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Keep the Plates Spinning

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For those who haven’t heard the phrase “keep the plates spinning”, it refers to a circus trick involving about a dozen spinning plates on the end of poles (see photo to the right).  The performer has to keep all the plates spinning because if any one of the plates slows down too much, it’s going to fall off the pole and smash into pieces on the floor.  It’s fun to watch.  The performer is constantly evaluating which plates are OK and which are trending towards disaster, and they’re making second-to-second judgments about how best to keep all the plates spinning together.

Sound familiar?  Replace “performer” with your name and replace “plates” with responsibilities like work, family, or personal health.  We’re just like those circus performers, running between our various responsibilities and commitments to keep them spinning just enough so they don’t fall off the sticks.  Focus too long on one plate, no matter how important it seems, and you’ll find that the others will crash to the floor.  Try and keep them all spinning at the same high velocity and you’ll almost certainly collapse out of exhaustion – it’s not sustainable. 

While focus is about choosing a few things and doing them well, it’s rarely about choosing just one thing and doing that one thing well.  That’s impossible to do – I can be a good father, but if I fail miserably to earn a paycheck, my daughter doesn’t eat.  I can be great in the office, but if i don’t take care of myself physically and emotionally, I won’t have the energy to keep it up for very long (and while my daughter will eat, she wouldn’t know me from Stanley).  We have to be multifaceted to some degree in our day-to-day approach.

So what do you do if you want to keep the plates spinning at various speeds consistently?

For me, keeping the plates spinning isn’t limited to my uber focus areas (family, career, self-development).  It’s more “micro” and nuanced than that and can involve daily activities I just want to be consistent in (flossing, stretching in the morning, getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, keeping the house clean, and so on).

What I’ve noticed is that each of my micro-focus areas is in one of these five stages (below) at any given time.

Focus Stage Pyramid

To describe this in a little more detail:

  • ON.  When something is in this stage, I’m charging full steam ahead with it.  I don’t have much control over it – I don’t know why or how I get to this stage – something just clicks and for a period of time the majority of my attention is focused on this thing.  I’m reaching the flow state often.  Any downtime I get, I’m itching to get back to it – the feeling of both inspiration and accomplishment is more enticing than any drug.  I very rarely have more than one thing in this phase at any time and it’s not uncommon for me to go days or weeks with nothing at all reaching this level of attention.  When it does, watch out!  Because I can’t be pried away.
  • Motivated Maintenance.  In many ways, this is the “healthiest” place to be with most things for adequate balance between them.  When I’m motivated and energized to keep something moving forward but I’m not borderline obsessed with it, it really sets a tone for the other plates I’m spinning at the same time.  The catch with this stage when compared to the one before it is that it rarely results in huge accomplishment in a short period of time since it’s more about maintaining something that was significantly advanced in the ON stage.
  • Unmotivated Maintenance.  When something is in this stage, I’m reluctantly moving it forward.  This is the hardest stage to be in for me because I feel the laziest with respect to this thing OR something in a higher stage is taking precedence.  This is where I need to just keep the plate spinning so it doesn’t fall off the pole entirely, knowing that my motivation will eventually return.
  • Break to Recharge.  Sometimes I just need a day or two (up to a week) to find my footing again.  It’s a vacation from work, some time outside the gym, a week of not focusing on what I’m eating, or just some time spent doing “nothing”.  If it lasts more than 5-7 days though, a big red flag gets raised as I’m now trending towards Inactivity.
  • Inactive / FAIL.  When 16 days have passed and I haven’t hit the gym, there’s a problem.  When things are in this stage in general, there’s a problem!

At any given time, I could have 1 thing in the highest most state of attentiveness (“ON”), 4 things in motivated maintenance, and 2 things in unmotivated maintenance.  In some cases I may be taking a break from something in order to recharge my batteries, and that’s fine.  It’s when I’m completely inactive that I’ve failed miserably.

So the real key is to make sure I’m cycling through ON, Motivated Maintenance, Unmotivated Maintenance, and occasionally a Break to Recharge without ever reverting to the Inactive state.

So how do you keep the plates spinning when you feel yourself slipping towards the Inactive state?  Here are some of the tricks I’ve used:

  • Trigger an emotion (using a scent or body movement) to motivate yourself.  Can’t get motivated to go to dance class?  Commit to spending 2 minutes practicing your steps and then decide.  I’ve also found that scents can really trigger positive memories and I try to “bottle them up” or recreate them when I can to reproduce the feeling.
  • Be OK with a 50% effort at times… because consistency matters!  When you’re in the state of Unmotivated Maintenance, it can be hard to really motivate yourself.  But for a lot of things, consistency is more important than giving 100%.  I’d rather run a mile than fail to run five.  Just start doing it and see what happens – sometimes you can switch from Unmotivated Maintenance to ON just by giving something 50% effort at first and letting it transform.
  • Don’t get down on yourself for not having the same motivation.  When things transition from ON to Motivated Maintenance to Unmotivated Maintenance, don’t worry too much about it.  It’ll eventually turn around for you.  You can’t be ON or even motivated with everything at once so just accept it and know it’s temporary.
  • Visualize success in that area – or use this time to reaffirm your goals.  Sometimes re-reading your goals can help, and sometimes just using pre-sleep visualization of success in that area can trigger something in your brain to help refocus you.
  • Take a short break from the activity to recharge and clear your mind.  You don’t always need to take a week off of something to reboot your brain, sometimes you can do it with just a single day or even 20 minutes.  Use this time to get out in nature if you can.  A recent study by the University of Michigan found that a stroll in a wooded park gives the prefontal cortex a recharge (which leads to increased focus) while a walk out in a busy city does not.
  • Make as much progress as you can in an area when you’re full speed ahead so when you slip into maintenance mode, you can do that knowing you got ahead.  In other words, if you find yourself ON with something, leverage that increased energy to make a ton of progress.  As an example, when I was starting this blog I knew that my desire to hand-edit XHTML or CSS wouldn’t last – it was a means to an end – so while I was in that zone, I got as far along as I could so I wouldn’t use it as an excuse later once my motivation (or in this case, tolerance) wore off.

Bottom line: You can’t be 100% on 100% of everything 100% of the time.  Just be Zen about that.  But consistency matters more than almost anything else.  So it’s important that you find a way to keep the plates spinning to prevent yourself from falling into the dreaded Inactive state with anything that’s important to you.

Written by Mike Torres

April 22nd, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Productivity

Tagged with

  • Love this metaphor of work as a bouncing ball:

    “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – Work, Family, Health, Friends and Spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the Air.

    You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back.

    But the other four Balls – Family, Health, Friends and Spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these; they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for it.”

  • I wanna find more info about this, anybody could?

  • Dr. Shoulders

    AGED 1123 Students: Comment on this blog, using your first name only as your identifier. Click “I’d rather post as a guest”. In your comment, identify one thing you can do to keep your plates spinning when you head toward the Inactive state.

    • Summer

      Take a break and re-prioritize, sometimes you get caught up in things that aren’t important so the vital things suffer. But you don’t ever realize it at the time!

    • Schyler

      Remember that nothing last forever. When I feel like I am stressed out about a project and work and family at the same time in know that eventually one of the stressors will stop and things will improve

    • Andrew

      Visualize success in that area. Keeping a clear goal in mind helps to keep moving towards success.

    • Kaysy

      Be ok with a 50% effort…at times: Consistency is the key to long term success, remember it is better to move slow like a turtle and actually reach your goal, than to try and race towards your goal and never get there. Take reaching a goal one day at a time with strong consistency. I try and keep this in mind when it comes to any goal I have to ensure I finish it well even if it takes me longer.

    • Seth

      I would make as much progress in an area when I’m full speed ahead. Knowing I’m ahead would give me relief and a mind set to stay focused and motivated.

    • Allison

      To keep my plates spinning i will not get down on myself for not having the same motivation. I would then step back, take a short break and then reevaluate.

  • Callie

    Remembering I’m not alone and that there is a bigger picture always seems to help me. God didn’t allow me to come this far, and if I’m feeling out of order, it’s usually because I’m making a problem when there really isn’t one. So, just stopping, remembering God is in control(not me,) and taking a time to refocus ALWAYS helps. Then I’m ready to grab life by the horns again!

  • Ashton

    It is so easy and common to spread yourself to thin. I absolutely love at the end of the blog that it says, “You can’t be 100% on 100% of everything 100% of the time.” Once we accept that our nature doesn’t allow us to be invincible, we are then able to find our true passions and invest our time and energy on pursuing success in what our core values find desirable. I believe this is what drives us to keep going; knowing that our hard work and effort is all linked and will lead to a brighter tomorrow for ourselves.

  • Carly

    To keep my plates spinning I will visualize success in that area. I will remember that the work that seems trivial/pointless or incredibly overwhelming is not without purpose. These are small things in comparison to the big picture.