While getting my inbox to zero, I noticed a pattern in the messages I failed to reply to. Most were dated around seasons of emotional distress. The pressures of life had drained my capacity to respond to even the simplest messages.

So I had to ask: How do you stick to your productivity process in seasons of distress? How do you keep your momentum and commitments when you feel down?

Most techniques I’ve tried fail this test because I inevitably encounter a difficult trial that throws me in the gutter, which ironically seems to be what productivity is supposed to be about (bringing meaningful order to the chaos of life).

I’ve written before about 3 steps for getting things done and my next post is going to be about building enduring habits. This post is about one way to sustain productivity in seasons of distress.


There is a term in IT called uptime or availability. It refers to the amount of time a service is available in a year, typically expressed as the number of “nines” in the percentage.

For example, Amazon’s storage service S3 promises four “nines” (99.99%) of availability, meaning that for a full 365 days it will only be down for ~53 minutes. Since physical hardware fails all the time, S3 achieves high availability through redundancy–putting your files in multiple places around the world so that if anything goes wrong in one place you can seamlessly get it from elsewhere.

The idea of achieving high availability despite unreliable components is actually an ancient practice, observed by the author of Ecclesiastes:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
(Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NIV)

We see this wisdom applied in many spheres of life: pilots fly with co-pilots, climbers go with spotters, soldiers train with buddies, businesses are started by co-founders, etc.  What if we apply it to personal productivity?

Individual ≠ Personal productivity.

When a relationship fails, a deal goes bad, you get sick, your car breaks down or someone lets you down, your individual productivity will inevitably suffer, but this doesn’t mean your personal mission has to go offline. You can ask for help! (cliche, but insightful right?! 🙂 )

Going it alone is dangerous NOT because you aren’t capable, but because you can lose your capability at any time.

Elaborating on the IT/web services metaphor:

When you visit a website you’re likely connecting to a load-balancer designed to handle tens of thousands of concurrent connections for the entire site. What happens if the load balancer goes down? Many companies use hot failover (redundancy!) where another machine is on stand-by, ready to take over if the main one dies.

These two load balancers share a “heart beat”, saying to each other every few seconds, “I’m alive!” The moment one fails to respond, the other takes over (this is admittedly an oversimplification).

People aren’t machines, but preparing backup relationships for specific tasks is one powerful way to sustain productivity in times of distress.

Who can be your “hot failover,” bearing the load of your most important tasks when you’re down? Who can help you up and carry things forward when you cannot?

Different parts of life will require different people.

If you’re married, your spouse will be a natural “hot failover” in fulfilling your family’s responsibilities. If it’s a business goal, you may turn to your partners or a mastermind group. If it’s an athletic goal, you have your teammates. Just be intentional.

You don’t have to share your entire life with each person forever. Whoever you choose needs to simply agree to cover for you in that specific part of your life. Just make sure that you’re ready to be there for others too.

Application Ideas

  1. Failover: Go through your list of tasks. For each critical task ask someone you trust to help you in case you falter.
  2. Heartbeat: Add a recurring event on your calendar to message each other confirming your ability/inability to complete the task(s) until it is finished.
  3. Queue (optional): If you’re actually working together (not just being a backup), create a shared to-do list where both of you can add new sub-tasks and remove completed ones.

Building redundancy into your life requires time, attention and relational investment, but IT’s WORTH IT if your purpose is bigger than yourself.

My next post will be about a second way to sustain productivity in down times: Building Enduring Habits.

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.