I don’t know about you, but I’m a swinger. Not in the dodgy suburban wife-swapping sense, but in the sense that many aspects of my personality – creativity, gregariousness, concentration for detail tasks etc – seem to be in regular flux, swinging back and forth like a pendulum – the frequency (or period, physics pendants) is different for each but there’s definitely a cycle there.
I used to think this was odd, maybe even a sign of a very mild bipolar or something, because no-one in my professional circles really talked about it much. The working environment (at least the ones I’ve experienced) often tends to imply that everyone is expected to maintain a fairly consistent level of all the major personality traits all the time, what you might call your ‘baseline awesome’, otherwise how would you ever plan anything? Over 20-odd years I learned that peaks and troughs of personality traits like productivity and creativity are actually really, really common – maybe even universal – and the best thing you can do is roll with them as they happen. But I’ve also found that usually, the pendulums swing between 2 opposing but equally useful traits, both of which can be useful to indulge as they enter their dominant periods, if you allow it. The typical rigid post-industrial model of employment doesn’t always allow for this kind of flexibility of course, but bear with me.
Having slight or moderate swings in your affinity with certain aspects of work doesn’t mean you have periods of just being useless, at least if you don’t just try to force things (which can lead to disillusionment, apathy, conflict and other negative outcomes). It often means that to be most effective, it helps to be able to adjust your workload to better fit your current state. For example, I find that one of my ‘pendulums’ has exploration and creativity at one end, and nose-to-the-grindstone detail execution at the other. If you’re feeling capricious and explorative it’s great to use that to try new things, whereas other times you might just feel like cranking out implementations of existing ideas or really deep-diving into that gnarly problem you’ve been wanting to tackle for ages. Conversely if you’re trying to focus on detail work but you just keep getting distracted by other things, it can be more effective just to take a break and indulge those rather than force it – get the creative stuff out of your head and onto paper or something, and you’ll probably find yourself much more productive at the other task later.
Another pendulum for me is how social I’m feeling – sometimes I’m feeling gregarious and doing some workshop collaboration and customer support totally pushes my buttons, other times I just want to lock myself away and work on the really hard stuff without being disturbed. If you are a programmer, or live or work with a programmer, you’ll know ‘that look’ which just means ‘my head is full of complex state right now, keep walking’. At other times that person will be super-happy to shoot the breeze with you and knock out some brain storming sessions, it just depends on the day.
None of these states are absolute, nor are they immutable. You can drag your pendulum from one side to the other despite the inertia, it’s just that you put a lot of effort into doing so and will almost certainly not get an optimal outcome (and with a risk of the aforementioned negative outcomes). Sometimes you do have to do this, but whenever you can, indulge those pendulums in your head, work with your current vibe, and don’t feel like that’s a weird thing or somehow incompatible with being a valuable worker. In fact it’s the opposite in my experience – some of the best people I’ve worked with are inconstant, producing their best work when allowed to follow their gut. It’s the people whose pendulums have stopped, stuck right there in the middle at a predictable mediocre that I worry more about.