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. These days are some of my favourite days at work. They’re the ones that make me feel like I know what I’m doing, I’m good at my job, and I can handle any challenge that comes my way. These are the days that I try to maximise as much as possible. They might seem exhausting if they’re at the expense of high stress that’s maintained over a long period of time. But especially at those times, I love being productive.
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, to some extent. 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. Knowing all of that doesn’t make me hate them any less. I hate feeling like I’m wasting my time trying to work on something and then having nothing to show for it by the end of the day.
Even though none of us can avoid these days completely, there are ways to make the most of them still.
Recognising unproductive days
The first part that makes this easier is consciously recognising when you’re having one of those days. The best way to do this is if you reflect on your productivity levels on a regular basis. It helps to know on which days and at which times you tend to do your best work. It also helps to know what your usual level of productivity is, however you measure that. If you have any information like that, it’s much easier to notice when something falls outside that pattern.
It usually takes me a while to notice because my best work time isn’t first thing in the morning. I usually hit my groove somewhere around 2-3 hours into the work day and can maintain that for a few hours, then I might have 1-2 hours of high productivity right before logging off. If I hit 9am and still haven’t gotten much done that day, then I know it’s going to be a slower day than usual.
Ideally, you want to be able to recognise that as quickly as possible. The sooner you notice, the quicker you’ll be able to react to it. What that reaction looks like depends on how you feel, the work that you have to do, and exactly how urgent that work is. I’ve listed some of the most effective techniques that I’ve found here, that have helped me at least progress in some way throughout the day.
Stop forcing yourself
The most helpful thing to remember is: you cannot force yourself. It’s impossible to snap yourself out of it through sheer discipline and willpower. You want to work with yourself. So, going into it, you need to 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. In the same way that you can’t expect to be able to force someone else to work, you can’t actually expect to be able to force yourself either. 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
This works really well under some circumstances. If the reason you feel blocked that day is due to the nature of the task that you’re trying to work on, just switching up what you’re doing will 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.
I have this blocker sometimes when I’m working on goal-setting and writing OKRs. Often, I know the types of goals I want to write but identifying the specific area to target just doesn’t come to me. Instead, my output is simple, uninspiring goals that I don’t feel particularly driven by. That’s a failed opportunity. It’s much more helpful for me to get as far as I can with the goal-setting, then tackle a task that I already know how to do or that I don’t have to think very much about for a few hours. Once that’s done, I can get back to writing goals with a fresher perspective.
If you’re lucky and catch yourself early enough, you might only have to switch focus for a few hours or a day. If you’re unlucky, this might not help. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much what you’re doing, you’re still feeling unproductive. If that’s the case, you can try one of the following.
Focus on a repetitive task
This is my fallback option if the top one fails. If you’re lucky, you might not have many (or even any) repetitive tasks in your job. Chances are, you have something. How effective this is depends on your own personality. 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.
Repetitive tasks can be great in this situation, if you’re one of those people who can work well with them and who has some of them available. This is because they can be done on autopilot. I usually avoid doing these tasks because, let’s face it, they’re not the most exciting to do and they’re the first things we all try to automate. But when I’m going through a day like this, they can be extremely effective. I can put a podcast on in the background and tackle something I’ve avoided for a long time, which is then completed by the end of the day. 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 by the end of the day, 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. For example, 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 and that you 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. Then 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.
Whole productivity techniques (like the Pomodoro techniques) are built around this idea. It’s useful for these days because you might be able to get a couple of hours of productivity out of the day that you wouldn’t have managed otherwise. It requires a little more discipline and slightly more willpower than some of the above options but it can be an effective way to get through the day.
Another technique that’s great for general productivity is rewards. Most people don’t actively reward themselves when they achieve something. Something about the idea of rewards can feel manipulative sometimes, like the value of the work you put in is lessened by the idea that there’s a greater incentive. That is irrelevant in this context. Your reward can be something small. Maybe you’ll order food from one of your favourite restaurants or you’ll go outside for a hike. Whatever it is, providing yourself with that extra incentive when you’re struggling can be extremely effective.
I use rewards most often with larger personal goals, on a monthly or a quarterly basis. For example, if I set a goal to write a certain number of words per day and manage to maintain that for three months, I might budget a certain amount of money to buy something that I wouldn’t have otherwise bought for myself. This makes it so much easier to work on something when I’m less motivated, less productive, or just feel like procrastinating.
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. Maybe you’ve tried all of the above and you just cannot bring yourself to focus on a task, no matter what kind of task it is. You’ve tried timeboxing, you’ve tried to think of a good reward for yourself, and you’ve tried working on different tasks but no additional incentive or change in your routine has helped. You still find yourself sitting at your computer, staring at the screen, and feeling very scattered and unfocused.
This is when I’d switch to looking for a completely different outlet. For example, I usually sign up to webinars on a fairly regular basis with the main goal of having access to the recording at some point. I’d use this time to pick one of those recordings to watch. I also regularly save articles and books that I know are relevant to what I’m working on right now. This might be a great time to get into one of those.
This can help in multiple ways. Firstly, consuming content requires much less focus than producing content. It’s much easier to pay attention to someone else covering a topic and just to take notes than it is to come up with what they’re talking about yourself. By lowering the bar for your productivity, you find a way to spend your time on something useful.
Secondly, if you’ve saved valuable content before, chances are it’ll be extremely relevant to the current challenges you’re facing at work. I usually only sign up for a webinar or save an article when I know it might contain information that would help me with a specific project or task. That means that you actually are spending your time on those tasks that you weren’t able to tackle earlier, just in a completely different way.
Most importantly, if you’re lucky and finding something especially inspirational, it might help you get in the right mindset to make progress in exactly the way that you wanted to. I once got stuck at a very early stage in a project, where my focus was still on conceptualising the problem and charting out different ways to tackle it, that we could eventually use as the basis of running A/B tests to get more information. Because I got stuck at such an early stage, the project seemed extremely complex and insurmountable. I spent the whole day unsuccessfully working against this feeling. Luckily, I happened to have an informal call set up exclusively for networking purposes at the very end of the day and I came out of that conversation with a fresh perspective and new ideas that immediately helped me get unstuck.
This was just chance in that situation but these are exactly the kinds of outlets that you can find to capitalise on.
Write that day 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. That’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. So make the most of your evening, forget about that day, and set yourself up for success the next 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.