We’ve all had those days: You’re under pressure to get things done, but you can’t seem to accomplish anything.
There is still hope. Here are a dozen strategies you can put to work immediately to help you salvage your day and get more done.
Take A Break
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking a break when you feel stuck could be the best thing for you, says running and goal-setting expert Diana Fitts, author of Your Focus Formula: How to Successfully Stay on Task, Finish Projects and Achieve Your Goals. If you’ve been working at something for a while, you may need a diversion to resume your focus and creativity, found a 2011 study published in the journal Cognition. Taking a 10- or 15-minute break can help you return to the task better able to concentrate and get things done.
“Walk around. Get a cup of coffee or water. We all need to dial down the anxiety,” she says. “Just sitting at your work station, you’re not going to be able to see the right decision in the moment.”
Once you’ve given your brain a rest, set yourself up to get back to getting things done, says productivity expert Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy.
Whenever Bailey sits down to write, he eliminates all distractions. He uses a website blocking program called Cold Turkey, which allows him to disable “every distracting website,” he says. ” So if I try to check the news, if I try to go on social media, if I try to do anything unproductive on my computer, it’ll stop me, and I have to actually restart my computer if I want to enable those distractions again.” Freedom is another option to eliminate distractions online.
You can also turn off device and email notifications, as well as your phone. If you’re in the office, find a quiet space or put up a “do not disturb” sign at your work space. Using earbuds can also indicate that you’re in concentration mode.
For some people, music sets the tone for their work environment. Create a playlist or choose a streaming channel that gets you in the mood to work, whether you need to get pumped up or calm down. A study from Cornell University found that upbeat music can make people more productive.
Make A 15-Minute List
Sometimes, you just need to feel like you’re getting things done. If getting a few tasks completed will make you feel like you’re building momentum, productivity expert Carson Tate, author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, recommends creating a “15-minute list”—a list of activities that can be completed in 15 minutes or less. So, if you need to schedule a few meetings, return some quick calls, knock out a few email messages, and the like, make a list of several of them. Then, spend an hour or so getting them done, one after the other.
Keep your 15-minute list on hand for times when you feel yourself procrastinating, she says. “They’re just quick actionable things that can get the juices flowing,” she says—even when you don’t feel like tackling the bigger stuff.
When the time you have left in the day is dwindling, suddenly you have a decision to make: What is the most important thing that you can get done today?” Is it clearing out a group of “tolerations?” Is it taking a few steps on a bigger goal? Too many of us confuse a feeling of urgency with a feeling of importance, Bailey says. Just because something seems like it needs your attention doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s important to you. Take a moment to get clear on your priorities for the day, and start to focus your energy there.
Tate says that we sometimes find ourselves unable to move forward because we’re not exactly sure what the next steps should be. If you find yourself mired in ineffectiveness, think about whether you truly understand what you’re supposed to be doing or what the next steps are, she says. Start asking questions or asking for help to get you back on the right track. You might be surprised how motivated you are once you actually feel more capable of accomplishing a clear goal.
Break Tasks Into Smaller Chunks
Similarly, if you find yourself daunted by the next steps you need to take to make progress on a project, Tate suggests looking for smaller steps to take. Facing down a project step that’s complicated or time-consuming can make it tough to start, but if you can break it down into more manageable chunks, you may find it easier to do so. For example, if you’re working on a research project and don’t know where to start, pick three sources and begin there. Then, add three more, and so on. By placing parameters around the research steps, you’re not looking at a task so big that you don’t know where to start, which can lead to procrastination and avoidance.
Tap Your Energy Cycle
It also helps to know yourself and when you’re most energetic or do your best, most focused work, Fitts says. If you know you’re sharp at 10 a.m., but have a 3 p.m. lag where it’s tough to get motivated, plan your most important tasks for when you’re at your best, she says. Then, as much as you can, focus on easier or lower-value tasks during your low-energy times. (This might be when you pull out your 15-minute list.) Of course, this isn’t always possible, but when you can control the timing of tasks, it can make an enormous difference in your productivity.
Use A Timer
Fitts is also a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique as a way to get things done immediately. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes. Then, either focus on completing one task or as many smaller tasks as you can before the timer sounds. The urgency of the immediate deadline can be a great way to shift your mind-set, she says.
Change Your Metrics
Of course, being busy isn’t the same as being productive, Bailey says. Be sure you’re not craving activity instead of meaningful accomplishment. He says the most productive people with whom he works are often the least busy. “We look at how busy we are as a proxy for productivity. But, we could be busy checking out social media and email all day long, and never accomplish a single thing,” he says.
Look at the value of your work as well as the volume of it. Are you focused on the tasks that maximize the investment of your time? Be sure you’re using the right measurements when it comes to how you are spending your time.