There are days when I feel a little strange. Not sick, not tired, not distracted, just unable to focus. I want to do work, but when I sit down to start, I can’t bring myself to actually do it.
I can only call this feeling a funk. You’ve probably felt it too—and you’ve probably either found a way to shrug it off (for that I congratulate you) or, more likely, you’ve struggled all day to fight it and only succeeded in doing mediocre work as a result.
I can’t tell you there’s a way to avoid this feeling completely, but I can say that from experience, it’s possible to combat when it happens—so you can get back to work refreshed and ready to go.
1. Figure Out What’s Going On
There could be a concrete explanation—you barely slept all weekend, you’ve been working on this project for too long, you don’t know where to begin, you don’t really want to begin. Or there could be no real reason at all.
That being said, while it’s helpful to know why you’re in a funk, I believe it’s even more important to know what kind you’re in. When you focus solely on the reason why, it’s more of a blame game—“I hate having to wake up this early for work,” “This project is too difficult for me”—and you end up complaining rather than fixing the problem at hand.
But when you explore the what—the physical (your head feels heavy, you can’t stare at one place for more than a second, you have an actual headache) and the mental (your thoughts are jumbled, you can’t pinpoint your emotions)—you can more easily target the problem head on and become more in-tune with yourself. And once you’re at that state, you’re able to move forward with how you’re going to tackle it.
2. Talk it Out
First, I suggest talking out what you discovered in step one—to a friend, to a co-worker, even to yourself (just be sure to warn people around you if it’s in the office). As you probably learned from experience, saying stuff out loud helps you process. When we speak our thoughts, we put a tangible feeling out in the open, and it’s suddenly easier to manage than in our heads.
So try it. Sit down with a colleague and tell him or her what you’re struggling with, or go for a walk and talk it over with yourself.
3. Kill the (Extra) Distractions
While you process, you’re going to want to remove each and every distraction. For example, while writing this very article, I minimized social media tabs, killed any unnecessary programs, and increased the size of my word document to full screen.
This way, the only thing in front of me was a (very blank) Word doc. I may have started out feeling all-over-the-place, but as I narrowed my attention in on this one, simple project, my mind became clearer and more alert.
And science supports this! Studies show that external distractions negatively affect both the quantity and quality of your work.
So, take a few moments to see what’s taking your mind off the main goal—is it your chatty co-workers or your current playlist? Is it a text you’ve been waiting for from your friend or the clock at the top of your computer screen? Whatever it is, eliminate it.
4. Use Your “Get Out of Funk Free” Card
If you’ve made it through the first three steps and you still feel foggy, I’m going to encourage you to take a much-needed break. Even if you just got to work, even if you are swamped, even if you have a deadline.
Because nothing good is going to get done if you continue feeling this way, so you might as well be productive by focusing on you. And the thing is, a break doesn’t mean taking the whole day off. It might not even mean taking an hour off.
So, go against everything I recommended above and give in to all your distractions: listen to that song, play with your favorite desk toy, grab a cup of coffee with your friend, text that person you’ve been waiting to hear back from, really nothing is off limits. Consider these things part of your “Get out of funk free” card.
Here’s the catch: You need to give yourself a time limit. And no, it can’t be all day. Try 30 minutes, 60 at most. Because even when you’re in a funk, you still have work to do—which brings me to my next point.
5. Give Up and Move On
When all’s said and done, you’re still at work, that deadline is still drawing nearer, and your boss still needs that presentation in. So, I can’t tell you to give up entirely and go home.
But I can tell you that maybe today’s not the day you want to take on that huge project. Instead, handle the mundane tasks—emails, scheduling, quick to-dos that don’t take a ton of thought—and you can come back ready for the bigger stuff bright and early tomorrow morning.
When you eventually clear your mind and get the job done, make sure to pat yourself on the back. Because it’s not an easy thing to push through, and you want to remember for the future that you can do it. Remind yourself how you felt going in and how much you achieved despite that. Then, cherish the feeling of accomplishment and challenge yourself to stay this confident again tomorrow.
Oh, and know this: Even the smartest people have off days, it’s how they work through (and around) them that makes them able to create truly exceptional work.