Recovering from a productivity plunge

Since late November, I’ve been writing a book. I recently turned in the manuscript to my publisher, and I have gone from working hard 14-hour days 7 days a week back to working manageable 8-hour days 5 days a week. (The book comes out November 3, and I’ll give more information about it as the publishing date gets closer. I am really excited about it.)

Unfortunately, as my responsibilities have plummeted in the last two weeks, so has my productivity. It’s now taking me three to four times longer to do routine and simple tasks. My mind is wandering, I’m in no rush to get anything done, and yesterday, for the first time in over a year, a post went up on the site 30 minutes late.

In 1957, Professor C. Northcote Parkinson wrote of this phenomenon in his book Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration. The opening sentence of his book proclaims the culmination of his research, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” And, since I am carrying a significantly lighter load of work, it’s taking me unreasonable amounts of time to do it.

Part of this decrease in productivity is probably healthy. For six months, I was pushing myself unusually hard. However, it’s time for me to get my bum back into gear and return to a regular level of efficiency.

To do this, I’m taking the following steps:

  1. Planning my new perfect day.
  2. Using a timer and music to motivate me to do my work in a speedy manner.
  3. Using my project management software for the smallest of tasks.
  4. Giving myself permission to leave work whenever I finish at any point after 3:00 p.m.

Have you noticed that your productivity takes a dive after the completion of a large project? Is Parkinson’s Law true for you? What do you do to turn this around?

31 Comments for “Recovering from a productivity plunge”

  1. posted by Dave on

    I love when I learn things I’ve always said are actually backed up by research.
    I’ve always found that when I have very little to do, it takes me forever to do it. But as soon as I’m busy, I get things done quickly. I think writing down tasks you need to complete helps with this, as you’ll always see more that needs to be done, giving yourself a sense of being busy.

  2. posted by Siouxsie on

    You’re right, that does seem to always happen to me too after an extremely busy period or time absorbent project has passed. I tend to resort to a lax comfort zone… which is not altogether a bad thing, we need a time of recuperation after big events and activities. Maybe it just takes some of us longer to snap out of that zone. Most of our lives are constantly filled with things that require us to keep on top of them and if we miss a beat, all seems to fall apart and we can end up bringing unnecessary stress upon ourselves (don’t we aim to keep our spirits and minds uncluttered too?) =) Obviously it’s a good goal to avoid that. Anyhow, to turn “Parkinson’s Law” around for me: after I feel rested, I will tackle one of the next usually abundant projects at hand, trying to make it an alternate of the one I just completed i.e. a selfless project after completing one I did for myself and vice versa. That way you stay balanced and don’t get burned out on constantly doing one or the other.

  3. posted by Kathryn on

    I think it’s more than just having more time in the day. The experience of achieving such a major goal is quite disorienting.

    One thing that helps me is to make a list of the things that I’d been putting off during The Crunch so that in those “what do I do now?” moments it’s easier to reorient myself to those things that are most productive and/or valuable, rather than what’s most convenient.

  4. posted by Consultant Calamities on

    That’s AWESOME you have a contract for a book! 🙂 I hope to publish a book myself, someday.

    Just wanted to say…I know you always have things to get done, and the to-do list is always never-ending…but in light of all the hard work you’ve put in recently, its OK to give yourself some downtime, too. Or at least, don’t be so hard on yourself for not accomplishing “as much” as you did with those super long days.

  5. posted by Tammy on

    it’s true, and i do NOTHING to turn it around, because i believe it is a necessary correction to the times when my life is too busy. the purpose of life is not efficiency, but enjoyment. 😀

  6. posted by Kriti on

    Absolutely! Productivity, and sometimes even health, take a dive once a project is done.

    I think it may have to do with how hard you’re pushing yourself during that project, and the importance of rest and breaks. 14 hours / day is very, very strenuous for most of us — maybe you have a sleep-debt or rest-debt. When we have a big project, the adrenaline of deadlines often allows us to put out more work than we would otherwise. For instance, who would work all night if they didn’t have to? Yet so many people routinely do it.

  7. posted by Nick on

    That is so true – and I think its great seeing “Parkinson’s Law” to backup what we all feel! Whenever I finish a crazy crunch time at work – maybe 2 or 3 weeks of non-stop 12 hour days, lots of pressure from my boss, etc. I find myself spending the next few days at a snails pace, lazing over emails and spreadsheets, taking my time, checking my Gmail more often, taking a longer lunch. I think it’s totally normal and HEALTHY to give your mind and body some time to do LESS or NOTHING after a period of stress. I usually snap back into productive mode after a few days naturally. We don’t need to be productive 100% of the time in order to be happy or have uncluttered lives! 🙂

  8. posted by Matt Gibson on

    Is this really Parkinson’s Law, or did you just not take a good, long, well-deserved break at the end of the really productive period?

    Science it up all you like, but I’m wondering if you just needed a holiday…

  9. posted by Emily on

    Oh, yes. When I got laid off in March, I wasn’t sure how the days would get filled, but they do somehow – I get some things done, but am probably even less productive than when I had to worry about getting everything done after 5pm. But I’m definitely less stressed out!

    Also, I love the idea of the perfect day. Thanks! It might help me get on track with all the grad school work I’ve been procrastinating on.

  10. posted by Another Deb on

    I am another who knows the effect of a sudden “relief” of time after having a long period of packed scheduling. It happens to me every summer, as school lets out, I begin to sleep in (past 4 AM), wander around the house, pick things up to work on and then drift away.

    Some of my teacher friends call this “recharging your batteries”, others claim to get depressed in summer without a strict routine. I call it “doing the things I didn’t have time to do during the school year, like my dishes from Thanskgiving dinner”

    Actually, I begin creating my list of things to do each summer in the spring. I start scheduling things like travel, doctor’s appointments, classes and workshops onto my calendar so I begin to get some structure. The list of things to work on keeps me focused on the unscheduled tasks so I can pick and choose what I feel like doing at a time or during weather that permits it. (The heat drives people indoors in Arizona, so my garage and yard tasks are sporatic.)

    I also keep a list on my calendar of what I DID that day, as a reminder that tasks are being achieved. This makes that empty page of June another sort of motivation. I want to fill it with a list of what I got done each day, even if it is “purged 2 boxes”.

    The first two weeks of summer break are already over for me but I’ve painted walls and refinished the floors in a craft room and reorganized the cabinets for my projects. I’ve also had 3 professional development classes and two craft workshops. The house has a few less paper files, a few more scanned notebooks and I’ve been cooking and cleaning a bit. I’ve been to the library twice and caught up on years’ worth of a couple of TV series that I have been hearing others rave about. The DVD played on the laptop while I organized the portable storage hard drive. My family tree has a few new entries and my classroom website is getting started.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist posting my list!

  11. posted by mmm on

    Indeed. Giving yourself a rest, meandering through your day, is really really healthy. You can’t sustain the great push to a goal at that level constantly. Sometimes, “productivity” is visiting a friend you haven’t seen in a long time, browsing in a book store, reconnecting with your family. Writing a letter to a friend, sleeping, kicking back, visiting the museum you haven’t seen.. Girl, you have to replenish the “bank account” if you know what I mean. You can’t always run so close to the bone.

  12. posted by Maura on

    In HS, my daughter was a student athlete — and her grades were always a little bit better while she was in-season, no time to herself, very focused on her school work during the limited time she had for homework. In the off-season she was a bit more relaxed, with more “free time” and she tended to slack off.

  13. posted by Marlo on

    I can totally relate! It seems when my calendar is jam packed with activities/projects I am organized with energy. It also has to be work related or education projects that I ENJOY and then I can work non-stop. My husband says the more I have going, the more productive I am.

    I do sometimes crash and hibernate after periods of extreme productivity. I find I need to recharge at home, alone and sleep a lot. I am on the introverted side so that is renewal to me!

  14. posted by Leslie on

    This happens to me every year after Christmas. Since I work at a university and have the week between Christmas and New Years Day off, in mid-November I start putting aside books I want to read and do that during my week off. (I usually end up with a pile of magazines I didn’t have time for earlier also.) I’ll write holiday thank yous between reading books and end the week by setting goals for the new year. That way I get the recovery time I need, but end the week on an up note and ready to get going on the new projects.

  15. posted by Cerinne on

    Very true! I remember at the end of finals every semester, as I took breaks amongst 18-hour studythons I’d daydream about all the fun exciting personal projects I could get to work on as soon as my drab dreary schoolwork was done. But the moment I left the classroom after the last exam, my butt would park in front of the nearest TV and not remove itself for a good two days. I’ve been working reduced hours for the past 6 months as I prepare for a move to start a new job. I thought I could use this time again for personal projects, but I’m slacking off horribly. I can’t wait to be working 45 hours a week with lengthy commutes again–that’ll teach me to value my free time, and make the most of it!!

  16. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    Amen to that! I am ALWAYS much more productive when I have too much to do. In college my best semester GPA was when I was taking 11 credits at night while working a 40 hour a week day job.

    Erin – congrats on the book being done. Can’t wait to see it.

  17. posted by andrew on

    I work in a creative field and while I can see how finishing a big project can create a sudden drop in productivity I’m not entirely sure that that is the cause. I like to keep a rule in mind which is this: the amount of time that you have to do something is the amount of time it will take. So in these times where we have big deadlines ahead, we have very little time to get everything in life done, but it still manages to get done. Once the project is over, we take all the time we need to get things done because we have that time to use. I find that the key to staying productive even when we have lots of time to accomplish things is to set self-imposed deadlines. Without these deadlines, I would never finish working on a piece of art, because there is always something that can be done.

  18. posted by Michelle on

    It’s so ironic, because I was just talking to a girlfriend about this tonight! I am a teacher and therefore have the summer off…which means I have all this time to get unfinished projects done, right? Not so much. I feel like I’ve wasted a ton of time doing who knows what. It’s frustrating when you don’t have a lot to show for a few weeks of your life. It’s also hard to get stuff done when there are no real deadlines and no one telling you it has to get done or else….

  19. posted by Wilhelm Scream on

    I’m in a productivity plunge right now, but I need to get a lot of revision done for exams. I find the most useful thing is to take on a personal project that is totally unrelated to what you need to get done. I do best in my schoolwork when the main focus of my life is something else!

  20. posted by Michele on

    Erin, I’ve found this exact phenomenon happen to me! During my last year of law school, when I went from a very busy academic quarter to a quarter with a much lighter workload, I found that I would take more time over meal preparation, or I’d do housework in a little more leisurely manner. The good part was that I had more time to do the few academic assignments I had, so when I had to prepare a lecture for a seminar class, I could put together a very good powerpoint slideshow, even though the slideshow wasn’t required in the assignment.

    Personally I’ve found that having externally created and imposed deadlines works best for me. Though I’ve gotten better, I’m usually not very good at time management without an external motivator.

  21. posted by Girl points « Wilhelm Scream on

    […] Unclutterer has a very timely article about this. I am usually at my most productive in the autumn term, when I’m typically rehearsing for a play as well as doing all my other extra-curriculars. Now that I have no routine and nothing particular to do, I’m just drifting. I’m a surfer, not a sailor, but I haven’t got any big waves. […]

  22. posted by Brandon on

    Absolutely. I sometimes plan a day off after completing a big project, as I know I won’t get much done that day.

  23. posted by Dennis on

    Yes, I have noticed a problem doing work and staying focused after a large project is finished. Taking a day off works for me. It’s like a deep relaxing breath. When I return to work after my day off I seem to focus better.

  24. posted by Marla on

    It all goes hand-in-hand with another old saying: “If you want something to get done, ask a busy person.”

    Yes, when my load is lighter I take advantage of the space and time – but I like myself better when I’m more productive. It’s the inertia and momentum that gets me – it’s harder to start up than to keep going. And, I found a subtle thing that was happening. A few months ago we rented out much of our household decor, including our sofa, to a movie set. While the sofa was gone and we had a smaller, more uncomfortable settee in its place, I accomplished so much more! Upon our sofa’s return, I sold it and bought a smaller, more firm one – no more sinking into comfortable depths and lingering there – and it’s worked! So, finding out what the time-waster was really helped.

    So, I’d say one thing I do to turn things around would be to add something new or take on a new, short-term project. And the other, is to identify the time-suck, and either schedule it in, so it doesn’t sideswipe me, or remove it.

  25. posted by Weekly Roundup | turning*turning on

    […] From Unclutterer, a well-timed piece called Recovering from a Productivity Plunge. […]

  26. posted by Suzjazz on

    I also wrote a book last year (I have yet to find a publisher) and yeah, my productivity went WAY down when I was done. But why not? We are not machines. We can’t be productive all the time. Productivity is just a capitalist time trap. When you finish a large project, you have the right NOT to be productive for a while.

  27. posted by Donna on

    Yeah, as a CPA it’s the post-tax-season let down. Even though the last days of tax season are filled with thoughts of “what I’ll do as soon as I’m done” here I am with the first week of June gone and annuals not in the ground for summer.

  28. posted by Melissa A. on

    I wish! I haven’t been productive in so long. I don’t know how to get that back.

  29. posted by Rebecca on

    So cool that you’ve found the research. When I don’t have enough to do, I always create projects for myself – and the best kinds of those projects are things that make it easier for you to be productive when you are really busy. For instance, in a recent downtime, I created templates for my daily, weekly work, and both the blogs I write. It’s been incredibly helpful!

  30. posted by Suzyn on

    Yup – I managed somehow to write/edit a book (RELEASED TODAY – WOO HOO) while working full time and raising two little ones. And now that it’s done, I can barely check my email before falling into bed. I think it’s called exhaustion – physical, intellectual, emotional… Can you take a vacation?

  31. posted by Slump « Venn Librarygram on

    […] The problem right now is that the last few weeks of school are always very fraught with projects and last minute crises and the pain of saying goodbye to graduating seniors and departing faculty/friends. Then graduation happens and – wham! – summer hits. And right on top of that is a productivity slump. […]

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