How totally non-productive days can help you get back in the groove

Have you ever heard of a computer "thrashing"? I started my professional career as a software developer in the 80's. Now before you yawn and think "another one of those good old bad old days stories," stick around - this is not one of them.

This is about "thrashing" - then and now. Then, it was a term we (software nerds) used to described what happened when a computer ran out of memory. It happens something like this:

  • operating system sees that it is running out of working memory (RAM);
  • it saves some of the running programs to disk so it can reallocate the working memory;
  • it loads the next piece of code from disk into working memory;
  • finds that it needs some of the code that it just swapped out to run the code it just loaded; so:
  • it swaps out the working memory to disk to load the other bits of code;
  • and ends up in a loop swapping code between disk and memory.

Suddenly, everything would start slowing down, the computer became unresponsive and the disk was busy all the time. This is a phenomenon we called thrashing - a lot of activity with very little work actually getting done.

Have you ever thrashed?

Last Tuesday I had a thrashing day. We came out of a long weekend and somehow I was just not in my normal productive groove. I had stuff planned for the week, but the plans were not quite as good as I needed them to be to get really productive.

Most frustratingly, I found myself getting sidetracked. I actually ended up spending time on the Internet, chasing "interesting" things that would be oh so useful later on.

We all have these days. We pride ourselves on the days that we actually get a lot done. So when one of these "thrashing" days hit we feel totally unsettled. We try and try and try to get stuff done, but by the end of the day we realise that we actually produced very little of value.

Last Tuesday I got very little done. OK, let's be honest - the day was a complete waste.

Or was it?

We cannot maintain high productivity all the time

Our ability to concentrate is limited.

Cal Newport's books Deep Work and So good they can't ignore you examine this subject in detail. According to Cal we can only maintain high levels of focus for relatively short periods of time (anywhere from two to six hours a day). The good news is that focus is a muscle - we can train it and get better at it, and we can create environments that helps us focus.

Focus (and productivity) needs context.

But focus (and productivity) needs context. We can only focus and be productive for extended periods of time if we know what we're working towards; that there is some end goal in sight. If we know what that end goal is we can break the work we need to do into chunks, and focus on those chunks one at a time to get stuff done.

When we thrash it means we've lost sight of the big picture. And this happens more easily than we think.

Thrashing days are trigger days

Thrashing days are usually caused by one of the following things:

  • We lost sight of the big picture.
  • We failed to do big-picture planning.
  • We're unsettled because of other things happening in our lives.

When we spend a day thrashing - getting very little actual productive work done - it means we've lost sight of what's important and the sequence in which we need to get stuff done. Or we're just plain tired.

In an ideal world, we're building and growing a business, or striving towards some goal we want to reach. We've planned out the big chunks of work, broken them into smaller pieces and planned the next pieces over the next few weeks.

But the ideal world never seems to stick around too long. We get interrupted, chaos and crises happen and we get thrown off our rhythm. Before too long we realise that we're falling behind, there are more emergencies to deal with and our focus becomes fragmented with all the stuff we have to deal with.

And this is where thrashing days become useful. They become a trigger to stop, step back and re-evaluate.

How thrashing can help you get back in the groove

So last Tuesday was a thrashing day for me. And I know why it happened - I had lost sight of the bigger picture. There was a lot going on, the long weekend had thrown me off my rhythm and I struggled to get back in the groove.

Towards the end of the day I was totally frustrated. I didn't beat myself up about it too much - I know that these days happen to me (and to all of us). While it was frustrating, it was also a trigger - there was something wrong that I had to fix.

By now I know that my thrashing days are caused by not stepping back to see the bigger picture enough. Here's what's supposed to happen:

  • At the end of each year I take two whole days to review the year and plan the next year.
  • Every quarter I take one day to review the quarter and update what I want to achieve the next quarter.
  • Every month I take two to three hours to review the month and update where I'm going.
  • And every week I spend an hour reviewing the week that was and planning the upcoming week.

This may seem excessive, but experience has taught me that more planning leads to getting more done. Plan less and I get less done. It's not only simple, it's also true for me and for every single client I've worked with over the last 12 years.

A thrashing day simply means that I've lost sight of the bigger picture. I've lost sight of what I need to do to move closer to where I want to be.

It means that I've not spent the time I allocated to reviewing and planning. It's a reality check that tells me I need to pause, go and review the big picture, take the time to review my priorities and the tasks I need to accomplish.

So at the very least a thrashing day is a trigger that something is not quite right.

What causes you to thrash?

When you find yourself thrashing, the first thing to do is stop whatever you're doing. Your thrashing is not getting you anywhere, and there are bigger things behind the thrashing that you need to solve before you can move on again.

So when you find yourself thrashing, stop whatever you're doing.

Next step: walk away and take a break. Literally walk away from whatever you're doing. Your mind is spinning and you're not able to focus, so step away from what you were trying to focus on and take a walk, go for a coffee or a workout. Change your environment.

When you come back you will be a little calmer - but avoid the temptation to get back into what you were doing. Take a piece of paper and first write down the symptoms of your thrashing. For me, it was getting distracted into "researching" stuff on the Internet, unable to focus for more than 10 minutes, finding more interesting things out in the garden that I just had to go and look at.

Now try to find the cause of the thrashing. Usually this is relatively easy - the symptoms will tell you what you are avoiding. Usually, I find that the underlying cause of thrashing is that I've lost sight of the bigger picture, what my priorities and focus should be right now and what I need to do to move forward.

And then take as much time as you need to resolve whatever the cause of the thrashing was. For me, it can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days. Don't beat yourself up about it - it happens to all of us and you will get better at fixing it faster as you practice this technique.

Don't beat yourself up - it happens to all of us

My thrashing Tuesday took the rest of the week to resolve. And part of the weekend. While I was productive during the rest of the week it was not up to what I had wanted it to be. But I've seen this enough to know that beating myself up doesn't help; it happens to all of us.

In summary, here's the technique you can use when you recognise that you're thrashing:

  1. Stop whatever you're doing.
  2. Walk away and take a break.
  3. Write down the symptoms.
  4. Find the cause.
  5. Fix the cause.

And don't beat yourself up - it happens to all of us. Just fix it and know that you'll get better at it next time.

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