An employee “Bill” varied his arrival time at work. When Bill was late, his boss yelled at him. When Bill was on time, the boss offered praise.
Sure enough, Bill responded. The day after the boss yelled, Bill was on time. And the day after the reward, Bill slacked off and arrived late. So, concluded the boss, praise doesn’t work. And punishment does.
There was only one problem. A computer demonstrated that Bill’s arrival times showed a pattern of random variation. In fact, the computer could predict quite accurately how Bill would perform – with or without praise and blame.
The same pattern seems to apply to students: some days you learn faster while other days you just don’t get it. And some days you’re productive and efficient, while other days you’re sluggish.
If you’ve studied statistics, you probably guessed that we’re talking about regression to the mean. People usually have an average level of productivity. When they work hard one day, they tend to slow down the next.
So here’s an exercise. Suppose you have a writing project. You set a goal: write 500 words a day. For other projects, find a daily activity level that’s easy to observe and measure.
For the next 30 days, track how many words you write (or how productive you are in the task you’ve chosen). Some days you’ll write 1000 words, other days none, with lots of variation. Each day just record your word count, without judging your output. At the end of 30 days, calculate an average. And calculate again after 60 days.
You may find that your natural average is 300 words a day. You can lower your daily goals – or recognize that you work best with your random pattern.
Obviously, if you have a deadline, you have to increase your output. Professional writers typically write 1000-3000 words a day. Their mean might be 1500.
But if you’re making acceptable progress toward a goal, you can begin to understand, accept and work with your natural rhythm.