Some days you start working and you hit your groove instantly.
You immediately start finishing things that have been sitting in your to-do list for weeks. You hit inbox zero. You’re extremely focused and can work consistently, productively, for hours on end.
Other days are the exact opposite of that.
These are the days where you find yourself getting distracted every 30 seconds by something new. You start replying to an email and then think “oh, I needed to do that,” switch tasks and find yourself scattered and unfocused. Your workday ticks down very slowly and you look listlessly at your growing tasks, knowing full well that you’re making zero progress.
Those days suck.
They’re inevitable and natural. It isn’t realistic to have extremely productive days all the time and sometimes, your brain just needs a break. These days can be situational. Maybe it’s your first day back from a holiday and you’re out of your routine, or there’s a particular project that you’re blocked with.
Even though none of us can avoid these days completely, there are ways to make the most of them still.
How to stop being unproductive
Avoid feeling guilty for not being product
The most helpful thing to remember is: You cannot force yourself into productivity.
It’s impossible to snap yourself out of it through sheer discipline and willpower.
You want to work with yourself. Move as far away from the mindset of “I will do this no matter what” and much more to an open-minded, curious, understanding mindset.
Treat it like a negotiation. Can you convince yourself to look forward to the task that you have to do? Is there something about it that feels especially fun or appealing at that particular moment in time? Try to find that.
It’s much more frustrating to sit there, stare at your screen, and get increasingly annoyed at yourself for not being able to spend your time productively. Directing that annoyance at yourself just slows you down even more. It’s completely counterproductive.
This is especially important to keep in mind if you do have an urgent task and you are trying to work on that task, so there’s some sense of external pressure being placed on you. If your brain just isn’t cooperating at that moment in time, you won’t manage to force yourself to work on that task either.
Try working on something else
Switching up what you’re doing can be effective.
This is often the case if you’re trying to work on something creative or if you need to conceptualise or visualise something. These are all types of tasks that tend to require a specific mindset to get into and it could be that your brain needs some other input before it can concentrate on them.
Say you’re working on writing OKRs.
You might know the goals you want to write but the output is simple, uninspiring goals that just aren’t motivating.
That’s a failed opportunity. It’s much more helpful for me to get as far as possible with the goal-setting, then tackle a task that you don’t have to think about for a few hours. That can give you a fresh perspective.
Focus on a repetitive task
Some people will have a much higher capacity for productivity under these circumstances. Other people will find that repetitive tasks drain their productivity and make it even worse.
But if you work with them: Repetitive tasks can be great in this situation.
These are the best days to work on something on autopilot. If you, for example, have to upload content online, do any copy-pasting, produce invoices for people, these are great tasks to do when you’re feeling unproductive.
They’re not inspiring and they might not be fun but you’ll feel like you actually finished something that you needed to do, which is very motivating. That’s a huge win.
One of the best ways to trick your mind into focusing on something is to timebox it.
Set yourself a timer to work on a specific task for 15 minutes. It almost doesn’t matter how long it is, but try to make sure it isn’t too long. You want to set the bar low enough that you genuinely think it’s achievable, even if you’re struggling with being productive and you know it.
The most effective time spans I’ve found are between 10 and 25 minutes. It needs to be just about long enough that you can get something done, while still being short enough that the endpoint is always in sight.
If you want to try this:
- Make sure that you set up a timer.
- Get rid of distractions as much as you can.
- Put your phone somewhere where you can’t even see it.
- Open a new window with only the single tab that you need to work in.
- Disable all other notifications.
- Set a timer that will ping you when the time is up.
This is so effective because somehow knowing exactly when you’ll stop working on that task makes it easier to focus. You already know that your time will be limited, so no matter what you’re working on, it won’t feel insurmountable.
Providing yourself with that extra incentive when you’re struggling can be extremely effective.
The more you want that reward, the stronger your motivation will be to keep up with it. Tiny and small rewards throughout the work day when you aren’t feeling productive help in exactly the same way. You can even reward yourself with a coffee break, and spend some time watching YouTube videos, without feeling bad about it because you already did your work.
Find a different productive outlet
If all of the above fails, this can be the one option that saves the day.
This is when it’s worth switching to a completely different outlet.
- Watch an old recording of a webinar.
- Find an article that you saved a long time ago.
- Get into that book you’ve been avoiding
Consuming content requires much less focus than producing content. By lowering the bar for your productivity, you find a way to spend your time on something useful.
Chances are the content will be valuable for your work. That means that you are spending your time on those tasks that you weren’t able to tackle earlier, just in a completely different way.
Write unproductive days off
Whether any of these tips help you or not, once you’ve gotten to the end of the day, there’s no point in worrying about the outcome any more. Maybe you managed to be productive for some of that time. T
hat’s great! It’s definitely something to be proud of. But if you didn’t, it doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things.
These days are inevitable and are just part of the rhythm of life. If you have a lot of them, it might be a sign that you should think about larger changes in your routine.
Chances are, though, that it was just one bad day. Moving on and focusing on what’s coming next is much more constructive than dwelling on how you spent your time in the past.