Plodding and bursting are two different strategies for getting things done. Understanding these two modes will help you in two ways. First, you’ll be able to identify your own default mode, so you can better take advantage of it. And second, you’ll be able to understand others who prefer your non-dominant mode, so you can relate to them more effectively.
Plodding means persevering with a steady and stable workflow day after day.
A nice example of plodding is Jiro from the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi. He followed essentially the same work routine every day for decades and became one of the best sushi chefs in the world as a result.
A plodding writer would focus on writing every day, in essentially the same place, at the same time, and in the same manner. This approach could be used to create articles as well as larger works. An example of such a writer is Danielle Steele, who’s written more than 100 books. She’s said in interviews that she has a very disciplined work schedule, basically following the same work routine day after day to complete book after book.
Bursting means working in short, temporary cycles of highly focused work while tuning out anything unrelated to the project at hand.
A good example of bursting is when Sylvester Stallone wrote the script for the movie Rocky. Stallone saw an interesting boxing match in March 1975, got inspired, and wrote the whole script in 20 hours straight, spread over 3 days.
A bursting writer catches waves of inspiration and rides them to the completion of some creative work as quickly as possible. An example of a bursting writer is Dan Poynter. He’s written many how-to books and has shared that he likes to complete a new book in about 2 weeks. When he’s ready to write the book, he puts everything else aside and gets the book done, working long hours during that time to see it through to completion. This approach has worked very well for him.
As you may suspect, you can combine these two approaches in different ways.
For example, you could use bursting to prototype a new software application, then plodding to turn it into a completed product, then bursting to launch it, and then plodding to handle the ongoing marketing and sales.
As another example, you could use bursting to shift yourself towards a healthier lifestyle, such as by spending a weekend clearing all junk food out of your kitchen, picking healthier recipes, restocking your kitchen with healthier food, signing up for exercise classes, and putting the classes you selected onto your calendar. Then once you’ve made those initial changes, you could switch to plodding mode to condition some new habits and to maintain them thereafter.
When it comes to personal growth, quite often you’ll see a bursting pattern being very effective for pushing through resistance to create an initial change, and then plodding takes over for long-term maintenance. This works for relationship changes, career changes, financial changes, health changes, and more.
Your Dominant Mode
Most likely you’ll observe that you’re much better at applying one of these modes than the other. For instance, you may be great at plodding, but you just can’t summon the energy or inspiration required to really blast through to bigger changes. Or you may be great at bursting, initiating new changes with explosive energy, but you have a tough time maintaining momentum beyond that point.
Plodding and bursting exist along a spectrum. You may be near the middle, feeling competent using either mode, or you may be near the edges, vastly preferring one mode over the other.
What do you do if you discover that you’re really great at one mode but not so great at the other?
First, accept that this is how you are. Instead of lamenting your weakness, think about how you could squeeze even more juice out of your dominant mode. In other words, instead of trying to move towards the middle, consider exploring the extremes of your strength.
So if you’re a plodder, ask yourself how you can become one of the best plodders ever. Think about how you might structure your day into a well-orchestrated performance from the time you get up to the time you go to bed. Turn your goals into habits. Focus on getting your daily routine just right so that if you essentially repeat it over and over, you’ll achieve the goals that are most important to you. If you want to create music, for instance, then specify which hours you’ll do that each day, and decide in advance exactly what you’ll do during that time and for how long (practicing instruments, composing, studying music theory, decomposing great songs, etc). Reduce everything you can into part of a routine you can trust.
If you’re a burster, then ponder how you can burst your way to your goals even faster. How quickly could you move beyond stuckness if you really committed yourself? You could start an online business in a day. Write a screenplay in a few days. Upgrade all your technology this weekend. How quickly could you create a rough draft? A prototype? Push all the unimportant stuff off your plate for a while, and focus on one project or task single-mindedly unless you’ve made a significant dent in it. Don’t stop until you’re done or you really must stop.
My favorite mode is bursting. That’s how I write — quickly and in short bursts. This is how I wrote about 1200 articles during the past 8 years. I don’t write on a set schedule; I write when I get inspired with an idea. I write at different times of day, in different locations, and on many different topics. This approach works nicely for me.
When I’ve tried to set my writing to a regular schedule, I’ve always failed to maintain it, usually because I get wrapped up in new waves of inspiration, such as a new experiment to conduct, a new trip to take, or a new friend to hang out with.
Owning Your Dominant Mode
Realize that you can achieve great success in life with either mode. Neither is better than the other. The difference mainly comes down to how you like to manage your energy.
To a plodder, a burster may appear unstable, undisciplined, and unpredictable, like a loose cannon. Similarly, a burster may regard a plodder as dull, uncreative, and tediously slow. But instead of disrespecting the other mode, it’s more helpful to respect our individual strengths — and especially to push our own strengths towards even greater expression.
In school bursters are often labeled as procrastinators. Instead of working a little bit each day on a big project, a burster will often do it all in one marathon session — and still do a decent job on the project. Doing a little each day would make a burster pull his/her hair out from sheer boredom. But bursters eventually learn that the added time pressure of leaving projects to the last minute helps them focus, and this focus lets them plow through the work more quickly than they otherwise would.
Instead of waiting for external time pressure, a burster can create a similar motivational pressure by setting inspiring goals and imagining them as real. My friend Joe Vitale is what I’d call a burster. When he gets a new product idea, he goes into burst mode and gets it done quickly, launches it, and then moves on to the next thing. He recently got into music and used his bursting strategy to create and release his first 4 albums in only 18 months. When he talks about his new products, it’s usually with great excitement, even if he’s the only one feeling it.
Most schools are set up to train and reward plodding, so people who are good at bursting may have a hard time fitting in there. I flunked out of university when I tried to go through it in plodding mode — I couldn’t handle the tediously slow pacing. But when I started over and treated my university time as a bursting experiment, including every project and assignment, I was able to graduate with two degrees in only three semesters. I’ve previously shared that story in articles like Do It Now and 10 Tips for College Students, so I won’t rehash it here. The key idea is that I had to recognize that the university program wasn’t designed for someone like me, so I adapted it to my natural bursting ability as best I could, and that allowed me to excel where I previously failed.
On the other hand, plodders also get stigmatized, albeit differently. They’re labeled as bean counters, as if their contribution is little more than pointless busywork. Plodders often get pulled into positions that require routine tasks done repeatedly, such as accounting, maintenance, or bureaucratic work. Plodders love routine, but if they embraced their love of routine more fully, they could contribute even more. An effective plodder can do more than fielding customer service calls or bagging groceries — s/he could also make some wonderful contributions to fields like art, science, medicine, and more.
Recognizing Other People’s Dominant Modes
If you work with others, then recognizing their dominant modes can be very helpful. For instance, don’t assign a project to a burster and expect him/her to work on it a little bit each day till it’s done. The burster will most likely do it in one marathon session, possibly right before the deadline. Don’t try to make bursters feel bad for not using a plodding strategy. What you regard as a stressful way to work may actually be quite stimulating and effective for them.
Similarly, don’t try to give a plodder a one-time creative project with a tight deadline that would throw their carefully crafted routine out of whack. This will only stress them out. Instead, work with a plodder to adapt new projects to their existing daily workflow, so they can do the work gradually over time and still maintain their steady, graceful rhythm.
It’s also interesting to observe these patterns in your kids. My son Kyle (age 9) seems very much like a plodder at this point. He loves his routine and resists changes to it. He likes to eat the same foods and play the same games over and over again. He says he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. Each time I make him a sandwich, he gives me feedback and a 1-10 rating on my performance, letting me know how close my efforts came to his ideal sandwich, so I can hopefully improve my sandwich making abilities over time. He says I’m improving, and he continues to patiently monitor my progress.
My daughter Emily (age 12) is clearly more of a burster. She doesn’t care so much about routine; she gets bored too easily. She likes to conduct short-term experiments. Lately she’s been seeing how late she can stay up on Friday and Saturday nights before falling asleep and noticing what effect different amounts of caffeine have on her efforts. If she likes a new book or a game, she’ll often go through it fast and move on to something else. She loves creating artwork, especially drawings and origami, in short bursts of inspiration. If I suggest something new for her to try, such as a new food she probably won’t even like, she almost always says yes to it. She even recognizes when parts of her life are becoming too repetitive, and then she seeks to break those patterns to mix things up.
If I try to treat both kids as if they have the same dominant mode, that doesn’t work very well. If I treat my daughter as a plodder, she gets very bored. If I treat my son as a burster, it stresses him out.
Of course this is oversimplified because we all have the capacity to take on different modes in different situations, but generally you’ll find that people — including children — have a preferred mode where they tend to get better results than with the opposite mode.
Do you see any areas of your life where you’re trying to achieve success with your non-dominant mode? If so, you can often improve your results tremendously by switching to your stronger mode.
Optimizing Your Work
Are you in a job that’s designed for a plodder, bored and listless because you’re really a burster? Do you crave more creative work? Do you need more variety and stimulation and less tedium and repetition? Maybe it’s time to switch jobs or positions, or work with your boss to redesign your position to allow you to burst through more creative work and do fewer routine tasks. You chose your job, so if it’s not a great fit for you, choose something else.
Or are you doing a burster’s work, but you’re really a plodder? Do you find yourself stressed out by too many new tasks dropping onto your plate in an unpredictable manner, making it impossible for you to create any semblance of routine? Would you feel better switching to a more stable job situation, one where you could optimize the heck out of an existing workflow stream? No one is stopping you from switching; there are plenty of jobs like that in the world.
If you can do work that’s better suited to your strongest mode, you’re going to be more productive. You’ll also feel much better about your work — neither too bored nor too stressed. It may take some effort to make changes, but working in a suboptimal mode for years is a big waste of your life. It’s more sensible to let that job go to someone who’s a better match for it.
On various occasions I’ve been tempted to try to create a plodder-like workflow for myself, and it’s never worked out. I usually sabotage it within a day or two. I find the predictability of it so tedious that I can’t handle it for more than a day or two. But when I embrace my bursting mode, I find that I’m able to get much more done, and I’m a lot happier with my work. For instance, in an inspired burst during the Summer of 2011, I booked 4 workshops, including 3 new ones I’d never done before. I really enjoyed bursting through this huge load of creative work, from design to delivery, one workshop at a time. It was a lot of fun and a great fit for my dominant mode. But if I tried to do the same workshop over and over again on a predictable schedule, I’d probably die of boredom. I need variety and challenge a lot more than I need stability and predictability.
Transforming Your Relationships
Are you a plodder who hates the ups and downs of dating? Maybe you’d feel better in a stable, monogamous, long-term relationship. Plodders like to lock things down into stable patterns. They’re much more likely to embrace marriage than a burster. A predictable relationship is a plodder’s dream. When a plodder latches onto a decent relationship, they may be happy to stick around for years, as long as you don’t rock the boat or mess up their routine.
Or are you a burster who enjoys relating in wave-like patterns of intense connection, followed by breaks in between? Are you the type to fall in love quickly? Do you like the intensity and stimulation of new connections and new experiences? Do you get bored and want to check out when your relationship becomes predictable? Bursters love to go with the flow of inspiration in their relationships, so they can go deep very quickly when it feels good to them. Bursters are also better suited to open relationships than plodders because of the added variety.
Is it possible that you’re a burster in one part of your life and a plodder in another? Of course. But even if you can see that’s how you’ve been in the past, you might consider trying the opposite strategy in some area just to see how that plays out. You may be surprised and find that you get better results when using the same dominant mode in each part of your life.
For many years I managed my relationship life as a plodder while favoring bursting in my professional life. This was mainly because I was in a long-term monogamous relationship for so many years. When I finally had the chance to try a more bursting-compatible relationship mode, I took to it right away and loved it. I love the pleasant surprises that come from connecting with new people. I also feel no resistance to long-distance relationships — this works well for me in practice because I enjoy the bursts of time together followed by some time apart. Some people would find this situation stressful, but I find the variety stimulating… and even peaceful and relaxing at times. By leaning into my dominant mode here, I’ve become a lot happier in this part of my life.
Once you identify your preferred relationship mode, you can seek out compatible partners who share your desires, and you can avoid trying to be someone you’re not. There’s nothing wrong with getting involved with people who have different dominant modes than you — in fact, those relationships can actually work quite well — as long as you and your partner(s) recognize and appreciate each other’s strengths and don’t try to forcibly change the other. A burster-plodder relationship can be a rewarding growth experience for all involved.
The difference between plodding and bursting is largely a matter of how you prefer to manage your energy.
Do you like the variety of intense, short-term experiences with frequent, restorative breaks? When you get inspired with an idea, do you like to dive into it right away and go all out, so you can fully saturate yourself in the experience? When you meet someone and discover a mutual attraction, do you like to clear your schedule and dive into that connection quickly and passionately?
Or would you rather have the predictability and stability of fairly constant energy output over the long term? Do you like the daily grind, repeating the same pleasing patterns over and over again? Do you appreciate the value of routine? Do you enjoy relationships that are stable and predictable, so you always know what’s expected of you?
Again, neither approach is better than the other. You can enjoy great success and happiness with either approach. If you can identify your dominant mode and leverage it to a greater extent than you are now, you’ll likely find that you become significantly more productive, and you won’t have to struggle quite as much.
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