend your time and energy.
More than that, they’re huge productivity boosters for a number of other reasons:
1. Productivity cycles help you prioritize long-term goals
Most of us spend our days swept away by distractions, interruptions, and “urgent” tasks. In fact, research shows that most knowledge workers spend around 80% of their day in meetings, doing “busy work”, and on calls and emails.
However, once you start thinking of your work in larger cycles, it forces you to decide what’s most important not just today, but on a larger timescale.
Instead of getting blinded by what feels most urgent, productivity cycles allow you to systematize your work and make sure what you’re doing now is connected to your long-term goals.
For example, let’s say you’ve created a productivity cycle where you only check your site’s analytics once a week at a specific time. Rather than checking them whenever you feel like it (and getting swept away by what you see) you:
- Reduce the stress and internal distraction of always feeling like you should be “checking in”
- Are able to try new strategies and run real tests without feeling like they’re taking away from your daily tasks
2. Thinking in cycles gives you more mental space (and helps you be more creative)
You need mental space to work on big problems, get creative, and find work-life balance. Yet it’s impossible to find this space when you’re drowning in busy work.
One of the unexpected results of using productivity cycles, however, is that they allow you to balance periods of work with periods of rest. Entrepreneur and writer, Sean McCabe calls this your “seasons of work.”
Instead of saying “I’m doing to start doing X” and then forcing yourself to stay motivated, you’re instead committing to the work for just a specific period of time. This way you can try out a project (or a passion) and see if it sticks.
Even more surprising, is that following productivity cycles can promote creative and innovative thinking. As author David Kadavy writes:
“You might think that, when it comes to creative work, formalized processes are the enemy. But in fact, they’re a friend: They keep your mind free to solve the creative problems at hand.”
3. You’ll remember more and build skills faster thanks to the Spacing Effect
If you’re the type of person to cram before a big test, then spacing your work out into productivity cycles might seem counterintuitive. Yet, it can actually help you to develop your skills faster thanks to a phenomenon called the Spacing Effect.
Most of us begin to forget something new we learned within just 20 minutes. However, going over the information at regular intervals solidifies it in our memory. As Shane Parrish writes on Farnam Street, our brains assign greater importance to repeated information:
“When repetition learning takes place over a longer period, it is more likely that the materials are presented differently. We have to retrieve the previously learned information from memory and hence reinforce it. All of this leads us to become more interested in the content and therefore more receptive to learning it.”
Spreading out your work sessions over time helps you recall more information and build off what you already have.
4. Grouping work together makes you more productive
If you’re solely concerned with getting more done, productivity cycles can help with that as well. When you use productivity cycles, you’re essentially giving yourself permission to singletask.
Instead of trying to do everything at once, you know exactly when you’re going to do certain tasks and how they’re helping you build towards your long-term goals.
As we wrote in our Guide to Finding Focus at Work, focus is a muscle you can build over time. And the more you use productivity cycles, the longer you’ll be able to focus during specific sessions. As Paul Jarvis, author of Company of One, writes:
“The longer you can focus on a single type of task, the faster you can get it done. So grouping all the writing I have to do into a morning means I can write 5–6 articles in one fell swoop. Similar tasks also require similar software. So my mind gets used to Photoshop or my fingers remember all the hotkeys in my writing program if I do all of my weekly writing tasks at the same time.”
5. Cycles keep you in the present
Finally, offloading your scheduling and planning to a set of productivity cycles allows you to focus more on what you’re currently doing.
According to UC Irvine’s Gloria Mark, we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as we are to get interrupted by some outside distraction or notification.
Instead of feeling your concentration pulled in different directions, trying to multitask, or always questioning if you’re doing the right thing, productivity cycles give you order. Maybe even more importantly, they give you space to actually do the work you need to do instead of always thinking about what’s next.
What kind of productivity cycles can you use?
So how do productivity cycles look in practice? Ultimately, the types of cycles you work into your workday will depend on your individual goals, schedule, and responsibilities.
Here’s a great example of how author and podcast host David Kadavy sets up his own productivity cycles:
- Daily writing: Kadavy schedules at least the first hour of every day for writing. Instead of spending all day worrying about when and what he’s going to write, his cycle is to start each day with his most important task.
- Weekly reviews of Amazon Ads: Kadavy uses ads to help promote his self-published books. Instead of spending time every day checking and tweaking his ads, he schedules it for once a week.
- Monthly podcast production: Instead of chipping away at his monthly podcast episodes, Kadavy schedules time to polish them during the last two weeks of the month. This way, he can record all intros and sponsorship spots at once.
- Quarterly interviews: For the actual content of his podcasts, Kadavy discovered that there are specific “Seasons” that are better than others. Now, he focuses on recording all interviews for the year during either the Fall or Spring.
Without these productivity cycles in place, you could see how hectic Kadavy’s schedule could become. Interview requests could easily get in the way of focused writing time meaning both practices suffer and less gets done with the time he has.
The cycles that work best for you take into consideration your long-term goals, what you need to get done each day, and how much you can realistically do.Rather than clog up your calendar, Productivity Cycles work *with* your schedule to help you do more with the time you have. Click To Tweet
The 4 steps of building your own productivity cycles
You don’t have to start from scratch if you want to build your own productivity cycles. Essentially, all you’re doing is formalizing and optimizing the time you’re already spending on tasks. But like most productivity advice, it’s staying consistent with your cycles that takes real work.
Here’s a quick guide on how to decide on, create, and commit to your own productivity cycles.
Step 1: Start with a habit
The best cycles are habitual. In other words, you do them almost without thinking about it. But, as we wrote in our Guide to Building Good Work Habits, the best way to build habits is to start small.
Think about what you want your productivity cycle to be. Do you want to do a weekly review? Start by creating a template (or grab our free template here). Do you want to write every day? Commit to just 100 words or set a goal of writing for 20 minutes.
Starting small reduces the friction to start so you don’t procrastinate and can build your action into a habit.
Step 2: Document your process and start batching
For a cycle to work (and to become a habit), you need to know what needs to get done each time. You can’t build a productivity cycle of “coming up with a new growth strategy for your company every week.” But you can create one where you “write down 10 new ideas for bringing in customers.”
Do you see the difference? The second one—writing a set number of ideas—has a clear path and success metric, whereas the first one is vague and uncertain.
As Kadavy writes, your eventual goal with your productivity cycles is to create a checklist you can follow each time (or delegate to someone else). However, that’s not always clear at first. Once you start being habitual with your actions, take notes.
What do you do? What happens first? Are there dependencies to be aware of?
Jot these down until you start to see what clearly needs to be done.
Step 3: Decide the frequency of your productivity cycle
When do you want this productivity cycle to take place? Your answer will depend on the cycle itself as well as a few other criteria, such as:
- How much flexibility do you need? Is this cycle based on something you’re confident in (and have a checklist for?) Or something you’re experimenting with and need more time to play around with? Don’t try to formalize a system you’re unsure of yourself.
- What’s your skill level? Is your cycle based on something you can do in your sleep and doesn’t need re-enforcing? Or is this a skill you’re still building? Longer cycles can cause your skills and interest to deteriorate.
- What level of quality are you going for? Sometimes formalizing tasks (especially creative ones) can cause you to lose some of your “spark.” While other times, it might improve your output.
- Who else do you work with? Does this cycle depend on other people? Communicate what you’re doing and make sure your timing lines up.
- When do you do your best work? We all have a personal productivity curve each day. And understanding when you do your best work can make sure that you optimize when you should schedule these cycles.
Step 4: Don’t forget to leave time for reflection and celebration
In our rush to do more, we often forget the power of celebrating what we’ve accomplished. Yet, as we wrote in our post on 5 Easy Ways to Track your Progress, seeing regular progress is one of the biggest workplace motivators. Yet too many of us ignore the “small wins” and rush into what’s next on our plate.
Most productive tasks follow a similar flow: Idea + Start > Action + Progress > Completion. At that point, most of us go back to the start and look for new ideas to work on.
However, as Jinny S. Ditzler explains in Your Best Year Yet, there’s an important fourth step we’re missing: Acknowledge + Celebrate.
“Too many of us simply go straight from the end… back to the starting line without taking a pause for acknowledgment, pats on the back, thinking about what happened, or learning from it.
“Our eye is always on what’s next of what isn’t yet completed, and before long we feel as if we’re running on fumes. We don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere and we experience little satisfaction.”
As you build your own productivity cycles, make sure to leave space to celebrate what you have done. Like the cycles in nature, we can only keep going if we balance our periods of growth with periods of rest.
Better yet, why not build in a productivity cycle of gratitude?
Doing our best work doesn’t mean doing more work. With productivity cycles, you can design a schedule and a life that’s meaningful without being overwhelming, full of growth without setting you on the path to burnout, and genuinely productive without feeling like you’re running on the spot.