by Niall Doherty

In Tuesday’s post I talked about the dip, and how I was leaning into it. The last few weeks had been a struggle as I found myself lacking energy and focus. This week I find myself back in a solid routine, plowing through my work, making good dents, checking off tasks that had been sitting gathering dust on my to-do list.

So what made the difference? How did I get from last week to this week, from downswing to upswing? Nothing heroic. Mostly, I just waited. But here are a few things I’d like to remind myself of the next time I’m in a lull, so I can keep thriving instead of simply surviving.

Give it a name

“It” is that mysterious, dark, internal force that stops you from getting your work done, from doing what you know is good for you. It keeps you stuck in that downswing, unmotivated, hating yourself for not being able to overcome it. Steven Pressfield calls it Resistance. Seth Godin calls it the lizard brain.

Whatever it is, I’ve personified mine. His name is Frank, and between the recent swings I told him to go fuck himself.

That seemed to help me emerge from the recent fog. Instead of getting down on myself about my struggles, I started directing my anger at Frank. And for me at least, getting angry is a good strategy when I’m in a downswing. I need to get to that point where I say ENOUGH, and then get back to work. But it’s hard to get mad at something intangible inside yourself. It’s easier when you externalize and personify that thing, as I’ve done with Frank.

Frank may have gotten the better of me for a while, but this week was my time to fight back. Every morning I got up at 6am, did my yoga and meditation, and cranked out 2000 written words before breakfast. I then went ahead and worked several more hours after breakfast each day, ripping happily through my to-do list.

Frank was pissed. He sulked in the corner. I like him a lot more when he’s like that.

“The night is darkest just before the dawn”

When I’m in one of those downswings, I feel like it will never end, that all hope is lost, that I might as well quit. But, as with this week, those dark periods usually precede some of my brightest and most creative.

There’s a trap with that whole “just before the dawn” thing though. You let yourself slip into a lull a little too easily because hey, fuck it, experience says you’ll emerge guns blazing and all will be peachy.

Yeah, bad idea that. Methinks the real trick is to avoid those lulls altogether, to never holster your guns in the first place. This is a trick I’m still trying to learn. To steal another term from Mr. Pressfield, I’m still trying to turn pro.

Here’s where I completely contradict myself

I believe there’s a natural ebb and flow to our weeks and months. Sometimes we’re up, everything comes easy and we have an abundance of energy. And sometimes it’s a huge struggle to even work one hour per day.

(Sidenote: The best thing about having a 9-to-5 job is that you still get paid even on those down days. You can show up at the office and arse around all day. Not so much when you’re self-employed. Those downswings will kill you.)

And so I don’t think the lulls are completely avoidable. Instead, I’m thinking they work a bit like our fears: They never really go away, but we can get better at handling them.

Trim and refocus

When you’re in a lull, it’s a good idea to reassess your priorities and commitments.

You can get a whole bunch of work done when you’re on an upswing, important stuff and otherwise. Distractions might creep into your schedule but they don’t derail you. You handle it all in your stride, like a well-oiled productivity machine, smelling of homemade hummus and vegetable soup.

The problem comes when your energy swings low again. Now those distractions kick you in the nads. You drop the ball on your most important projects. And then you hate yourself. And then it’s a struggle to get anything done. And you start to smell of cheap prepackaged hummus and shitty cup-a-soup.

Next time I find myself entering such a lull, I need to take a step back immediately and makes some adjustments. Those sneaky distractions must be weeded out. My schedule must be trimmed. Everything goes except my most important work, because once in a lull I have little energy to handle much else.

I went through that refocusing process last weekend (a few weeks into my downswing, but better late than never). I dropped some half-assed commitments, like Toastmasters. I know from experience that I can’t just tip away at things, not through the downswings. I need to be all in or all out. I’m not wanting to immerse myself in public speaking right now, so Toastmasters is out.

There are still a few lingering commitments on my plate which I need to let go. I can’t keep them hanging on. Those projects deserve either my full attention, or none of it.

What distractions have been sneaking up on you? Where is most of my time and energy going? What projects have you taken on that aren’t taking you where you want to go? Can you drop some/all of them?

Remember the 80/20 rule: Most of the positive impact comes from a small portion of the work you do. During a downswing, focus your limited energy on that small portion. Drop everything else or at least throw it to the back burner.

Fun stuff

With the above process, you’re not just looking to eliminate distractions so you can spend more time on your important work. You weed them out so you can spend more time doing fun stuff. Which helps you recharge. Which helps you get that important work done, and done well.

I had stopped reading books. Then over the last week I read three books, and they lifted me up like you wouldn’t fucking believe. I needed them badly. I also had to give myself permission to put aside a dense book for a while. If I’m feeling the strain, there’s no shame in picking up an easier book that gives me some faster gratification, puts me in a stronger frame of mind.

I hadn’t been for a run in a long time. On Tuesday night I ran around the island heart of Cork City. It was euphoric. I cooked up some real food after and ate it slowly. Somewhere upstairs I could hear Frank kicking furniture. He hates when I recharge.

Deadlines

I was dragging last week, but because I had made a public commitment to launch A Course In Courage on March 17th, I had to suck it up and finish it out. It was hell trying to do that work with resistance kicking my ass, but I got through it anyway and launched the damn thing.

So deadlines also help during a downswing. Especially public ones. Keep your deadline to yourself and you concede an edge to your lizard brain, your Resistance, your Frank. Come crunch time it’s all too easy for him to crawl out of the corner and whisper in your ear… Feck it, take tomorrow off and launch the day after. Nobody has to know. With the extra time you can catch up on some sleep and spend a few hours watching those TV shows you don’t like. And feed me more chocolate.

Share the struggle

At a conservative estimate, I spent four hours writing on Monday to come up with that last blog post. It was a massive struggle, but I felt like I’d slayed some big part of that beast by the time I’d finished. Then I published it and got feedback from a bunch of people who could relate. I no longer felt so alone in the fight.

Get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper or screen. You don’t have to create a work of art. I wasn’t very happy with that last blog post. But I got it out there, and I felt a million or two times better because of it.

Same with chatting to other folks. Find someone who can relate, and share what you’re going through. I did that with a couple of people in the last few weeks. It helps.

By putting your thoughts into words, you make the struggle that bit more tangible. It’s hard to fight an invisible, undefined war in your head.

Get back to what works

I was experimenting with late-night work sessions, but I have to concede that early mornings are much better for me. My problem with working late nights is that the battle with Frank is always lingering. No matter what I do earlier that day, I know I still have a fight on my hands before bedtime.

I also needed to remind myself of the importance of showing up to work every day, something I’ve written about before but tend to forget all too easily.

Keep on trucking

All the above is what I believe will help me stay productive and sane through that next, inevitable downswing. How about you? How do you prepare for those inevitable downswings? Or maybe you’ve figured out a way to avoid them altogether. Let me know in the comments.