Updated on 08.30.10

Finding the Rhythm

Trent Hamm

One of the biggest things that’s changed in my life since my financial turnaround and subsequent career changes is that I’m constantly involved in a lot more self-evaluation than I used to be. I’m constantly looking at how I do things, looking for ways to improve the quality and value of how I spend my time and energy and money.

Something I’ve noticed quite a lot lately is how much of my life seems to move along with a particular rhythm. I don’t necessarily mean that things are the same day-in and day-out, because they’re not. What I mean is that I go through periods of heightened efficiency and mindfulness. I get ahead on my work. I write lots of posts. I find lots of quality time to spend with my family and for my other hobbies.

How do I fall out of these periods? Usually, it’s a series of unexpected events that triggers a change. One of our kids is sick during the night. I go on a lengthy trip of some kind (more than a few days). Something breaks in our home and I have to repair it. There’s a serious illness or death to someone close to me.

And, boom, the rhythm is interrupted. I feel tired and my mind is cloudy. I have a harder time working. I’m not as mindful of my spending and I make a few awful spending decisions. I get upset with myself – and with others – much easier than before. I’m less productive and less energetic – and it shows in every aspect of my life.

I have a lot of techniques for finding my rhythm again. Usually, it involves spending a couple of days resetting everything. I get my organizing system back in order. I go to bed early a few nights and don’t set the alarm, allowing my body to wake up naturally when it’s rested. I play with my kids a lot. I clean the house. I spend some time with my friends. I directly address any things that are causing ongoing stress, like a relationship that’s not as strong as I’d like it to be.

And, gradually, I get back into the rhythm of things. My productivity and energy go back up. I begin to feel more fulfilled about everything in my life. My spending discipline is stronger than ever. I feel like I’m doing better work in every aspect of my life.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had some conversations with a lot of people in my own life and several readers about this phenomenon – and I’ve found that most people feel the same way, although they don’t articulate it as well. They have a “rhythm” in their life that they’re sometimes in touch with and sometimes out of touch with. The amount of “rhythm” seems to vary from person to person quite a lot, though – some people seem to find it a bit of a rarity, while others seem to rarely find it.

I will say this much: one universal thing that everyone has said is that the times in their life when they’ve found their rhythm are much richer than times where they’re off of their rhythm.

Obviously, I’d like to move in a direction where I’m in touch with my rhythm more than I used to be. I’ve found several techniques for doing this that really seem to work.

Know some sure signs that your rhythm is out of whack. For me, the biggest signs are that my office is messy, my GTD inbox has a buildup of stuff in it, my “article buffer” (articles I have written in advance) is low or depleted, and that I feel tired in the middle of the day. When I see two of these things, I usually take it as a sign that my rhythm is out of whack.

If you see any sign of falling out of your rhythm, stop and recharge as soon as you can. You might not be able to do it immediately, but you should do it as soon as you can. I find that when I force myself to do things when I’m out of sync, I make many more mistakes and am much slower about things than when I’m in a good rhythm. In other words, the time I spend keeping myself in sync pays great dividends over time.

If you don’t feel that you’ve had your rhythm, or have severe difficulty reclaiming it, get a medical checkup. There are a lot of little things that can hold us back from feeling great and knocking it out of the park. Many of them are very simple – a vitamin deficiency or something like that. I have an underactive (bordering on inactive) thyroid and if I miss out on my daily thyroid medication, I can quickly get out of rhythm.

Certain routine activities help me maintain my rhythm. For me, a daily walk of about three miles, a daily 20 minute meditation session (where I try to empty my mind for a while in the quietest room in the house), and a daily gaming session help me keep in my rhythm. I try really hard to accomplish these things every day. A piano practice session seems to be creeping into the picture here, as well.

If you’re out of rhythm, put off buying decisions. I find that, time and time again, my judgment when it comes to purchasing decisions is out of whack when I’m out of rhythm. If I put the decision off until I’m in a better frame of mind, not only do I end up making a better decision over the long haul, I usually have created some additional incentive to focus on what I need to do to get back in the swing of things.

Good luck!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Annie Jones says:

    One thing that helps me when I feel my rhythm is off is to just quit fighting it. If I can, a take a day “off” and just indulge in being unproductive. I’ll read, play on the computer, cook a frozen pizza for dinner, skip the laundry, etc. Usually one day of that is all it takes to reset and find my momentum again the next day.

  2. Carol@inthetrenches says:

    Exactly! Those days when we are “off” seem totally unproductive and frustrating. Setting a routine is my biggest strategy to overcome this. I try to set my schedule down to the times. Sometimes it feels like just going through the motions but then the flow starts to kick in again.

  3. Steve says:

    Sometimes I get in a funk and instead of forcing myself to act I will cut my losses and unwind with some impromptu leisure time. If I can’t be productive doing actual work, at least I can be productive having leisure (and it beats the alternative of being disgruntled about what I am doing or feeling guilty that I’m not doing it).

  4. amanda says:

    This was rally helpful to me- mostly because it reassured me that this is a “normal” occurence and that other people experience it as well. I’m a grad student and have been off-rhythm on a writing project, so it helps to have some ideas for getting back on track.

  5. Christina Crowe @ Cash Campfire says:

    Great article! I have a major problem with motivation, which then makes maintaining my rhythm a lot harder day after day.

    I’ve been experimenting with different things to try to find the most effective ways to maintain my rhythm and become more productive. I’ve found that waking up early definitely helps, especially if I have my daily coffee in the morning to keep me energized. My most productive time is in the morning, but sometimes my body doesn’t want to wake up as early as I’d like. I’ll try going to bed earlier until I maintain a steady sleeping schedule.

    Another thing that helps me maintain my rhythm is video games, believe it or not. a few hours of gaming each day does wonders, and makes me more eager to get working (if I don’t go overboard). What I’ll do is, I’ll wake up early (around 7am), work for a few hours, then take a break after noon to play games. After a few hours of that, I’m able to begin working again.

    Sometimes I’ll replace gaming with reading instead, or I’ll do less gaming and read in addition to an hour of gaming. After about 5pm, I spend the rest of the day how I’d like or I might get additional work done if I’m in the mood.

    But maintaining a good sleeping schedule and getting motivated are the key things that seem to get in the way of a steady day-to-day rhythm. If I can keep both things in check, I’ll be able maintain a great deal of productivity, and it would pay off big time in the end.


  6. WendyH says:

    For me I find it helps to have something flexible built in, so getting off schedule on one thing doesn’t throw the entire day or week off rhythm. This especially happens when I try and do a menu plan for the week; I can never plan specific meals for every evening, I just try to plan the week in general with a few quick & easy meals to fill in for unexpected schedule changes. I find that I enjoy specific tasks like cooking more when I’m not rushed and “out of rhythm”.

  7. I am 9 months pregnant, and the closer I get to delivery the more I feel out of sorts and out of rhythm. I think it is just because I’m tired all the time and not sleeping well, and the things I used to find easy to do (like housework or yardwork) are not easy anymore! Maybe I’m just gearing up for major change, because once baby #2 arrives we’ll be all trying to find a new rhythm in our house anyway. Thanks for the post!

  8. Michael says:

    Hah, it’s funny you mention gaming. For about a year I fought hard to never play a single videogame. In the last few months I switched to allowing myself a small amount of it, and I became much more productive. Why fight it?

  9. Courtney says:

    Good post. Last week, our household was running along smoothly. This week, my husband and three kids are all sick (love those back-to-school germs!) and everything is out of whack.

  10. John S says:

    Trent, your examples of how you unwind illustrate some key differences between your life (which has relatively few hard-and-fast obligations that must be met at a specific time outside your control,) and the lives of people with normal jobs, who are subject to the constraints of a conventional work schedule. This gives you a very different perspective than many of your readers. Sometimes you’ll propose solutions to a problem that sound great, but just aren’t feasible for anyone except a work-at-home-on-your-own-schedule-r like yourself.

    “I go to bed early a few nights and don’t set the alarm, allowing my body to wake up naturally when it’s rested. I play with my kids a lot. I clean the house. I spend some time with my friends.”

    When working eight-to-five plus a commute each way, those solutions just aren’t an option for most people. They sure do sound nice though.

  11. reulte says:

    I think the one of the most important factors (after checking medical) is to give yourself permission – permission to take the day off or permission to not clean the house today.

  12. Michael says:

    John S, you forgot why Trent takes the time to recharge: “How do I fall out of these periods? Usually, it’s a series of unexpected events that triggers a change. One of our kids is sick during the night. I go on a lengthy trip of some kind (more than a few days). Something breaks in our home and I have to repair it. There’s a serious illness or death to someone close to me.”

    If an employer doesn’t give an employee a break when things like this happen, something is really wrong. In that case, there’s no useful advice except to push for personal time or find another job as soon as possible.

  13. Anitra says:

    John S: I was thinking the same thing. I am a stay-at-home mom and never get the opportunity to sleep in anymore (even on the weekends!) And I can’t just “take a day off” without a lot of advance planning (finding a babysitter, etc.)

  14. Kat says:

    Michael, I can’t imagine the average American employer giving any sort of break beyond the allotted time off that was part of your employment agreement to begin with. Which in the US is a small number of days. If I took off for each of these things that Trent has the time to recover from by sleeping in or playing, I’d be out of days off by February! Who has the time off to take days off AFTER your kid is no longer sick? Or to take days off AFTER you just took a week’s vacation off? Or to take off whole days to “repair” household items?

  15. valleycat1 says:

    the examples Trent gives are when he’s talking about what HE does; the advice he gives others is after that, and he makes a point of suggestiong you do what works for you in your situation. To me, the up days & down days are just a part of the overall rhythm of life & I try to keep enough perspective to know that the downs will end at some point.

  16. Gretchen says:

    In theory, going to sleep earlier allows one reset one’s internal alarm clock, still allowing one to go to work on time.

    My cats never got this memo and I can’t imagine it works that well with small children, either.

  17. Michael says:

    Kat, if there’s a problem preventing an employee from being productive, the average employer is willing to help solve it. It’s just part of being a boss…

    Also, take another look at Trent’s suggestions (never mind that they are his routines that work for his life.) Only one, sleeping in, cuts into work time by definition. That would take, what, two personal hours? That’s a good investment and most employees have two hours. Getting organized is done at work. Repairing relationships is done wherever the relationship is encountered — possibly at work. Spending more time with friends is likely done on the weekend, because they work too. If children are in school, the extra time spent with them is also in the evenings and weekends. A doctor’s visit takes sick time. Meditation, brisk walks, etc., can be done at lunch or even as a short break. There are ways for regular people to do these things or their equivalents…

  18. Mary says:

    What a timely article. I’ve felt off for the last two weeks, with everything hitting at once. Great suggestions for getting myself back together.

  19. Steve says:


    Most people have what’s called a “free running cycle” of about 24.1 hours. What this means is that the actual physical length of a day and the body’s daily rhythm are not quite in sync; the average person’s biochemistry operates as if a day is slightly longer than it actually is. This makes things like going to bed earlier/getting up earlier difficult and going to bed later/getting up later much easier.

    My cat does not understand this and can’t figure out that I’d be less cranky in the morning if she could give me an extra 30 minutes on Saturdays.

  20. valleycat1 says:

    Gretchen & Steve – OT reply: I had a cat that got me up just before daybreak every morning or at 5:30AM, whichever came earlier. We bought an automatic feeder & he eats & goes back to sleep, so at least on weekends I can actually sleep in.

  21. Des says:

    I sympathize with the morning cat people. I have three cats and two small dogs and none of them understand the concept of sleeping in. They all decide they want attention at about 5:00 in the morning. If I can, I like to steal a nap on Saturdays. They seem to be amenable to that :)

  22. John S says:

    Steve, I know exactly what you mean. I feel like my biorhythmic cycle is built around more like a 26-hour day. Staying up late and sleeping late is soooo easy, but the reverse is nigh impossible.

    Michael, the average boss is looking for employees who don’t make their personal problems into company problems. If it were the norm for employers to tailor their expectations to every little personal bump in the road their employees encountered, they would need to double-staff every position because people would be out half the time “getting their rhythm back”. Your view of bosses sounds quite idealistic. It would be great if all bosses were as accommodating as you describe.

    And yes, most of Trent’s suggestions are technically doable by someone with a busy schedule, though I would counter that if you’re squeezing these things into the spare time of a busy day, you’re not really “recharging” much.

    I didn’t mean to imply that this article was without value, though. However, these “recharging” rituals are much easier to fit in when your schedule is as open and flexible as a work-at-home blogger’s. I was just commenting that these concepts and suggestions don’t translate as readily, for example, into the life of a busy working mom with non-negotiable time obligations before, during, and after work, up through the end of dinner time on most days. It’s easier to suggest taking some “me-time” than it is to be able to actually do it, unfortunately.

    Sure, it would be nice if everyone could find time to unwind and recharge on a regular basis. I suppose if you boil Trent’s message down to that, who could disagree?

  23. Michael says:

    John, I actually do believe it’s possible to have a normal job and take care of oneself and I don’t think it is idealistic to expect managers allow for life’s problems. It is common for employees to receive vacation time, sick time and personal time which can be used to recharge. I would be surprised if Trent spent more days doing nothing than an average American receives in time off.

    However, I do agree with you about the single mother. She should have time because she should have help The deadbeat father is using all the spare time instead of sharing it with her by helping to raise his children. You should not consider that anything but unjust, and as I said, if there is literally no room for any recharging, then something really wrong is happening.

  24. Glenda says:

    Piano is actually as valuable as your meditation time (speaking as a former piano teacher and the daughter of a former piano teacher!) because it promotes cross-brain connections. When the left and right hemispheres of the brain have more connections, many everyday tasks become easier and more automatic. Additionally, by concentrating on piano practice on a regular basis, it also becomes easier to concentrate on other tasks. The learning process applies to other areas of life; repeated practice of a piece of music leads to mastery and those successes teach persistence and patience when facing difficulties. One final benefit is when you’re able to go back and play (not practice) favorite music you’ve previously learned, which is pure joy and also wonderfully relaxing.

  25. Andrew says:

    Great tips on finding your rhythm. I especially think one thing many people overlook is the possibility that it might simply be a vitamin deficiency. Maybe they need a little more “C” in their diet because they’re not getting enough sun.

  26. Amy B. says:

    Reminds me of the “mental health days” my mom used to engage in while still working.

    I enjoyed this article very much. I remember a very productive period in my life – everything was clicking. A month later, I couldn’t focus on anything. The culprit? My first pregnancy. Needless to say, I haven’t felt that “in the zone” since. :-)

  27. Terry says:

    I have 2 cats — one, the male, wants me up at 4 a.m. Depending on his mood, he will be very gently tap me on the nose or leap on my back. I’ve started closing the bedroom door some nights and it’s amazing how much better I feel in the morning! I think they’re okay with it because they have each other but they are generally at the door waiting when I emerge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *