Sometimes you can do everything right but it still goes all wrong. All is not lost. There is hope. It is possible to turn an unproductive day around. Whether you are a CEO with no kids (like Thanh), a high achiever with 5 kids (like Mike), or a former 10+ years corporate worker with a family (like Brooks), this post gives you 5 sure-fire strategies can help you reclaim control of your day.
Before we dive in to the 5 strategies, I want to make sure to mention the single best way you can avoid an unproductive day in the first place. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The best way to prevent your day from getting off-track is to have a solid morning ritual.
The way you start your morning sets the tone for the rest day. Waking up and executing a solid morning routine sets you up for success. Starting the day productively translates into a productive day. (And if you need a little help with your morning routine, check out our Morning Ritual Starter Kit for the few simple things you need to start the day right.)
But even if your morning routine is rock solid, sometimes there’s just nothing you can do. Despite your best intentions, the day has gotten away from you. We’ve all been there. Maybe you didn’t sleep well last night or your boss just dumped a big project on you at the last minute. Not every day goes exactly according to plan.
Fortunately, you’re not helpless when this happens. There are things you can do to turn an unproductive day into a productive one. Here are 5 of the best strategies we’ve found to help get your day back on track when everything seems to be working against you.
1. Change Your State
The quickest way to switch your state and hit the reset button is to meditate. If you’re skeptical, I understand – I was too at first! But I’ve discovered that it really doesn’t matter how “good” you are at meditating, the practice of focusing your attention is where the major benefit resides. If your attention wanders (maybe to the specifics of the day you’re trying to start over), just bring it back.
When things start to go off the rails for me, I’ll sit comfortably in my chair, close my eyes and do the breathing exercise that’s taught in the Productivity Blueprint. The basic mechanics of this meditation practice are very simple: you breathe in for 3 seconds, you breathe out for 6 seconds. Continue to repeat this for about 10–15 minutes and you’ll feel a huge sense of relief and have a mind void of noise. It might sound too good to be true, but it works. When you meditate like this, you are literally changing your state. This relaxed state allows you to get back in the game. Give this a serious try the next time you’re feeling unproductive (especially those of you who tend to be very scatter-brained).
2. Change Your Environment
Whether it’s kids running around, construction going on next door, or you’re just getting cabin fever, sometimes you just need a change of scenery. I used to complete most of my work this way before finishing my home office. I would go from coffee shop to coffee shop, post up at the public library, or visit the local coworking space and use the travel time between each to hit the reset button. While I don’t do this anymore, I learned a lot from the experience and wrote special tips for working at those places right here.
Now, you don’t have to completely change your work location in order to get the benefits of changing your environment. Thanh likes to go for a walk around the block whenever he’s not feeling it. There’s plenty of science available that shows that walking (or going for a quick run) can change your mood, which allows you to be productive again. I even have a friend who likes to pop in his AirPods and have walking meetings. I think this is a great idea as it allows you to change your environment and get the creative benefits of getting outside when you need those bursts of inspiration the most.
3. Be a Slacker (Take It Easy)
If you feel like you can’t make any progress on your big projects, try completing something smaller. Research has shown that recording small accomplishments (checking off small tasks) helps you feel more accomplished and releases dopamine (the pleasure chemical) in your brain. In other words, completing a small task creates makes you feel good and creates momentum for you to keep going. After completing a couple small tasks, you’ll start to feel better about yourself (and your unproductive day).
If you really want to work this strategy regularly, consider adding a Low-Energy context to your task management system. This will allow you to quickly filter all your available tasks and identify just the easy things that don’t require much effort. Knock a couple of these off your list and before you know it, you’re back on track to get the big things done. And if you don’t, then at least you got rid a lot of excessive tasks that have been laying around collecting dust.
4. Just Start Something
You can also start turning an unproductive day around by simply starting a task. This may seem counterintuitive since I just told you that completing task created the dopamine to feel good about what you’ve gotten done, but hear me out.
Often we don’t start something because we’re afraid of how big we think the task is. You are especially susceptible to this when your day hasn’t gone as planned. So this is the perfect time to implement the Solar Flaring technique.
The way to implement this is to use the phrase, “I will just.” For example:
- I will just write the first paragraph of this blog post
- I will just write the outline for this podcast episode
- I will just run the treadmill for 10 minutes
The implication of the word “just” says to yourself that you will not do anything more than what you told yourself. Saying to yourself, “I will just….” is all you need to do to get yourself started. The trick is that once you get going, you’ll find the momentum you create will be enough to keep you going and make today productive after all.
5. Get Some Help (Talk to Someone)
It’s hard to be negative or lethargic if you’re around happy, peppy people. Get yourself around other people who are energetic and getting things done and you will soon feel motivated to complete your projects too. Let me give you an example:
If you have trouble exercising consistently, one of the best things you can do is join a gym. Why? Because you’ll be surrounding yourself with other people who are there to work out. It doesn’t matter how demotivated you are, as soon as you walk in the door the chances of you deciding not to work out today are slim. This is a concept known as social energy.
The same concept can be applied to your work. One of the things I did last year was joined a coworking space. Coffee shops can be great for changing your environment, but it seems I always seem to get stuck right next to someone who is complaining about what great-aunt Gertrude said at their last family reunion. At a coworking space, the people there have made an investment (just like a gym) to put themselves in an environment that is conducive to work. And when you get out of the house and surround yourself with other people who are making things happen, you’ll soon feel motivated to do the same.
10 Productivity Ninja Tactics to Help You Reset Your Day
Above are the 5 strategies we believe work best when trying to turn an unproductive day around, but your mileage may vary. Here are some additional next-level procrastination-busting, productivity-boosting strategies you can use.
- Clean your desk. This falls into the Take it Easy category up above, but there’s another very powerful principle at work here called Clearing to Neutral. By spending a little bit of time putting everything where it belongs, you are making it easier to sit down and get to work for next time.
- Stand up. There’s lots of research on both sides of the standing desk debate, but in my own experience, I find it helpful when I need to concentrate or when I need an energy boost.
- Listen to music. The science behind focus music is still in the early stages, but many people find the right sounds while working incredibly helpful. At worst, all it does is block out the sound of distracting noises. At best, it can help you get into a flow state, where you are only aware of the task immediately at hand.
- Hit the gym. Briston University did a survey of over 200 people at 3 different organizations and found significantly higher productivity on workout days. Specifically, they found 21% higher for concentration on work, 22% higher for finishing their work on time, 25% higher for working without unscheduled breaks, and 41% for feeling motivated to work.
- Get a snack. According to Buffer, adequate nutrition can boost your productivity up to 20%. At the very least, food puts you in a better mood, and happy people are productive people.
- Write in your journal. Robert Emmons wrote about how keeping a gratitude journal can make you 25% happier. So next time you need a quick boost, try journaling about what you’re grateful for.
- Do chores / run errands. Just because you’re not feeling it for the big project you’re working on doesn’t mean you can’t be productive. Use that non-Biological Prime Time to check off those things that need to be done in the middle of your day instead of the end.
- Start a Pomodoro. The Pomodoro Method is extremely effective at helping you overcome procrastination. Next time you find yourself with low-energy, try setting a Pomodoro to get started. We’ve even got a complete guide to getting started with the Pomodoro technique if you need a little help implementing this yourself.
- Take a nap. There’s a lot of evidence that taking a nap can help reset your day and become more productive. In one study, NASA found that power naps led to improved memory and cognitive functions. So don’t be afraid to give a siesta a try.
- Read a book. According to a study conducted by MindLab International at the University of Sussex, reading can reduce stress by 68%. As an added bonus, reading a physical book also helps improve focus by removing notifications and hyperlinks.
There you have it – the five best ways to turn an unproductive day around. The next time you’re feeling unproductive, pick any of these techniques and you should be back on track in no time.
And if you like this article but want a bunch of other ideas for how you can work smarter, check out the Dojo, our online productivity community. The Dojo is the perfect place for people who are looking to make small adjustments that translate into big results. Membership to the Dojo gives you access to premium productivity training courses created by industry experts that aren’t available anywhere else, as well as a supportive community who can help hold you accountable for achieving your goals. Let other like-minded achievers share what works and what doesn’t so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel!
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