How To Be Productive Even When You Don’t Feel Up To Par

Staying productive when you have too many things on your mind is a problem that affects everyone, from front-line employee to C-suite executive. In the last year, I’ve encountered people from all walks of life who told me their second-biggest problem (after maintaining personal health and safety) has been staying productive despite obstacles.

Whatever has you down, it is possible to stay on task even after you’ve experienced a setback. As with most things, the best first step is to just admit the reality of your situation and adjust accordingly. Even on your least peppy days, you can stay productive by relying on a few tricks.

Develop a Shorter-Term Plan of Action

Executives and entrepreneurs like to think big. As a result, they tend to have long-range plans stretching into next week, next month and next year. Most days, looking to the future and having a corresponding, well-planned work rhythm pays off.

But when you’re not feeling 100%—for whatever reason—it can help to temporarily scale back the range of your vision. Thinking primarily in terms of the next 24-48 hours will help float urgent, immediate needs to the surface. Jotting down a shorter-term game plan can inspire you to take action. And if you’re personally not up to meeting those demands, you now have the power to strategically delegate.

Once you’ve written down your urgent items for the next couple of days, organize them into an actionable to-do list. Break larger tasks down into manageable, bite-sized chunks that you can deal with quickly. Add new tasks sparingly, since loading up a to-do list with numerous bullet points can rapidly overwhelm you.

Last step: divide up your manageable tasks into a.m. and p.m. time. Planning to complete certain tasks before lunch or before you leave the office can help you stay focused—or point out a further need to delegate.

Schedule Specific Breaks

Episodes of lower productivity can bring with them a certain level of panic. That panic, in turn, can cause you to redouble your efforts, dispensing with the need to take a break every so often. In my experience, that’s a mistake.

In fact, it’s even more important to schedule regular breaks when you’re not firing on all cylinders. Breaks can improve your decision-making and help you think differently.

How you define a break is up to you. Some people recharge by taking a brisk, 15-minute walk with their phone turned off. Others are revitalized by sharing a cup of coffee with a friend. 

Do what works best for you, but be specific when scheduling breaks in your planner. You are much more likely to blow off a calendar item labeled “take a break” as opposed to “walk to lobby and back; leave phone at desk.”

Reward Yourself for Small Achievements

When work is humming along smoothly, you might reserve rewards for larger accomplishments. If one of your employees closes a big sale, for example, you’d probably give them a public shout-out and maybe even a bonus check. Matching employee achievements with the right incentives is something of a leadership art.

When you’re the one who needs motivating, turn some of that managerial savvy on yourself. Research on self-rewards has found that the incentive strategies you might typically apply to others can keep you going as well. Plan to buy yourself a post-lunch chai latte as a mini-reward for checking off all your a.m. tasks. Finishing a quarterly report might earn you a fancy dinner. Match the reward with specific tasks and scale your self-rewards appropriately.

Make a Few Changes to Your Workplace Scenery

Established office routines can contribute to productivity and improve overall time management. However, there are times when you may need to break those routines to pull yourself out of a funk.

If it’s a beautiful day, try working outside. Sunshine and fresh air can help kickstart energy levels, leading to heightened productivity. You might also try temporarily moving to a different office location or using a public workspace. The point is to find some new surroundings that your brain does not immediately associate with your current doldrums.

Introducing new variables into your work environment can also be effective. For example, we’ve known for years that standing desks help reduce fatigue and increase energy levels. Look around your everyday work setting and decide whether other changes might be warranted.

Shut Down Any Negative Self-Talk

A perceived productivity dip can spawn a lot of negative self-talk that only makes matters worse. By getting so single-mindedly focused on what’s not going well, you might lose sight of your achievements.

Use self-talk positively by asking yourself, “What is the next right thing for me to do?” More than one successful person has engaged in some productive self-inquiry when things start to go sideways.

Alternatively, getting the perspective of others might be a better antidote to a downward spiral. Chances are, your colleagues have a far more positive view of your current contributions than you do. Ask them how you’ve helped them in their work, but don’t shy away from asking whether they need something from you that you haven’t provided. To get a balanced view of your performance, seek feedback from more than one person.

As you try different techniques for keeping your head in the game during off days, make notes as to what seems to work for you. The next time you’re in a slump, you’ll have those techniques to pull from your motivational arsenal. Learn from others, but stop short of copying them. What works for one person may not for you, so figure out the productivity boosters that best suit your unique personality.

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