5 Ways To Rescue An Unproductive Day

It's not like you don't have things to do--some days just never get off the ground.

Some days you’re on fire. And some days, you’re not. Every time you try to crank out a report, you wind up on Facebook. You haven’t heard back from anyone whose input is necessary for a project. You have a million things to do but you aren’t doing any of them.

Should you just write the day off?

If you want to take a break, go for it. Breaks are productive! But if you’re determined to get things done, snatching your day from the jaws of non-productivity is possible. The key insight is that progress--of any sort--is surprisingly motivational. Generate some progress, and you want to make more progress. Here’s how to get the snowball started:

1. Break it down.

You’ve got big projects looming, but you don’t feel like starting. Instead, enlist your inner organizer, and write down every single thing that needs to be done. Break these steps into their constituent parts until you find a handful of tasks--maybe sending a few emails--that don’t require much mental energy. Do them. Now you’re on your way!

2. Start in the middle.

When I’m staring at an amorphous mass of quotes and ideas I’m trying to string into something coherent, my problem is that I usually can’t think of a brilliant opening paragraph. But I often have at least one portion of the article I’m clear on, perhaps somewhere in the middle. Why not start there? Write down whatever you know, however small it seems, and then build around it.

3. Solve a different problem.

You can’t make progress on today’s issue, so spend time thinking about something unrelated. What would you like your career to look like in five years? Could you find an accountability partner to help you achieve a personal goal? What new people should you invite to your annual Cinco de Mayo party? By the time you’ve drawn up the guest list, you may decide to tackle today’s to-do list, too.

4. Change your geography.

Good things happen when you get up and move. You get more energy, and the random stimuli of the world gets your brain turning in interesting ways. Go work in a coffee shop, the library, a park bench. Try not taking your phone. By the time you return, people may have finally returned your emails and phone calls, and you can take the next step with their feedback.

5. Clean your desk.

It has to be done occasionally, and if nothing else is happening, at least you can end the day with organized files.

How do you rescue an unproductive day?

[Image: Flickr user Josh McGinn]

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19 Comments

  • Donna DeBiase

    When I feel unproductive I like to reach out to others. It motivates me to be part of a solution and gets me focused again.

  • Adams

    If you want to take a break, go for it. Breaks are productive! But if you’re determined to get things done, snatching your day from the jaws of non-productivity is possible. The key insight is that progress--of any sort--is surprisingly motivational. Generate some progress, and you want to make more progress. Here’s how to get the snowball started:

  • Sophie Syed

    Sometimes, just tackling the hardest part of what you're supposed to be doing gets you so engrossed that you forget about being unproductive. When that doesn't work...Being in a very quaint location in Singapore, I always go for walks, or stretch for a while, or clean up the stack of post its on my desk, haha!

  • Sophie Syed

    I wouldn't write the day off - because I think that if it takes a 15 minute walk to get my head cleared, or to realise another aspect of a problem I am trying to solve...then that break is worth it. It all depends on how we make progress. If thats what it takes for me, i.e. a short walk, or cleaning up for a few minutes, or making a cup of tea - then i'm all for it. In fact, sometimes I become more productive that usual.

  • John King

    I will quite often to turn to tidying my desk as a way of clearing my mind. Tends to work quite well. Until my desk needs tidying again an hour later

  • Adams

    You can’t make progress on today’s issue, so spend time thinking about something unrelated. What would you like your career to look like in five years? Could you find an accountability partner to help you achieve a personal goal? What new people should you invite to your annual Cinco de Mayo party? By the time you’ve drawn up the guest list, you may decide to tackle today’s to-do list, too.

  • TheShef

    I often find that by just hitting the "pause" button on my day and chilling for five minutes, in addition to employing your great tips is enough to get me grounded to start again. Also, a short burst work out, like doing 20 push-ups and 20 crunches is a wonderful physiological break.

  • Adams

    You’ve got big projects looming, but you don’t feel like starting. Instead, enlist your inner organizer, and write down every single thing that needs to be done. Break these steps into their constituent parts until you find a handful of tasks--maybe sending a few emails--that don’t require much mental energy. Do them. Now you’re on your way!

  • Adams

    Good things happen when you get up and move. You get more energy, and the random stimuli of the world gets your brain turning in interesting ways. Go work in a coffee shop, the library, a park bench. Try not taking your phone. By the time you return, people may have finally returned your emails and phone calls, and you can take the next step with their feedback.

  • Laura Vanderkam

    Physical activity is always good. May make people ready for lots of turkey tomorrow, too!

  • Adams

    When I’m staring at an amorphous mass of quotes and ideas I’m trying to string into something coherent, my problem is that I usually can’t think of a brilliant opening paragraph. But I often have at least one portion of the article I’m clear on, perhaps somewhere in the middle. Why not start there? Write down whatever you know, however small it seems, and then build around it.