The Cycle of Doom

I, like many writers, have a routine. A good day consists of typing around one-thousand words. More is fantastic, and a little less is acceptable. Most of the time, I reach this goal– and when I do, it will likely happen the next day, and the next, and so on…

…Until the streak ends. I only get a hundred words in, or worse, I’m shut out entirely. What follows is a morning of pain and lamentation. If I only focused more… If I only put down the Wii remote an hour earlier… If only, if only… 

Woe is me!

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So what do we do when our productivity goes flat?

There’s a recently-retired baseball player, Jason Giambi, who was known for wearing golden panties when trying to break up a hitting slump. Many of his counterparts, both past and present, have similar routines. In the real world, we call these “superstitions”. In the “let’s-be-real” world, such actions are seen as silly at best.

I won’t recommend the thong method. Instead, let’s think about it from a cognitive-behavioral perspective (assuming, of course, that our brains are behind getting work done and not a supernatural being).

Progress is good. Not-progress is bad. That means we should reward ourselves when we write and punish ourselves when we don’t. Right?

Dig deeper. Punishment– when not totally sadistic– is meant to change a negative behavior and make one more likely to do better in the future. Thus, we criticize ourselves when we don’t get writing done in hopes of doing better the next day. It’s a temporary negative that will lead to a later good.

But what if that doesn’t work? What if banging our heads against the wall today (metaphorically, of course) makes us less likely to get work done tomorrow?

When I’m in a slump– continuing the baseball analogy– I spend a lot of time thinking about how badly I’ll feel if I fail. These negative thoughts loom over my head, making each moment spent not working seem awful. When I do write, the pain is lifted, but rarely do I reward myself.

So. What if we don’t place a value on our productivity? Knowing that punishment doesn’t work, it seems that self-scolding is the worst option available. Not only will you feel worse at that moment, but your performance will suffer in the long run. You’ll fail, then punish, then fail, then punish… it’s an endless spiral, a Cycle of Doom.

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The other option is to accept being human. We mess up. We neglect our work, sometimes for weeks or months. You might think that without critiquing yourself, you’ll become lazy. Disinterested. Unmotivated.

But we’re creative people. We’re already motivated. There’s a kicking in our gut telling us to work, work, work. Its strength varies from to time, but it’s there.

Acknowledge the down days. Breathe in, breathe out. Tell yourself it’ll be alright.

It will be alright.