I’m struggling with work right now. It’s not a toxic culture. I work with an amazing team of educators. It’s not the work itself, either. I’m not falling into the “busy” trap of doing tedious work that doesn’t fit my identity or my purpose. I don’t have writer’s block or fear or anxiety. The truth is, I love what I’m doing. I’m often finding myself “in the zone” and hitting a state of flow. However, I’m having a hard time at the moment. Here’s a quick snapshot of my life:
I’m actively revising our Boost PBL projects as we shift from a beta launch to the official launch later this summer. I’m also rewriting and reworking my draft of The AI Roadmap. I’m working on the initial framework for an ELD (English Language Development) curriculum. It’s a project that won’t be available for at least a year focused on empowering ELL students. I’m also writing my first draft on Doug and Cat, a middle school mystery graphic novel about a dog and cat who solve mysteries. I’ve been leading workshops and doing keynotes around the country. Meanwhile, I’m writing blog posts, making podcasts, and making videos. As a professor, I’m in a four week break with no courses but I am prepping for the six courses I’ll be teaching that spread from May through July.
Notice how none of these projects are draining. They are all the type of work that I love to do. But I am feeling exhausted right now.
I explained this to my friend, AJ Juliani. I said, “I’m tired. I love what I’m doing but I’m feeling like I did too much. I over-committed. I am tired.”
“John, you and I love to live in a place where our cups are full and maybe even overflowing. Yeah, it’s too much. Yeah, you are over committed. But it’s too much of a good thing. That’s all. Your cup is overflowing but you’re not burning out. So, take a break. Take a week off and then jump back in.”
AJ’s right. Today, I’ll be revising all of my deadlines to make them more realistic and I plan to take a full week off of creative projects. So, when I lead a workshop in Colombia, I’ll explore the city instead of going to my hotel and working on my book.
What AJ was describing was a sense of project fatigue. It’s a feeling of weariness and frustration that can occur when people are faced with the demands of a challenging or prolonged project. Over a long period of time, project fatigue can lead to a true sense of burnout. But in the short term it’s more likely to lead to decreased motivation, decreased productivity, and increased stress. Project fatigue can arise due to various reasons such as unrealistic deadlines, insufficient resources, lack of clear communication, or a lack of progress on the project.
In my case, I hit a few early roadblocks in certain projects and I failed to adjust deadlines or delay projects. Notice how most of my projects have self-imposed deadlines. The only external deadlines I have are the courses I teach. In other words, I did this to myself. In the past, I have hit project fatigue when I volunteered for too many committees, took on too many school projects, all while coaching and leading an extracurricular program. Those moments were harder because the project fatigue involved tight deadlines and external expectations. This was far more stressful.
But the same thing can happen with students. They often hit project fatigue when doing too many projects in too many classes. Often, schools will shift toward PBL after state testing is done. While it’s great to embrace PBL, it can sometimes lead to project fatigue as students work on various projects in each class. Other times, students hit project fatigue at the midway point within a project (which we’ll get to soon). In this article, we’ll explore why project fatigue occurs and what teachers can do about it.
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The Science Behind the Midway Lull
Project fatigue is actually a pretty common phenomenon. At some point, the excitement of a project will fade and the fatigue sets in. We see this in PBL. There’s often this midway lull where you begin to wonder if students even care about the project anymore. Students seem to work more slowly. There’s more bickering within the teams. This is why it helps to adjust our expectations ahead of time.
When I plan out projects, I tend to focus on a linear model, with students working equally hard in each phase of the project. However, I find that students tend to work in spurts, with big bursts of energy followed by lulls. It’s less like a marathon and more like an interval workout.
For the longest time, I blamed myself for this lack of motivation. I had failed to motivate my students to work hard throughout our projects. If only I had created the right structures, they wouldn’t be procrastinating. However, researchers have demonstrated that these phases of bursts and lulls are actually a normal part of the project process.
For example, in a lab study where participants had to cut out pictures (think old-school kindergarten before everyone the pressures of standardized tests), the participants were slower and sloppier in the middle than they were at the beginning or the end.
In the book When, Daniel Pink profiles Connie Gersick’s research on group dynamics within projects. She observed workers in industries ranging from finance to medicine to banking to computer sciences. While their approaches differed, she noticed patterns of high-productivity bursts and lulls (which might also be a necessary part of the idea incubation process). The middle is often when teams experience the “uh oh effect,” where they realize they are in the midst of project fatigue and suddenly they need to kick it into gear to accomplish their goals. This midpoint can be a moment when we go from slump to jump.
Daniel Pink combined Gersick’s research with the research of organizational psychologist Bruce Tuckman to create the three phases for collaborative work:
Phase One: Form and Storm
In this phase, teams will go through a honeymoon period where they get to know one another, followed by a stormy period with conflict. This phase can look unproductive because the teams are emphasizing relationships rather than tasks. As a teacher, you see this when you’re in the first few days of a project and members seem to be accomplishing little to no actual work.
Phase Two: The Midpoint
The team hasn’t accomplished much and a general malaise has set in. This is where the group can do a quick reassessment and kick it into a higher gear to move to the final phase. This is also where you see the worst project fatigue in the form of a midpoint lull. But if a team is able to conquer their malaise, they hit a state of acceleration.
Phase Three: Perform
The team is working seamlessly with clear goals and a sense of progress. Each member works interdependently with other members, respecting one another’s roles and responsibilities. They’ll often work their hardest as the project comes to a close. On both an individual and collective level, we tend to work fastest as projects come to a close.
5 Strategies for Preventing Project Fatigue
Some degree of project fatigue is likely to occur in almost any long-term project. However, as teachers, we can use strategies to limit project fatigue and prevent it from turning into project burnout.
#1. Adjust Your Expectations
When I plan out project-based learning units, I tend to treat productivity as a constant. I’m planning through a “best possible conditions” lens. The problem is sometimes group dynamics breakdown and students argue with one another. Other times, students get risk-averse and fail to start a task on time. Problems occur. Systems fail. Fire drills happen. Unexpected assemblies abound.
We tend to plan out projects with a best-case-scenario mindset, assuming that we will always work to our optimal potential. When this happens, we fall into what researchers Kahneman and Tversky coined the planning fallacy. Often tasks will take 1.5 times longer than what you anticipate ahead of time.
Often, project fatigue connects to student disappointment with how long tasks are taking. It’s important that we create buffer zones for students and help them understand that it’s normal for projects to take longer than anticipated.
#2: Use a Design Thinking Framework
If you look back to the “form and storm” phase of collaborative projects, this is a period when students need to get to know their team members, negotiate roles, and clarify ideas. This is one of the reasons I love design thinking. The first few phases coincide with this “form and storm phase.” For example, in our student-friendly LAUNCH Cycle Framework, students don’t begin ideating and planning until they have already engaged in an introductory awareness phase (Look, Listen, and Learn), inquiry phase (Ask Tons of Questions), and research (Understanding the Process or Problem).
In these initial phases, students are working interdependently to tap into their curiosity and build up their background knowledge. Instead of expecting students to move quickly into prototyping, the LAUNCH Framework requires students to slow down and work collaboratively. At the same time, because there are specific structures, teams don’t have to flounder in this first phase. They can see their progress.
The midway point coincides with the ideation phase (Navigate Ideas), where students will determine their product concept, clarify their audience, determine the roles, and set up the tasks through project management. In other words, right when students are most likely to hit a mid-point project fatigue, they have a renewed energy because they get to move into the Create a Prototype phase.
It doesn’t have to be the LAUNCH process. You might be using the engineering process or an inquiry-based framework. The key idea here is that you design your projects with clear benchmarks and celebrations as students hit each of the benchmarks successfully.
#3: Set Benchmarks Within Your Projects
Students sometimes hit project fatigue because they are overwhelmed by the scope of the project. I remember making this mistake when I said, “Okay, you need to film a documentary.” Two days later, students were already feeling overwhelmed and ready to give up. Even though I had helped break it down into manageable phases, my students felt like they weren’t accomplishing anything of value at first.
It helps to have students set interim goals within a project. For over half a century, social scientists have known about the “goal gradient hypothesis,” which posits that people will work harder when they are closer to a goal. So, if you are working on the first draft of a 55,000-word novel, you will likely work harder and more efficiently when you have written 45,000 words. Researchers have documented that people are most likely to run a marathon in an age ending in a nine (think 29, 39, 49) and NFL teams are most likely to score in the last minute before the half.
Here’s where interim goals are helpful. They create shorter benchmarks that push students to work harder throughout the middle of a project. Instead of procrastinating and finishing the project at the very end, teams can have more frequent bursts by focusing on these short-term goals. I’ve also noticed that these short-term goals make it easier to get started.
I once heard a fitness expert answer the question, “How many minutes a day should you exercise?” with counterintuitive advice. “Try five minutes a day. You always have five minutes and if you get into a rhythm, you’ll find it’s easier to continue and go longer.”
Note that students can own this short-term goal-setting process by engaging in project management:
It’s not enough just to set and monitor goals. To get the most out of this process, students need to celebrate when they attain their short-term goals.
#4: Take project breaks
Sometimes project fatigue sets in because of the monotony of the work. And, while boredom can actually spark creative thinking, too much boredom can work against intrinsic motivation. As humans, we have a natural drive toward novelty. We need to pursue new things and experience something different. The same is true of projects.
Ever found yourself in a rut during a project only to walk away from it for a day? Chances are when you return, you have a fresh perspective and new ideas. You might even have a renewed sense of energy. We need breaks. They provide rest and give us an incubation period for our ideas. Our students need the same kind of breaks within their projects.
You might spend some time on a short, high-interest lesson (like a mystery, a Wonder Day, or a Socratic Seminar). You might also spend some time doing a team-builder activity or even spend some time doing conflict resolution. Or, you might want to give group members a break from one another.
#5: Be cognizant of multiple project demands
I once visited a project-based school, where students attended multiple block schedule classes and engaged in collaborative projects. When I met with a small group of students, a common theme emerged: they wished they could be in a traditional school half the time and a PBL school the other half.
One girl said, “I never thought I would say this but sometimes I just wish I could sit down and take notes to a good lecture and maybe have, like a discussion or a Socratic Seminar.”
I was teaching eighth grade at the time and our entire team used a PBL approach. When I surveyed the students, they overwhelmingly reported deeper learning and more authenticity in PBL. However, they also overwhelmingly chose “fewer projects” when I asked about the frequency. As we debriefed the results, students described the complexity of setting your own deadlines and managing multiple projects from multiple classes. They mentioned the frustration of daydreaming about multiple projects and feeling like they couldn’t focus.
I realized something critical. Going 100% PBL might just be too much of a good thing. Without realizing it, we were pushing so much voice and choice without thinking about cognitive load. So, we changed it up. We created more interdisciplinary projects and we paid attention to project schedules to create up times and down times for our students. We soon discovered something else. In our embrace of PBL and design thinking, we had neglected these so-called traditional strategies that actually worked. We embraced a more balanced approach that included more direct instruction.
Why this Matters
In the end, we want our students to know how to engage in collaborative work and persevere when things get challenging. If they view project fatigue as a normal part of the process, they will learn the habits and mindsets to get through it. But this requires projects. Real projects. The kind that focuses on student ownership and agency. If you’re curious about getting started with PBL, check out this video, then subscribe to the PBL toolkit below:
Looking for More?
If you’re interested in getting started with project-based learning, check out my Getting Started with PBL page, complete with articles, videos, and resources. You might also want to check out my PBL toolkit, which includes a set of projects and mini-projects, along with a Getting Started with PBL guide and a set of assessment resources you can use within the project-based learning framework. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom. Just sign up below!
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Note: This article was originally published on February 12, 2019 and updated on April 27, 2023