Alternating periods of activity and rest are necessary to survive, let alone thrive. Capacity, interest, and mental endurance all wax and wane. Plan accordingly.”
Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
I take pride in working hard. I like to hustle. But, this can also get out of hand.
I’ll be the first to stand up and say:
Hello, my name is Chad. I’m a workaholic. I push and push and push until I burn out.”
Hi Chad, nice to meet you.
Somewhere between laziness and overworking is a happy medium. Hard work and sustained effort are required to accomplish worthwhile goals, but excessive hard work causes us to lose the freedom and pleasure that we worked for in the first place.
Even in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible we are reminded that all things, including the activities of our lives, have natural rhythms:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
In other words, our personal interest and energy are cyclical. We are not super-human robots who can endlessly work on a task, a project, or a business with full effectiveness.
Leonardo DaVinci on Naps, Cycles, and Peak Productivity
In a favorite book of mine, How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci author Michael J. Gelb shared this:
“In his Treatise on Painting, Da Vinci counseled ‘it is well that you should often leave off work and take a little relaxation because when you come back to it you are a better judge’.”
I remember reading that Da Vinci would frustrate his patrons because he’d leave in the middle of a project to relax, to nap, or to work on something else!
Da Vinci understood that interest and energy are cyclical. He knew that work of high-caliber could not be done continuously. If one of the greatest geniuses and creators of all time recognized and acted on these cycles, it’s good enough for me!
This principle can be applied both within our daily schedules and within our long-term careers.
Optimizing Daily Cycles
During the day, pay attention to your cycles of energy and interest. When are you most alert? When are you the most tired? When do you do the most creative work? When do you struggle the most?
My most creative time is between about 8 a.m. and 12 noon. I also have bursts between 9pm – 1am from time-to-time.
Instead of fighting this cycle, I try to use it. I schedule my activities that require the most focus and creativity during these peak times.
Give yourself permission to work hard and then to take breaks throughout the day. Many studies show that we are most productive when we work for a period of time, like 1 or 2 hours, and then take a break for 15-20 minutes.
I don’t have a boss to call me lazy, but if you have that problem, tell her or him that your daily plan is based upon sound science!
Optimizing Long-term Career Cycles
In your career, notice the assumptions you make about how long and how hard you will be able to sustain your work. Can you really spend a couple of decades doing this particular job at this particular pace?
The reality is that at some point you will probably get bored, burned out, or both.
You may be able to push through your natural cycles and “tough it out,” but will you really like the person you see in the mirror? Are the stress, anxiety, and early aging really worth it? This is the stuff that mid-life crises are made of.
Regular mini-retirements are a natural result of my own thinking on this subject. Just like those breaks we should take while working during the day, mini-retirements are a way to give our career a break while climbing up towards long-term goals (like a full retirement or financial independence).
Mini-retirements are my particular enjoyment, but there are other long-term consequences to think about.
For example, should you really take on long-term debt obligations for your house, cars, or a business that require you to stick to a career path for 20-30 years in order to pay the bills? Is it possible that your enjoyment of these things will stop before you pay off the debt?
I’d say it’s not only possible but probable!
What is the common refrain from people who hate a job but feel stuck, like they’re on a never-ending treadmill? It’s “I can’t afford to leave.”
Forgetting about the cycle of interest and energy is why they can’t afford to leave. They took on a debt as if 20 or 30 years was a reasonable period of time. What began as a good idea slowly crept into a heavy ball and chain that prevents flexibility and change when it’s most needed.
The Ultra-Marathons of Life
The point here is to recognize and prepare for the fact that your energy and interest are cyclical so that you can manage your daily schedule, your finances, and your career . Whether you want to build wealth, start a successful business, or even build lasting relationships, be prepared for the peaks and the valleys.
The news, the stock market, and ordinary work culture may tell you that life is a sprint. “Faster and harder” and “never let up” are the mantras you are told to accept.
In fact, succeeding at business, investing, and life are more like running an ultra-marathon. Eventually crossing our finish lines will require vision, endurance, and persistence, but it’s also ok to take naps, have picnics, and enjoy the scenery along the way.
Not only will you still reach your goals in plenty of time, you’ll also be a happier person.
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