Olly Headey

June 12, 2022

You can’t have peaks without troughs

Some days feel productive. For programmers, it’s when you get deep into the zone and come out the other side having pieced together a challenging puzzle. It can be sheer delight. For managers, it’s when you approach the ‘zone horizon’ (you’ll never get deep into the zone like programmers, that’s the deal) and focus on a chunky project for long enough to finally get it over the line, polish it off, tick that box. In my experience, achievements as a manager will never be as exhilarating as they are for programmers (that’s the deal), but you can still end a project on a delightful task completion dopamine high.

But you can't have peaks without troughs.

What follows an exerted effort can be exhaustion, which requires a period of recovery. This is as true for programmers, designers, or managers as it is for marathon runners. Most normal people wouldn't run another marathon the following day. It's possible, but you'll pay for it eventually.

Your mind, as well as your body, needs recovery. Without it comes injury or burnout.

Recovery days for tech workers can feel bitty, filled with busywork and distractions: faffing around organising your to-dos, sending emails/DMs/pings, going down low-priority technical rabbit holes. This is never going to be particularly energising, but that’s the whole point of recovery. Your brain, like your running muscles, needs to relax and restore its natural order to be in the right condition for the next big thing.

These productivity fallow periods happen to me frequently and I used to find them frustrating (I just want to get stuff done dammit!), but I now see them as vital for a healthy work-life balance. They’re the cerebral equivalent of the post-run cool down. A virtual ice bath served with a protein shake. Embrace it.

The next time you’ve completed a work marathon, head down to the trough, take a long drink and relax. Spend a day getting organised, doing odd jobs, reading some of those articles you Instapapered, and refine your priorities while you mentally prepare for your next performance. 

About Olly Headey

Journal of Olly Headey. Co-founder of FreeAgent. 37signals alumni. Photographer.
More at headey.net.