We are the change

5 great ways to save an unproductive day

We all have days when we just don’t seem to be getting anywhere. It’s hard to focus, everything seems frustrating, and we don’t have the drive or motivation to tackle that huge to-do list. If you’re not careful, the whole day can vanish without you feeling as though you’ve achieved anything at all. Perhaps worst of all, those days can happen when you’ve a huge to-do list and are already under lots of pressure.

If that happens to you, here are some practical ways to break the deadlock and save an unproductive day. You may not achieve quite what you’d planned, or in quite the same way, but you can still end the day with a sense of satisfaction.

Meditate for ten minutes

When you’re overwhelmed, your brain goes into overdrive. It’s harder to concentrate, and the slightest distraction can make you lose focus. What’s more, it’s a vicious circle: the more anxious you get, the less you’re able to get done.

Think of your mind as a lake: if there’s a big storm going on, trying to set sail will be bumpy and uncomfortable. But once the wind and water calm down, you’ll be able to navigate easily. Meditation, for even a few minutes, can help calm those waves in your brain that are stopping you thinking clearly. Once you’ve been able to get them under control, you’re better able to deal with the challenges round you.

If you’ve never tried meditation, a good place to start is the free Headspace app. It provides short guided meditations, from just 10 minutes. You don’t need anything other than your phone and a place you can sit comfortably.

The last thing you might feel like doing when you’re overwhelmed is to take time out, but taking the time to calm the water can be a very effective tool to restore your productivity.

Tidy up

Look around you. Is your desk cluttered? Have you got unfiled documents and old business cards spread around you?

It’s not clear why a tidy environment and a tidy mind should be so linked, but the evidence suggests that they are.

If you’re not getting anywhere with your day, it may be worth putting some music on, geting a coffee, and decluttering. Start with the things that make the biggest difference: clear your actual working space, and anything you have to look at regularly (for me, keeping my window sill clear makes a big difference to the feel of my office). Try to avoid getting bogged down in things that don’t make an immediate, obvious difference, such as clearing out files that will remain on your shelves anyway. I suggest giving yourself a time limit of maybe an hour, and doing as much as you can in that time.

You’ll also find a very practical benefit to this. One of the biggest enemies of time management is not being able to find what you need, when you need it. If you’re in the flow of a client proposal, the last thing you need is to break your creativity because you can’t find your new printer cartridges. Spending time organising yourself is rarely wasted.

Delegate something

Even if you’re not achieving anything, that doesn’t mean someone else can’t do it for you. If you’re getting really stuck, find one thing on your to-do list that you either can’t do, or don’t like doing, and instead write a brief for someone else to do it.

If you don’t have a regular or assistant or VA, try a site like people per hour. It’s full of freelancers who can turn round all sorts of jobs, often at very low cost. Try ordering a keyword report for your blog, or getting a widget on your website sorted out. You could commission some initial research into a market you’re been thinking about, or a company you’d like to approach.

If you’re not sure how to go about briefing someone, 7 Steps to Brilliant Outsourcing, free from my website, has an easy-to-use checklist to make sure you get the results you want.

It’s amazing how satisfying it is to go off, make a cup of tea, and realise that someone else is still moving your business forwards.

Time yourself with the Pomodoro technique

When there’s no escape, and you just have to sit down and work, the Pomodoro technique is a great tool. You set your alarm for 25 minutes and start working on the thing you need to do. The only rule is that you don’t do anything else in that time. Then you stop, for two or three minutes. Ideally, you then do it again.

The great thing about 25 minutes is that it usually feels short enough to be manageable, even if you’re feeling unmotivated. If an email pings in, it’s easier to ignore it if you know it won’t be long until you can look. And it works well for your brain, too: short bursts of focus are usually more effective than long, drawn-out periods.

I use this a lot myself, and I often find that once I’ve got into something, I want to do another 25 minutes. It’s important that you take that short break, though. It’s a chance to just check whether you’re going in the right direction, and to decide what you want to achieve in the next chunk of time. After three or four sessions, take a longer break. And if you get that far, you’ve broken the curse of the unproductive day already!

Look at your goals

In an ideal world, you’ve written down your goals for the year, maybe for the quarter, the month or the week. If you haven’t, consider what they are. What do you most want to have achieved with your business by this time next week? Next month? Next year?

Then ask yourself: what can you do right now that will get you further towards them? Who can you call? What action can you take? Taking the bigger picture can help to motivate you, when the small steps in front of you don’t seem to be going anywhere.

What else?

Have you got fool-proof ways of motivating yourself when everything goes wrong, or do you struggle to keep things moving? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what works for you in the comments below.

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  1. Frances Grabowski says

    When my workload overwhelms me or I’m feeling unmotivated, I hit the most difficult, unpleasant or tedious task first. It gives me the highest satisfaction when complete and actually motivates me to do more. It usually ends up seeming not so difficult or tedious as it originally seemed. Most people procrastinate about the “tough” tasks on their list and avoid them at all costs. In the end they become bigger and bigger and sometimes unmanageable. Better to strike them off your list first and you will be amazed at how your re-energized and motivated.

  2. Joanna Pieters says

    Hi Frances, this is a great idea (though personally I find it quite tough to do!). I completely agree that once we end up tackling the ‘tough’ job, it’s often not nearly as unpleasant as we’d thought, but it’s really satisfying to get it ticked off. I’ll make a point of trying this one soon!

  3. Maggie says

    Excellent article even if I was a little late finding it! I find writing a list is brilliant, it puts it everything into perspective and there are usually one or two little jobs that end up on the list which are quick and easy. If you can finish those and cross them off the list, even if it’s just replying to a few non-urgent emails that you’ve been ignoring, then you feel you’ve achieved something and it’s easier to pick something else off the list.

  4. Joanna Pieters says

    Thanks for your comment, Maggie. I like the idea of getting things ticked off your ‘to-do’ list – that can be a really good motivator in itself. And I think sometimes going with what your brain wants – perhaps task-orientated work, or big picture thinking, even if you wanted to do the opposite – is better than trying to fight it.