The human heart beats on, off, on, off. It’s not a motor. We know that.
But it doesn’t even keep to a steady rhythm. The beats of a heart are chaotic, responsive, and variable. In fact, Heart Rate Variability is a strong measure of physical and mental well-being.
A heart beat that keeps to a steady rhythm, with low variability, is a sign of ill health, as well as stress.
A sprinter can only do 100 metres, 200 metres, at full-pace. And then they need to stop. Completely.
The degree of effort mirrors the degree of rest needed after the effort.
Even the paragon of the long-steady race, the marathon runner, needs to rest before and after a race, needs to build up their training in cycles. Their output in the event doesn’t represent a line, but a peak of a cycle.
Our understanding of work has been determined by our machines.
Steady, linear output is much easier to account for, and we’ve made that the baseline for how we think about work. In forgetting that, we still give precedence to these assumptions and think of effective work as tied to a steady, linear output.
However, this has nearly zero relevance when we came to understand the workings and outputs of organic, living processes.
We need to start thinking of productivity and output in cyclical, rather than linear terms. Many already recognise that they have peak times during the day in which they’re better workers. Other times, they’re better thinkers. Other times, all they’re good for is Netflix.
But we also need to move away from trying to quantify and pin down these periods. Even ‘peak times’ can vary in their effectiveness.
I might be in the zone around midday most days, but some days will still be better than others. Some days, that peak may extend to the evening. Others, it might stop abruptly after half an hour.
The ebb and flow, the varied output, and the diverse input that make the pattern of organic labour - these are not simply matters to be worked around, to be ‘gotten over’. They need to be understood and appreciated as being as integral to the workings of animals and humans as diesel is to the workings of a truck’s engine.
It’s only when we come to appreciate and accept these ebbs and flows that we can really start to be productive, creative people.
I can sit at a desk all day trying to get work done. Or I can do work when it comes to me, then go for a walk in the local wood. Without fail, I get inspiration, a new perspective, or just simple refreshment from stepping away from the desk.
Great ideas have never come to me when I’m trying my hardest to do work that just. won’t. get. done.
To return to running: the best sprinters in the world are not only recognised for the power of each step, but also, perhaps counter-intuitively, for the profound level of relaxation their body reaches between each step. To quote coach Charlie Francis:
You may feel that you aren’t generating enough force while relaxed (a perception that gets a lot of sprinters into trouble in big races), but remember, only the net force counts! The net force is the amount of force delivered in the desired direction minus the force generated by the antagonist muscle at the same moment.
Don’t get stuck on the metaphor. This isn’t an exclusive thing for sport. It’s for all organic processes. And we’re organic processes.
If we’re trying when we should be relaxing, if our ‘antagonist muscle’ is creating a counter-force, we’re not doing well.
We’re still reeling from the industrial model where every hour needs to be properly accounted for, where consistent, linear output at peak achievable levels is the goal.
And we’re suffering for it.
Too often we treat productivity like a way to eek every last drop of ourselves out of a given time frame, as if we’re the computers and engines we know we’re not.
We need to incorporate ‘off time’ - the outward breath, the ebb - into our working patterns. Not with simple lip-service like ‘you need to sleep better’, but as an integral, affirmed part of the process of working. If work, in whatever sense, ‘off’ is just as much a positive input as is ‘on’.
We need to understand that ‘on’ is impossible without ‘off’, and that the distance between the two needs to be made closer: like the beats of a heart or the steps of a runner.
We need to aim for a healthy ‘Work Rate Variability’ and develop models of working that stop making us ill, and instead let us do our best.
These models will by necessity be personal, chaotic, variable and responsive. Like life. Like living.
We are not linear.
This is not to be fought.