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lightning bolt

It happens all the time. You start with the best of intentions. You’ve implemented your new productivity system or habit, you have a clear, manageable set of tasks, a strong goal, all the motivation in the world.

Then, the lightning bolt. Suddenly, your energy and willpower drains out of your body. You slump forward, a limp, unmotivated mess. It isn’t a physical exhaustion, although you certainly feel tired, but rather an emotional and mental exhaustion, a fog that feels too heavy to lift.

“Damn it,” you think to yourself. “Here I am with a solid hour to write that book chapter and I all-of-a-sudden don’t want to do anything but watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer until one in the morning. I was jazzed on the commute home. What happened?”

You Are Not in Control

This is hard to swallow for us productivity types. We like to think that, one day, with the right system, we will be able to keep ourselves happily productive (or enjoying guilt-free play) from our 4:30 am rise until our 10:30 pm slumber.

Unfortunately, however well-implemented our plans, the lightning bolt has a way of zapping our best intentions. The human body is a messy, complex machine with many different physical and mental needs, and it has its ways of getting what it wants regardless of your conscious mind’s preferences.

What causes the lightning bolt? It’s different for everybody. Having a drink with dinner. Not enough sleep the night before. A rude comment from a co-worker. Too much sugar. Sometimes the most trivial disturbance can throw our energy into a tailspin.

Avoid It

So, the first question we have to ask ourselves as “fixers””because that’s what we love to do, isn’t it?”is, how do we avoid the lightning bolt altogether?

First, we need to identify and avoid our triggers. It isn’t enough to know that having pizza for lunch zaps your energy in the afternoon. Write it down on a lightning bolt list and look at it frequently.

Before you eat pizza for lunch, you’ll have that dialogue with yourself: “Come on, I don’t always get tired after pizza. I can have this one slice.” Every time you break your own rule, and then find yourself in a puddle on your task chair, muster the energy to add an asterisk next to “pizza” on your list.

Once you’ve got three or four stars next to a trigger, you’ll have that much more motivation to avoid it the next time.

Discovering your own triggers will take a little experimentation. To get you started, here’s a list of potential triggers:

  • Particular foods, like wheat, sugar, or greasy junk food
  • Too much coffee
  • Too little sleep
  • Too much sleep
  • Toxic remarks from friends or co-workers
  • Too much television
  • Aimless Web browsing
  • Skipping the gym
  • Too hot or too cold in the room
  • Sitting on the couch when you get home (the couch vortex!)
  • Being alone
  • Too much anxiety for too long
  • Messy desk
This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Keep in mind, I’m not talking about dieting. If sugar knocks you out and hamburgers don’t, cut out sugar with lunch and chow down on that Big Mac. The point is to keep your energy levels on an even keel, not to shape up for bikini season.

Also, some of these items will require more than a change to procedure. For difficulties coping with loneliness, for instance, a good self-help book or even therapy may be called for. But the first step is to solidly identify the causes of those sudden attacks of blah.

Accept It

Yes, we love to fix things, but an important step for dealing with lightning bolts is accepting them.

Insomniacs often complain about the anxiety they feel as soon as they hit the sheets. They start worrying that they won’t get to sleep soon enough. That anxiety keeps them awake. So they’re advised to just to lie there and forget about going to sleep altogether. Just lie there. That change in attitude alone can help people get to sleep faster.

In the same way, when a productivity nut gets hit by the lightning bolt, his or her first instinct is to think of the right mantra or system to get themselves motivated again. They reach for a timer, or a task list, or a motivational phrase (WWMMD: What Would Merlin Mann Do?), and try really, really hard to get motivated, before giving up and logging into World of Warcraft.

Enjoy It

Once it’s struck, accept the lightning bolt. It may be your brain’s way of telling you it needs to shut down for a while. Certainly make a note of possible triggers to avoid, but don’t harangue yourself about it.

You may be coming down with a cold, or you may just be at the end of your rope. A day of writing, for instance, doesn’t feel too exhausting in the moment, but the mental exhaustion can hit you in the evening like nobody’s business.

Once the lightning bolt’s hit, you might as well kick back and enjoy, because you’re not going to be doing anything useful for at least an hour (or five). At least do something fun and truly satisfying.

Whatever you do, don’t groggily surf the Web or do other “semi-work” because it makes you feel less guilty than going for a walk or playing a video game. You’ll still feel guilty, and you won’t even be recharging with some good honest fun.

Plan Around It

The fact is, with all these neat productivity tools at our fingertips, it’s easy to overschedule and overtask ourselves without realizing it. Forget 3 Most Important Tasks. If the lightning bolt gets you a lot, why not cut down to 1 MIT? Sure, you’ll probably do more than one thing in a day, but if you start by making very small promises to yourself and keeping them, you’ll build your willpower muscle gradually.

Do you have any other lightning bolt triggers or ways to avoid them? Share them in the comments.

Photo by colinedwards.


  • Kristi Holl

    gravatarJan 12, 2008
    7:54 am

    This is sure a common problem, isn’t it? Being consistent–once we’ve identified our triggers–seems to be the key. I written a series of articles dealing with this type of thing on my blog. One article you might find helpful is at http://writers-first-aid.blogspot.com/2008/01/writing-find-energy.html

  • AL

    gravatarJan 13, 2008
    3:47 am

    Aha! So that’s what it was the other day when I came home from work fully energetic and ready to tackle few things I’ve been putting off and.. bam.. I felt like doing nothing at all. Just nothing. I thought it was depression or something. Turns out it’s the “lightning bolt”. I’ll be sure to investigate the cause next time it hits me.

    Thanks for making me aware of this!

  • becca

    gravatarJan 13, 2008
    10:43 am

    What a great article. I experience this phenomenon quite a bit- it usually involves me needing to do a lot of work, coping by eating a lot of food, then slipping into a food coma for 4 hours and not getting anything done. Identifying food triggers might be a huge help.

  • okas

    gravatarJan 13, 2008
    1:36 pm

    you are so right, that happends to me a lot when i wanna do something and then i start thinking in something else

  • ella

    gravatarJan 14, 2008
    8:40 am

    Too funny…I was just thinking about “motivation” and er um my lack thereof…great article!

  • Sam

    gravatarJan 19, 2008
    8:53 am

    Overbooking myself during the week is a big lightening bolt for me. Sometimes I’ll set aside two nights for working at home after work. However with three night spoken for and getting home later with no downtime, on the nights I do set aside I often become the “puddle” you speak of. I find that setting aside two nights for work, one night for vegging out and then the rest of the time for plans, more vegging out, or perhaps a burst of work energy works the best for me. Fantastic article, very thoughtful. I suppose I should cut down on the sweets…..argh!

  • Toni

    gravatarJan 22, 2008
    8:25 pm

    Never thought of the phenmenon as a lightning bolt. I’m just more immobile when I return home from work. The amount of stuff to do is just insurmountable. Funny thing is the same challenges are constantly facing me at work and there I break them down and have a rotine to attack. I like the suggestion of foregoing the neverending list for a 1 MIT.

  • Nabeel

    gravatarFeb 11, 2008
    6:16 am

    I think, writing a whole chapter, and loosing all of it, when you forgot to save and your computer crashed, falls more in the line of lighting bolt than wanting to watch buffy the vampire slayer.

    Nabeel http://nabeelzeeshan.blogspot.com

  • Jack

    gravatarMar 5, 2008
    8:13 am

    Just was introduced to this website. I’m one of those unorganized professionals who’s carrer has suffered so I’m determined to get organized (or die trying). I love the article and love your Blog. Keep up the good work!!!

  • James

    gravatarMay 28, 2009
    10:52 am

    I currently have a nonthinking computer job. I find it so boring at times that I can’t think of anything to do but play freecell. I will need to find ways to avoid this downtime because i want to make my own website.

  • Stop anxiety attack

    gravatarJun 14, 2009
    7:14 am

    Many overlook the fact that a particular food can be a trigger of anxiety. You have pointed that as the first thing to be taken care of. great insights!

  • Douglas

    gravatarFeb 7, 2010
    11:51 pm

    Awesome article,Awesome photograph . Am definatley putting this on my favourites list as i continue looking for triggers . The darn things have been blowing me to bits for years incidentally. Is there anywhere i can find a potential triggers list from lightning bolt bidden volunteers , for future avoidance . thanks Douglas

  • Emily

    gravatarMar 25, 2010
    3:50 pm

    I’m a working mum with 4yr & 5 yr old boys – I think I try to do too much so every now and then I find myself run down and sinking into depression. My sons wanted to see some pictures of lightning today and we accidentally came across this article – I’m glad I did as there are some really sound ideas here which will help me to dig myself out of the hole. Thx