You know the feeling, right? Emails are flying, your phone is ringing, things are happening. By 10pm you’ve gotten what feels like a week’s worth of work done. And strangely, you want to do more. That last email that comes in that thwarts your Inbox:0 goals. Or one minor administrative task on your To Do list that you really don’t want to leave until tomorrow, but which will definitely take some brain power to complete. And so, you either press on, or you go to bed with your mind racing.
The next day, you feel like you haven’t slept in a decade. You can barely answer one email without losing focus, and everything you put into motion yesterday is piling up again on your desk.
What happened? Work inertia.
I remember studying for a science exam when I was in middle school, and memorizing definitions. I never forgot the definition of inertia, because it sounded lyrical in my head: The tendency of an object to resist change in motion. I experience inertia every day, but I am never more aware of it than when I fall victim to work inertia. Here is what I learned about the physics of productivity.
If you love waking up early, working efficiently, and blasting through your To Do list, you need to give yourself time to unwind. While it’s usually not a good idea to leave until tomorrow what you can do today, sometimes that one last thing really should be left for tomorrow. If you’ve been spinning all day and feel a bit hyper as bedtime approaches, stop working. Start shutting down around thirty minutes before sleeping to give yourself time to come to a stop.
Even if you do give yourself time, it means nothing without space. If you’re spending the thirty minutes before bed reading a book, but are really just moving your eyes over sentences while you think about work, you’re not giving yourself the mental space you need to shut down. If your mind is still racing when you try to sleep, you will probably have a restless sleep. The next day, all those brilliant thoughts you had will fall away, because you will be too tired to do anything about them.
3) Frame of Reference
At the end of a busy day, there are two steps to giving yourself mental space. First, definitively decide that you are done working. Don’t waffle. This will only contribute to decision fatigue and a lot of wasted minutes. Second, zoom out. Take a look at what you’ve put in motion and what is still waiting to be put in motion. This will help you synthesize your day, and organize and prioritize for the next day. If you have a plan for tomorrow, it might be easier to mentally let go of what you didn’t finish today.
If you keep work inertia in check, you’ll find that you come to rest more easily, so that you can start again refreshed.