Last week, a friend on my intramural soccer team told me how she’d gotten almost nothing done at her job that day, and she was feeling guilty about it. I’ve been there before and could really relate to her. When you want to be a good employee, you have the desire to always be producing great work. This isn’t bad. Caring about your job and your professional reputation is good (to a certain extent).
But here’s the thing: You’re not a robot, or any other type of machine for that matter. You don’t have an on or off button, nor can you be plugged into an outlet. And you certainly can’t be programmed to operate at certain rates or hours. You’re human, remember? This means that, despite any intentions you may have, life doesn’t always go as planned. So, there’s no guarantee you’ll be functioning at maximum productivity levels 100% of the time.
Some days are just going to be better than others. Most mornings, you may get to the office feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You cross every single item off your list and can just see that promotion on the horizon. But every so often, you just can’t seem to get it together. You start a project only to find yourself at the same place hours later. You’re more easily distracted by co-workers, and each minute seems twice as long as normal. Eight hours later, you’ve accomplished little to nothing. And you feel pretty crappy.
But beating yourself up about it isn’t the answer. “The negative emotions we create by being overly hard on ourselves not only erode our happiness, but change our physiology,” says Margie Warrell, author of Brave: 50 Everyday Acts of Courage to Thrive in Work, Love, and Life and ambassador for Women in Global Business. “Beating up on yourself actually narrows your peripheral vision so that, both metaphorically and literally, you can see less opportunity to address your challenges, fix your mistakes and create the opportunities you want.”
Instead, you need to realize that this will happen sometimes. And it’s OK. Every once in a while. It’s definitely not something that should become a habit, and it’s not all right if it causes you to miss any deadlines. (If it is going to, you’ll need to figure out a way to recharge and get back in the game ASAP.) But when you acknowledge that today is a “loss,” that doesn’t mean you should immediately go to your Instagram feed and scroll through it mindlessly until you head home. Nor does it mean you should put in your headphones and catch up on those episodes of Orange Is the New Black that just dropped on Netflix (sorry).
Because even though you may not make much (or any) forward progress, you don’t need to put up your white flag and surrender to laziness. Instead, try doing these three things, and you can be productively unproductive.
1. Turn Technology Off and Your Brain On
Believe it or not, a lack of motivation to tackle your main to-do’s can be good. Because accepting that you won’t spend time on those tasks right now frees up your schedule. And rather than allowing yourself to get lost on the interwebs or arguing with a colleague about the difference between iced coffee and cold brew (I mean, they’re both cold, what’s the difference?), you should take advantage of the extra hours. How, you ask? Well, by thinking.
Sure, you’re always doing that—I know. But when you’re heads down in beast mode, your thoughts revolve around the project at hand, leaving little room to brainstorm and think outside the box. “Neuroscience and psychology research show that mind-wandering facilitates creativity, planning, and putting off immediate desires in favor of future rewards,” says Josh Davis, author of Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done. “Each of those can be important for working effectively. Not many other things we do can have such a broad impact.”
So, grab a pad of paper and a pen and see where your mind takes you. Who knows—you may figure out a different approach to a project that was stumping you or generate brand new ideas for your team.
2. Prepare for Tomorrow
Today might be a wash, but you’ll need to be ready to go tomorrow. And the best way to do that is to adequately plan for it.
Write down the items you absolutely must get done tomorrow. In another section, put those you eventually need to do but that aren’t as urgent. Next to each of these, I like to put either their future due date or my proposed date of completing it. That way, I have a better picture in my head of how the next week or so will play out. If you don’t think this’ll help you prioritize—that’s fine! You can try one of these five ways to organize your to-do list instead.
When you figure out the high-priority tasks you’ll tackle tomorrow, decide how you’ll execute them. For instance, say you need to send an invoice to a client in order to receive payment on time. What’re the steps that need to be taken in order to do this? Does anyone need to approve it first, like your accounting department or your manager? If so, should you place a meeting on their calendar? Do you need to convert the document from Word to PDF? Set yourself up for success by laying it all out—it’s like picking out what you want to wear the night before. It’ll be much easier to get ready in the morning if you don’t spend 30 minutes debating your outfit choice.
3. Get Any Housekeeping Tasks Out of the Way
No, I’m not referring to doing a few loads of laundry or finally scrubbing your stove. (Though, if you’re working from home, that may not be such a horrible idea). I’m talking about those things you want to get done that often get thrown to the wayside in lieu of your more pressing assignments.
This could include: sorting your inbox and responding to those emails that take less than a minute (e.g., “Did you send the file to the client?” “Yes.”); paying those lingering credit card bills; making an appointment for your annual physical or dental check-up; following up with that insanely smart and cool marketing exec you met at a networking event last month; and cleaning off your desk (and desktop).
Getting these little things out of the way will help you focus on the bigger ones tomorrow (the ones you’re now really well prepared for!). It’s like weeding out the garden so you’re only concerned about the growth of your vegetables or most precious flowers (FYI, I like lilacs and sunflowers, in case you want to send me any).
And that last one—organizing the physical space you work in—has huge benefits, according to Neil Patel, co-founder of Crazy Egg and Hello Bar. “In the first place, it provides a feeling of control and competence, which leads to higher levels of productivity,” Patel says. “Second, the very fact that it’s organized defends against distractions. Your organized office can absorb the incoming work, and position you for success.”
You aren’t perfect—not at work, nor in your personal life. But rather than try to fight that fact, accept it and move forward. When you find yourself feeling unmotivated, don’t always try to force yourself to work on your projects. You’ll spend a lot of time with your wheels spinning in the mud, and you’ll get nowhere. Take advantage of this “downtime,” and it’ll benefit you much more. But if you find this happening often, well, you may need to reevaluate your situation.
Photo of bored worker courtesy of Paul Bradbury/Getty Images.
Abby works in health education and prevention at a university in Washington, DC. When she’s not trying to make the world a healthier place, you can find her taking selfies with her cat (Mildred Meow Meow), hunting down the city's best grilled cheese, or zipping through the city on her bike, named Libby. Say hi on Twitter.More from this Author