Cyclic Momentum

July 13, 2020

Paying attention to your cycles of energy and enthusiasm can lead to better work productivity and outcomes.

I’ve been enjoying several good weeks. Some of that is to be expected at this time of year. I’m a big fan of summer, complete with long hours of daylight, soaring temps, and abundant flora and fauna everywhere I look. By contrast, I can get a little grim and enervated for a few weeks on either side of the winter solstice.

This is far from unique to me. Most people are familiar with the notion of circadian rhythms, cycles based on a day, but circannual rhythms are also a known phenomenon. Circa-monthly, too (I don’t know a tidier term for that one).

Such cycling goes well beyond the biological. Put humans together in a society, and they start playing off of one another to create other cycles. Bull-and-bear stock markets. Larger-scale economic upturns and downturns. Political sentiment. An individual immersed in all of these cycles might be hard-pressed to identify which of them is having what effect on his subjective reality. One might even subscribe to – or invent – unverifiable cyclic events in a search for explanation, if not predictability (astrology, anyone?).

So, as I imagine most people do, I perceive cycles in my life. Mood, energy-level, motivation. Spates of good/bad news, even “luck,” as unscientific as such a thing seems to be for a physician to talk about. As a human, being a pattern-recognition machine, I probably selectively notice and overestimate things that mesh with whatever cyclic phase I’m in. If I’m in a good mood and a dozen random events come my way, I might perceive more of them to be positive than I otherwise would…and/or I might be less inclined to notice unhappier stuff.

(Lest it need saying: I’m not talking about pathological, unstable stuff like cyclothymia here. Any readers experiencing ego-dystonic cycling should probably be seeking individualized treatment from a mental health professional rather than hoping for direction from online blogs.)

I’ve come to find it worth my while to recognize my cycles, however subjective they may be, and when possible to adjust my behavior to take advantage of them. Or, to minimize whatever negative impact they might otherwise have.

An analogy: You’re pushing a kid on a swing-set. The swing is cycling between forward and backward arcs. If you want to make it go higher, you give it a push when the momentum of the cycle is in your favor—that is, the kid is moving forward, away from you. Pushing against the momentum, when he’s coming back towards you, will be disruptive, taking away from his overall arc (and being pretty jarring to the kid).

Similarly, if I can tell I’m on an upswing—good mood, high energy, things seeming to be going my way—I’ve got a better chance of good results when taking on tasks: getting chores done, solving problems, even writing columns like this one. If I’m “not feeling it,” I’m much better off leaving things for later on than forcing myself to plow ahead.

Sometimes that’s not an option, for instance if I’m on a schedule—a meeting or a deadline later today that can’t be pushed back without consequence. Having to “power through” when I’m in a downturn, even if absolutely necessary, can be unpleasant, feeling an awful lot more effort-intensive. Further, when looking back on things later on, it can be painfully obvious to me that things didn’t go as well as they might have. My performance in the meeting, or the quality of whatever I turned in for the deadline, was a middling B- instead of an A+.

There are some ways to prevent this from happening. Regarding deadlines, for instance, I like to get things done comfortably before they are due. In addition to keeping the pressure off, it gives me more chances to work on projects when I am cycling favorably. If my due-date is Friday and that turns out to be a lousy day, but I only got working on the task that morning, I’ve got no options. But, if I start looking to get it done at the outset of the week, and recognize that Tuesday or Thursday are turning out to be good days for me, I can declare either of them to be “soft” deadlines on the fly.

Of course, we don’t always have such a luxury of prep-time to “choose our window” for performance. That meeting scheduled for this afternoon, for instance, or the dozens of cases on your worklist, are stationary, pressing concerns. Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to grab an extra cup of coffee in the hope of goosing yourself into a brief, artificial upswing (and, truth be told, sometimes such “fake it till you make it” maneuvers actually work, reversing a downward cycle-phase).

A little over two years ago in this column, I described how I participated in a business-venture that almost succeeded. One of the ways I knew it had a good chance was that, initially, it felt like everything about it was flowing along easily, practically running itself without a hint of friction or resistance. My partners and I, our allies, even the market-sector we were pursuing, were all in a good place. We had momentum, and it was carrying us forward almost with a sense of guaranteed success, like it was meant to happen.

As months went by, however, that momentum faded. For whatever reason, the cycle had turned. Our every action now felt like it was facing resistance. Or without any effect whatsoever, like trying to push on a rope. We still gave it our best, but as it became increasingly clear that things no longer “wanted” to move forward, we saw that it made no sense to keep on throwing good resources (including time and effort) after bad.

In contrast, I’ll reiterate that these past few weeks have been good ones for me. I’ve taken multiple opportunities to let my cyclic momentum propel me forward—and it feels like this has resulted in something of a positive-feedback loop. That is, optimistically taking on more stuff (and at least perceiving that I’m doing well with it) might just have prolonged my usual summer-solstice upswing, which usually doesn’t last this long.