Here on Inc.com, and on many other business websites, we devote a lot of space to daily routines. We catalog the schedules of the super successful and suggest hacks or tweaks that might improve your daily rhythm. Sometimes we even expand the concept and talk about weekly routines as well.
But as author Steven Johnson recently pointed out in his Substack newsletter, a fixed daily routine is a relatively new invention from a deep historical perspective. Johnson has been reading books by anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow and James C. Scott, all of which agree that for long stretches of human history, people lived by rhythm of the seasons, not just the progress of the sun across the sky each day. Maybe, he argues, modern humans should try to do the same.
Our ancestors knew how to live seasonally.
Many of the first larger human settlements were built along rivers where the residents took advantage of seasonal floods to fertilize crops and exploit temporary food sources, such as flocks of migrating birds. But when these riches dried up, the people changed lifestyles, returning to older forms of hunting and gathering for months every year.
"We tend to ignore that stretch of our history because those early townspeople didn't leave much residue behind in the forms of pyramids or stone tablets or irrigation projects. But it seems to have been a stable strategy, and probably quite a pleasant way to live," writes Johnson. And it went on for quite a while. "This interim mode lasted for four thousand years, maybe more--longer than the time that separates modern capitalism from some of the pharaohs," he adds.
Could all that time spent alternating ways of life to suit the seasons have left a deep imprint on human character and inclinations? Could we all benefit from considering ways to emulate this ancestral change across the seasons? Johnson thinks so, and he's not the only one arguing that seasonal fluctuation doesn't just make people happier, it makes them more productive too.
Modern careers can have 'seasons' too.
Johnson offers his own life as a writer as an example. He experiences periods of deep concentration and isolation as he's producing a book, then a more collaborative period as he works with his publisher to bring it into the world, and then an intensely public burst of promotion once it's released. "I think I've said a thousand times to people over the years that if my job were all one mode or the other--all solitary or all collaborative and public--I wouldn't like it nearly as much as I do," he notes.
Most of us won't become successful authors, but I suspect many people will find the idea of this kind of variable schedule appealing. I know I do. Different 'seasons' of work fulfill and challenge different parts of us, allowing other areas to rest and recover. To my ears this sounds not only generative and nurturing but also a lot less boring than following the same routine month after month.
How to add 'seasonality' to your life.
So how can non-authors employ the idea of seasonality to improve their happiness and productivity? A good place to start is simply by embracing the idea of seasonality. Perhaps as a young parent you take a slower pace for a few years. At another time you leap into a full-out professional sprint. (Entrepreneur Randi Zuckerberg once suggested something very similar to me in an interview.)
Sabbaticals and long vacations, if your situation allows for them, are another way to enact seasonality. Though Johnson points out, that would be a lot easier if our elected leaders got their act together on paid family leave and other basic workforce protections.
But even if you can't embrace your inner European and take months off, you can stop beating yourself up if your output dips in the height of summer or depths of winter. You may just be recharging for a flowering of productivity in the spring or fall. Instead try to reflect on your own personal rhythms and mentally set aside certain periods for deep thinking, cranking out tasks, outreach and socializing, or rest.
Seasonal changes to your energy, interests, or ambition are not a failure of work ethic or willpower. It may just be how humans are hard-wired to be. Trying to steamroll over these fluctuations is a recipe for misery. Instead, embracing your varying appetite for different types of work across the seasons of your life might just be the key to a less stressful and more productive work life this year and in years to come.