Destructive Productivity

As a creator, it’s easy to forget that creativity is not constant.

I have spent the last two or three weeks in a manic phase of creativity. I have felt, and been, more productive than I have in a long time. This culminated in two, long, 12+ hour days getting a long overdue release live and working.

The result is that I am now (perhaps unsurprisingly) rather tired. It’s Friday afternoon, I have achieved little of note today. The main emotion I feel, is guilt. Not joy that the hard work I’ve put in over the last 3 weeks, is (mostly) working pretty darn well, but guilt that today I have been unproductive, when I know how productive I was yesterday.

This is a recurring pattern for me, and perhaps others. It goes something like:

  • Day 0 - All is normal. Mood fairly standard.
  • A few days later, some small, exciting technical breakthrough, or interesting problem presents itself.
  • Excitement builds. This is an interesting problem.
  • Frequent dopamine hits of a nice solution forming fuels a productivity fire. More time and energy gets sucked into it.
  • Within a few days to a week, it’s almost impossible to avoid what I am working on. It feels great. I’m still writing code at 10pm because it feels so god-damn-good. I wake up in the morning buzzing with ideas, ready to get going.
  • This keeps up for maybe up to a week. I feel fabulous.
  • Then either the problem is solved, or I start to get tired. Crankiness sets in around the edges of my mood.
  • Then one day, I’ll have a slightly shitty day (like today). Not much is achieved. Guilt kicks in. I feel like the shittiest developer on the planet.
  • What follows is a deep crash. Burnout if you will. I hate computers, I hate software, I want to stay in bed, or go be a lumberjack. Anything that doesn’t involve keyboards.
  • Over the next week or so, I slowly creep back to Day 0.
  • And the cycle repeats.

I have been this cycle for at least as long as I’ve been out of uni (5 years). Sometimes, the peaks and troughs are high and low, other times they are more subtle. Sometimes frequent, sometimes less so, but always cycling.

On reflection this cycle seems to be fuelled by a number of things:

  • An expectation of consistency: I want to be consistent, society expects it. I want to be creative every day. I see other people being creative every day, why shouldn’t I be? This expectation, makes the unproductive days even more frustrating.

  • Self deceit: It’s unlikely that I am super productive as I think I am in the high times. At those times it feels like the only thing that’ll make me happy is working. Hanging out with my friends, or taking it easy, feels like a disservice to myself, and my company, and humanity. This is (objectively) ridiculous. Likewise it seems that nobody but me would think I should feel guilty for taking it easy after two 12+ hour days.

  • A lack of an avoidance strategy: Often I can see the peak coming, but it feels inevitable. I have said to my wife more than once over the last few weeks that I can feel myself compelled to keep working. It feels like I have no option, like it’s not my decision.

Next steps

Having spoken to a few people about this, I seem to be not the only person who goes through these cycles, which is oddly comforting. How much it is just me, how bad it is, and how much it feeds quote-unquote depression is hard to say, but I know that those crashing lows can’t be healthy. How to avoid it, I don’t know, but I hope that becoming more mindful of when it’s happening will help.