Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

4 Ways to Bounce Back From a Totally Unproductive Day

A logo with "the muse" in white text.
person sleeping

The clock on the bottom right-hand corner of your computer screen says 4 PM—but that can’t be right.

Can it?

Considering your day so far has consisted entirely of chatting with co-workers, half-listening to a conference call, and catching up on the day’s headlines, it just doesn’t seem possible that you could be an hour from the end of the day—with absolutely nothing to show for it.

Ideally, this doesn’t happen often—but the occasional inexplicably unproductive day does happen. (To everyone. Seriously.)

Now, with a to-do list twice the size it was this morning and a boss not-so-patiently waiting for deliverables, one thing’s for sure: You can’t have a repeat of this tomorrow. So what can you do to ensure you bounce back from an unproductive day? Try these tips.

1. Get Something Done Today

If you leave unfinished tasks on your to-do list, there’s a good chance they’re going to hang over your head and cause anxiety until you return to your desk tomorrow—it’s called the Zeigarnik effect.

There’s no way you’re going to finish everything on your to-do list, even if you stayed all night. But, being able to cross even just one task off your list can give you a peace of mind and a taste of encouragement that you’ll need tomorrow to push through the rest of your unfinished work.

So take a look at your list, and pick something that can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Hunker down and commit to finishing that one task before you leave. It may be a small step, but it’s a step toward a more productive tomorrow.

2. Take a Break, Then Strategize

When you leave for the day, take your laptop (or, if you don’t have a portable work computer, your to-do list) with you. No, you don’t need to work all night from home. You should absolutely leave the office, take a break, eat dinner, and relax.

But before you turn in for the night, take a few minutes to plan out your day for tomorrow. Figure out what your priorities are, what you need to tackle first, what you can delegate, and what, if anything, can wait for another day. Set goals for yourself throughout the day, so you know exactly what you want to accomplish, and by when.

With a plan already made, you won’t have to waste any time in the morning figuring out how to make the day a productive one.

3. Figure Out How to Get in Your Productive Zone

When you’re back in the office the next day, it’s time to get serious. You have a lot of work ahead of you—essentially, two days’ worth of tasks to be completed in a normal workday (or at least, as soon as possible).

But after a ridiculously unproductive day yesterday, how can you switch gears? According to Erin Greenawald, the answer is beast mode. “It’s when you’re in the zone, nose to the grindstone, with no question about whether you’ll go check Facebook for just a second (the answer is no). It’s when nobody dares to come up and bother you because they can sense your hyper focus and determination.”

How you get into beast mode, however, is different for everyone—but could involve music, working near a hardworking peer, or creating a deadline for yourself.

Doesn’t sound like your thing—or don’t want to spend valuable time figuring out what works for you? Try a classic, proven productivity strategy like the Pomodoro technique. Whatever you do, figure out how you can get the most quality work done within the day.

4. Going Forward, Find a Better Way to Manage Your Time

If this doesn’t happen to you often, don’t sweat it. With a little extra effort, you can easily recover from an unproductive day.

But if you find that you’re wondering where the day went, day after day, you might want to take a closer look at how you’re spending your time. Consider creating a time budget and auditing where your extra time goes, or for the more visual types, try filling in a personalized wheel of productivity.

With one of these simple exercises, you may be able to pinpoint exactly where you can focus to get back on track to 100% (OK, maybe 95%—we can’t be perfect all the time) productivity.