This post was commissioned by The Human in the Machine project, a year-long collaborative blogging project on the subject of productivity. I’m republishing here and extending it for my Life By Design series. 

As a kid, I loved Tetris. Lining the blocks up and seeing them fit perfectly into place gave my strategist mind a thrill. It was the rhythm I loved so much, the tappity-tap-tap of keys and buttons, the sensory meditation of my fingers moving in pace with my eyes to see those blocks fall perfectly into place. Seeing it, feeling it, doing it.

Rhythm is everything. Layers of rhythm over the hours, days, weeks and years. Maintaining, feeding, adjusting and enjoying those rhythms are the keys to my productivity and my rest.

I work as a strategist and with almost every client, there is a moment of clarity when they begin to understand their rhythm.

Rhythms of learning, creating, reflecting, listening, purging and so on.

For organisations, this is largely about understanding the productivity of teams but it also applies to families. Understanding your rhythm is about understanding your short-term and long-term capacity and your constraints. To learn how long your team needs to understand a problem before it can begin to solve a problem is helpful for designing projects. To know how long it takes your family to pack the car for vacation is an invaluable rhythm to understand. 

I thrive when I am learning. About every March, I find a new subject that intrigues me or is useful to my work and I’ll spend the next year reading and applying what I learn. Usually as March rolls around, I naturally get drawn to another topic and so the rhythm begins again. Research, read, apply, re-think, share what I’ve learned.

This is just one of the rhythms that fuel me. I have learned them over years of studying my own patterns and failing to conform to others. Self-awareness is critical to unlocking your real productivity potential. Understanding how you process and output information, how you fuel your mind, body and soul all factor in to how you make, how you think, how you create. Try as you may, this rhythm or that rhythm belonging to another may work for a while or fit you quite well. But nothing will unleash you like understanding your own unique rhythms.

My simplest rhythm is how I like to wake in the morning. I like to sleep with the curtains open so I get a wash of serotonin over brain on waking. Then I rise, make coffee and breakfast and before my mind gets too busy with structured thought, I write three pages of stream of consciousness prose. Whatever is top of mind, I put it to paper. I connect back through my mind to my body and back to my mind until I am a cohesive whole.

I think about it in these themes; physical, intellectual, spiritual input and output.

The clarity of the morning output fine-tunes my brain and my morning hours are my most productive for thinking, strategizing and outputs.  After lunch, I tend to slide out of productive output and into productive input. Instead of fighting against myself, I lean into these rhythms. After lunch is the perfect time to either input with reading or research and I often exercise either at the beginning or the end of the day.

My days form the pattern of my week. And those weeks, a year. I have come to know my project cycles, where I can undertake significant long-term work which is invaluable in how I structure my working life. And I know how frequently I need to play and to laugh.

What am I producing after all? I’m not on a factory floor. The work that I do for is not what I am actually producing. I am producing a life. I am designing as I go, a life of rich experiences, adventure, meaning and relationships. That is the key to productivity – how do I live in a rhythm that sustains these things?

A wise teacher once said “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

The unforced rhythms of grace that allow us to live freely and lightly are the key to productivity. The way of being our true selves. Our truest selves are the most fully alive and the most productive. If you are living in your best rhythm, it only makes sense that you will thrive in your activities. You will come to understand the signals your life gives you when you need to rest or when you need to re-engage your childhood play.

Even in the workplace, structured and locked down, there are ways to allow your natural rhythms to maximise your productivity. You might choose to use lunch breaks for exercise, mindfulness practices or to nurture social, emotional connections. You might organise your schedule to never meet before 10am or to close up email no matter what by 6pm.

Wherever you can let your rhythms work for you, you must. You’ll find it easier to dance that way.

This is particularly true for families and people-pleasers. Using rhythm to understand and manage your capacity will give you freedom from over-commitment (although perhaps not the guilt of not being able to do all things). It gives you common language to build a family rhythm from as you manage the highs, lows, constraints and capacity of a family whether in juggling chores and transportation or organising Christmas vacation. 

If the rhythm of your life feels heavy or burdensome, if you don’t feel light on your feet then you’ve found a great place to start in your life by design. 

Here are some good questions to ask to help identify those rhythms: 

  1. What time of  day do you wake up feeling most refreshed if you let yourself wake naturally?
  2. How often do you change or take up a new hobby?
  3. When in the calendar year is it easiest for you to start a new project or habit?
  4. How frequently do you get bored with something you are working on?
  5. Do you like to solve problems as you go or wait til you can give them attention?
  6. When do you feel most creatively inspired or productive?
  7. What kind of environment do you need to relax?
  8. How often do you need have physical input or output?
  9. How often do you need have intellectual input or output?
  10. How often do you need have spiritual input or output?

Enjoy discovering your rhythms of grace. Remember, as you look back on your life to date – things like project life-cycles and rhythms of rest, relaxation and play will appear as the times things finished or happened just at the right time and you were able to move easily into the next rhythm. 

If this has been helpful to you or you have questions, I’d love to hear from you.