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Why You Can Work A lot Sometimes but Not Others

Ever had those moments where you're super productive, you're able to study or work for 6-8 hours every day, feeling absolutely satisfied and accomplished.

But then after a few weeks, it all crashes. You don't feel like working as much, you only put in 2-3 hours, and soon, you're not able to continue. You push yourself to focus but can't. What happened everything was going so well? Then you beat yourself up and go into a meltdown.

Those moments suck don't they? So how do you stop that?

Well the reason that happens is due to a concept called 'productivity debt'.

Everyone has a sweet spot for the amount of work they can do in a day without mentally crashing. Your sweet spot slowly increases overtime as you work more. For most people their average daily work time might just be 2-3 hours (we're referring to mentally-demanding work that requires deep focus, not shallow admin work like organising etc.) Even for world-class professionals (writers, musicians etc.), they are seen to only do 4-5 hours of practice daily, so that's probably the maximum for most humans.

Therefore if your sweet spot for studying is 2 hours/day, but then you studied for 6 to 8 hours/day for weeks, you'll burn out eventually. You've been accumulating 'productivity debt' and have to rest for months later, because you've been cramming 3-4 days of work into 1.

Of course, if there's productivity debt, there's also productivity savings.

That time when you're able to work long 6-8 hours when your sweet spot is 2. Almost certainly before you started your tasks, you had a long period where you didn't work, just hanging out with friends playing video games or something.

So you accumulated productivity 'savings' from rest, which is what lead you to be able to work those long 8 hour days. However the moment you spent your savings and started accumulating excessive 'debt', that's when you burned out.

If you'd like to be more precise in your planning, we can estimate the timings with maths. Say your sweet spot is 2 hours, but then you spend 8 hours a day for 3 weeks completing a project. You'd need about 2 months rest afterwards before you're mentally ready to start working again. That's because: 8x7x3(total time you worked in 3 weeks) - 2x7x3 (total time you can work in 3 weeks without accumulating debt) = 126 (hours of productivity debt). 126/2 (divided by your sweet spot) = 63 days (~2 months of productivity debt you need to pay back)


What to do

With the concepts of productivity savings and debt in mind, how do you use them? Well this depends entirely on each person's unique life.

If you're carrying out projects for a long period of time (say more than 3 months) or you're trying to learn a long-term skill (writing, coding, playing an instrument etc.) having consistent daily practice is much better than working in impulsive bursts.

That's because spaced learning beats cramming for long-term retention (possibly by up to 3-5 times). So it's important to intentionally limit how much you work in a day so you can consistently do it for months.

However, if you're working on something with strict deadlines (company or school projects, filming a movie etc.), you should accumulate productivity savings and therefore not work at all for awhile before you start the project, so you'll be able to successfully complete the task without wearing out.

Remember, you'd probably use up all your savings and might even accumulate debt once you finish, so don't immediately jump to another project until you've rested and paid for it.

Using these strategies is the super power to manage your time and energy, so that you can feel stress-free, consistent, and mentally control of your life


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