What is productivity momentum?

[Epistemic status: question, and fragmented thoughts. I’m confident that this is a thing, and quite uncertain about the mechanism that governs it. I expect to have a much better organized write up on this topic soon, but if you wan to watch the sausages get made, be my guest.]

[This is another fragment of my upcoming “Phenomenology and Psychology of Personal Productivity” posts (plentiful plosive ‘p’s!).]

There seems to be something like momentum or inertia to my productivity. If my first hour of the day is focused and I’m clipping through tasks, all of the later hours will be similarly focused and productive. But if I get off to a bad start, it curtails the rest of my day. How well my morning goes is the #2 predictor of how well the rest of my day will go (the first is sleep quality).

My day is strongly influenced by the morning, but this effect seems more general than that: how focused and “on point” I am in any given hour is strongly influences how “on point I will be in the coming hours. If I can successfully build momentum in the middle of the day, it is easier to maintain for the rest of the day. (Note: What do I mean by “on point”?)

Why does this phenomenon work like this?

(Note: these hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Some, I think, are special cases of others.)

Hypothesis 1: My mind is mostly driven by short-term gratification. I can get short term gratification in one of two ways: via immediate stimulation, or by making progress towards goals. Making progress towards goals is more satisfying, but it also has some delay. Switching from immediate stimulation to satisfaction by making progress on goals  entails a period of time when you’re not receiving immediate stimulation, and also not being satisfied by goal-progress, because you’re still revving up and getting oriented. It takes a while to get into the flow of working, when it starts being enjoyable.

But once you’re experiencing satisfaction from goal-progress, it feels good and you’re motivated to continue doing that.

Hypothesis 1.5: Same as above, but it isn’t about gratification from immediate stimulation vs. gratification from goal-progress. It’s about gratification from immediate stimulation vs. gratification from self actualization or self exertion, the pleasure of pushing yourself and exhausting yourself.

Hypothesis 2: There’s an activation energy or start up cost to the more effortful mode of being productive, but once that cost is paid, it’s easy.

[I notice that the sort of phenomenon described in Hyp. 1, 1.5, and  2, is not unique to “productivity”. It also seems to occur in other domains. I often feel a disinclination to go exercise, but once I start, it feels good and I want to push myself. (Though, notably, this “broke” for me in the past few months. Perhaps investigating why it broke would reveal something about how this sort of momentum works in general?)]

Hypothesis 3: It’s about efficacy. Once I’ve made some progress, spent an hour in deep work, or whatever, I the relevant part of my mind alieves that I am capable of making progress on my goals, and so is more motivated do that.

In other words, being productive is evidence that something good will happen if I try, which makes it worth while to try.

(This would sugest that other boosts to one’s self-confidence or belief in ability to do things would also jump start momentum chains, which seems correct.)

Hypothesis 4: It’s about a larger time budget inducing parts-coordination. I have a productive first hour and get stuff done. A naive extrapolation says that if all of the following hours have a similar density of doing and completing, then I will be able to get many things done. Given this all my parts that are advocating for different things that are important to them settle down, confident that their thing will be gotten to.

In contrast if I have a bad morning, each part is afraid that it’s goal will be left by the wayside, and so they all scramble to drag my mind to their thing, and I can’t focus on any one thing.

[This doesn’t seem right. The primary contrasting state is more like lazy and lackadaisical, rather than frazzled.]

Hypothesis 5: It is related to failing with abandon. It’s much more motivating to be aiming to have an excellent day than it is to be aiming to recover from a bad morning to have a decent day. There’s an inclination to say “f*** it”, and not try as hard, because the payoffs are naturally divided into chunks of a day.

Or another way to say this: my motivation increases after a good morning because I alieve that I can get to all the things done, and getting all the things done is much more motivating than getting 95% of the things done because of completion heuristics (which I’ve already noted, but not written about anywhere).

Hypothesis 6: It’s about attention. There’s something that correlates with productivity which is something like “crispness of attention” and “snappiness of attentional shifts.” Completing a task and then moving on to the next one has this snappiness.

Having a “good morning” means engaging deeply with some task or project and really getting immersed in it. This sort of settledness is crucial to productivity and it is much easier to get into if I was there recently. (Because of fractionation?!)

Hypothesis 7: It’s about setting a precedent or a set point for executive function, or something? There’s a thing that happens throughout the day, which is that an activity is suggested, by my mind or by my systems, and some relevant part of me decides “Yes, I’ll do that now”, or “No, I don’t feel like it.”

I think those choices are correlated for some reason? The earlier ones set the standard for the later ones? Because of consistency effects? (I doubt that that is the reason. I would more expect a displacement effect (“ah. I worked hard this morning, I don’t need to do this now”) than a consistency effect (“I choose to work earlier today, so I’m a choose-to-work person”). In any case, this effect is way subverbal, and doesn’t involve the social mind at all, I think.)

This one feels pretty right. But why would it be? Maybe one of hypotheses 1-5?

Hypothesis 8: Working has two components: the effort of starting and reward making progress / completing.

If you’re starting cold, you have to force yourself through the effort, and it’s easier to procrastinate, putting the task off for a minute or an hour.

But if you’ve just been working on or just completed something else and are feeling the reward high from that, then the reward component of tasks in general, is much more salient, is pulled into near-mode immediacy. Which makes the next task more compelling.

I think this captures a lot of my phenomenological experience regarding productivity momentum and it also explains the related phenomena with exercise and similar.

(Also, there’s something like an irrational fear of effort, which builds up higher and higher as long as you’re avoiding is, but which dissipates once you exert some effort?)

(M/T on Hyp. 8:) If this were the case, it seems like it would predict that momentum would decay if one took a long break in the middle of the day. I think in practice this isn’t quite right, because the “productivity high” of a good morning can last for a long time, into the afternoon or evening.


My best guess is that it is hypothesis 8, but that the dynamic of hypothesis 5 is also in play. I’ll maybe consolidate all this thinking into a theory sometime this week.

Note: Also, maybe I’m only talking about flow?


Added 2018-11-28: Thinking about it further, I hit upon two other hypotheses that fit with my experience.

Hypothesis 7.5: [related to 1, 1.5, and 3. More or less a better reformulation of 7.] There’s a global threshold of distraction or of acting on (or reacting to) thoughts and urges flashing through one’s mind. Lowering this threshold on the scale of weeks and months, but it also varies day by day. Momentum entails lowering that threshold, so that one’s focus on any given task can be deep, instead of shallow.

This predicts that meditation and meditative-like practices would lower the threshold and potentially start up cycle of productivity momentum. Indeed, the only mechanism that I’ve found that has reliably helped me recover from unproductive mornings and afternoons is a kind of gently-enforced serenity process.

I think this one is pretty close to correct.

Hypothesis 10: [related to 2, and 8] It’s just about ambiguity resolution. Once I start working, I have a clear and sense of what that’s like which bounds the possible hedonic downside. (I should write more about ambiguity avoidance.)



3 thoughts on “What is productivity momentum?

  1. I know this is an old post so I don’t expect a reply but I think it might be something different. And hope this might be useful for someone so I’m posting a comment anyways.

    Im also more productive on some days than on others. And my productivity in the morning predicts how predictive I’ll be in the afternoon. But in me it feels like there is some underlying variable that influences how much I can get done in the day. And it influences both productivity in the morning and productivity in the afternoon. So observing productivity in the morning lets me predict productivity in the afternoon but it doesn’t cause it much.

    The underlying “productivity potential” is a mix of:
    * How rested I am (you mention sleep),
    * How healthy I am in general:
    * how well I was eating,
    * did I get enough exercise,
    * do I have any allergic reactions going on,
    * do I feel bad because air is to dry,
    * …
    * Are my other needs met
    * did I talk to people enough recently,
    * do I feel bad because I spent a lot of time watching YouTube / Netflix,
    * ….,
    * How excited am I about what I’m about to do
    * do I know what specific things I’m going to do or is it generic “work”,
    * if there are specific things: are they things I like doing,
    * if there are specific things: do I see how they’re connected to my goals?

    With this model when I see that my productivity is poor I check which of those things are going on (do I feel bad myself? Why specifically? Do I feel bad about the work? Do I even know why). And I address them (I take a nap. Go for a walk. Chat with someone. Check my TODO lists. Check why I’m working on the thing.).

    The list is roughly in order in which I address those issues.

    (it’s been a while since you wrote this posts and I’ve been reading about this topic in the mean time so it’s quite possible I’m repeating advice I’ve read, found useful and forgot the source.)


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