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5 Ways to Turn an Unproductive Day Around

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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. I like to go for a walk around the block whenever I’m 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 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 of 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 a 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 are 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 I joined a coworking space. Coffee shops can be great for changing your environment, but it seems that 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 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.

Pick One

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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Posted by Nadia Chaudhry  | May 4, 2018 at 1:43AM | Reply

Just doing something is so important. I love to clean. Gets me in the mood to do more!

Posted by Marmel Becerial  | May 2, 2018 at 9:17AM | Reply

Thank you Nora! You are spot on–there are days when we just feel that we won’t be able to do any significant work done. And the technique you use is really effective and I also use that.

Posted by Ram  | April 26, 2018 at 12:46AM | Reply

Sometimes I used to shift my focus from my own problems, to that of pain points my colleagues are facing (even if they are from an unrelated vertical). It suddenly broadens my perspective of some unnoticed issues in my own work, which makes a perfect comeback situation for me.

Posted by Mary Keith Tarrobal  | April 26, 2018 at 11:07AM

We’re glad that you’re able to shift your focus and turned that unproductive day around.

Posted by Nora Laitinen  | April 12, 2018 at 9:23PM | Reply

It is really encouraging to see others that deal with days that are not productive. The skill I use the most often to break out of those days is the breaking down large tasks into smaller tasks. Once I start checking off tasks even if they are small it gets me back into the right mindset.

Posted by Dellu  | October 8, 2017 at 6:20PM | Reply

6) Hit the gym

Posted by Rose  | August 27, 2016 at 10:57PM | Reply

Thank you so much for this post! An unproductive day can just end up being a snowball of yuck if we don’t pull back as soon as we see it going in the wrong direction.

Meditating and setting a timer have been a HUGE help for me when it comes to working from home & studying. I get distracted (easily) and often end up working on more than one thing at the same time so I have to stop to focus (and meditate) on what I want to accomplish and how to get there.

This is my first time at your website and I am loving it!

Posted by Samantha  | April 28, 2014 at 12:43AM | Reply

Firstly, thank you for such a useful post!

As someone who freelances, I find it very difficult to switch off. It’s not a typical 9-5 job and you have to be super disciplined in order to get your work done. But we all have those days where you just can’t into the swing of things.

The two tips I’ve found most useful are: a) use a timer and b) change your environment. Using a timer somehow snaps me to attention – I take my deadlines seriously, so working to a timer creates that urgency immediately. On a similar note, changing my environment somehow tricks my mind into thinking the day has somehow reset. I find that if I sit somewhere different or work outside for a change, I’m able to focus a lot more easily than if I were to just stay in the one place.

I came across some tips for creativity that people struggling with creativity and unproductivity mind find useful: It encourages people to get out and about, to basically refresh themselves in order to spark more creativity.

Posted by Douglas Cassan  | April 6, 2014 at 12:57PM | Reply

My good buddy Carrol taught me one of my great life lessons for turning my day around: when something really screws up allow yourself 2 hours of self pity then put it aside and get on with life. I have reduced that to 20 minutes by my watch with no reduction in effectiveness. Since she is one of the most positive people I know, I take every opportunity to chat with her. Oh, and I now own 3 kitchen timers.

Posted by Madeliene Rose  | March 28, 2014 at 3:54PM | Reply

Sometimes what feels like an unproductive day is just your mind asking you too allow it to ramble and be distracted. A pattern is bad but an easy day after days of work can be a good thing to set off one’s imagination…

Posted by Peter Strugatz  | March 28, 2014 at 9:29AM | Reply

How did you get so smart so quickly!
When I took my first David Allen GTD course almost 20 years ago, I discovered something that I aspired to. Only with the additive effect of Asian Efficiencies did the connective tissue take hold and my whole system has leaped forward with a new focused productivity.
P.S. dusting off the mediation pillows..

Posted by Cuong Nguyen  | March 26, 2014 at 7:18PM | Reply

I tracked my work productivity for a month and found that it is also very helpful to block access to social network sites. My productivity decreases by 40% on days I treated myself with only 5 minutes on Facebook between breaks. Use browser extensions such as StayFocusd (for Chrome) to prevent access to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc before 8 p.m. everyday. It really helps.

Posted by Casandra Campbell  | March 26, 2014 at 5:51PM | Reply

Setting a timer works for me. For some reason it helps me zone in and focus. Plus it’s such a short time commitment with Pomodoro, I really have no excuse to do it.

Posted by Joanne  | March 26, 2014 at 2:49PM | Reply

I love all of these ideas, especially meditating (which I was never a proponent for but a huge poster child to do!) and setting timer. For me, if I need to work on something that is difficult, knowing I’m only going to work on it for a short, finite amount of time can help me kick it into gear.

Posted by Kosio Angelov  | March 25, 2014 at 11:54AM | Reply

Cool advice, especially the Take It Easy part. I would also add taking a shower and hitting the gym (or going out for a run) to the list. All are great ways to get unstuck, get some clarity and get back to being productive.

Posted by TCI  | March 25, 2014 at 8:04AM | Reply

When you are working for yourself you feel the pressure to produce more than working for someone else. I have an attention span of a five year old. I get distracted very easily. I like your tips and most of them are original ideas I haven’t tried before. Thanks. I usually browse around the internet for a bit until I feel I can get back to work again. Now, I feel good knowing that I am not alone feeling the guilt.

Posted by Natalie  | March 24, 2014 at 10:06AM | Reply

Great post! I often underestimate how effective meditating is. I have an app on my phone, and it really helps me collect my thoughts at the beginning of the day and helps me unwind before I sleep. Another thing that really helps is taking a walk or working out.

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