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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

How to Make Your Brain Get Down to Business When It's Being Wildly Unproductive

person at computer

The assignment you need to complete has been pulled up on your computer screen since the moment you walked into the office, yet it still looks exactly the same as it did when you opened it. Or, worse, it’s completely blank, save for the cursor mocking you each time it blinks (rude).

It’s happened to all of us, and it’s a really frustrating feeling. Especially when you’ve dedicated specific time to work on this project, and it is quickly ticking away. It’s even more nerve-wracking—and slightly panic-inducing—if you have a hard and fast deadline inching closer and closer by the minute.

But continuing to stare at your monitor while cursing yourself for being incompetent (which you aren’t) won’t magically finish the job. It’s unlikely you’ll suddenly become productive.

So, next time you run into this infuriating situation, take action, and try doing the following.

Revisit Your Original Goal and How to Get There

When you first started working on this project, you may have thought you’d chosen the best approach. But now, you’re not sure how to move forward, and you seem to be stuck in the same thought process.

Sometimes, the work you’ve already done is actually what is preventing you from completing the next steps. The trick may be to rewind a little bit, or to start from scratch all together.

Ask yourself: What is the purpose of the project I am working on? What exactly do I need to accomplish? And then, when you determine that, outline what you are going to do in order to produce the desired result.

As Muse writer Natalie Jesionka says when explaining how to reach your career goals, “Envision what the path to your goal might look like and write it out in an outline, draw a map, or even develop a storyboard that defines your goals and desired outcomes.” This advice can apply to a much smaller scale, too, such as the project you’re stuck on.

Take a Walk

According to a Stanford University study, just the simple act of taking a walk may help you to think in a different way than you were before.

“Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity,” authors Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz explain. Therefore, “when there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.”

So get your butt out of your chair and get some steps in. When you get back to your desk, the assignment may seem a whole lot easier. Plus, that extra activity may help you win the office Fitbit competition.

And if it’s cold outside or simply not ideal to be walking around outside, that’s OK. While being outdoors does have its own benefits, the researchers found that walking around indoors was just as helpful as taking a few laps around the block.

Talk it Out

When I’m trying to get something done and just can’t seem to get anywhere, I often turn to one of my teammates and chat about it with her. Many times, working through my thoughts and ideas out loud helps me come to my own conclusions, and my co-worker is just sitting there nodding by the end (enthusiastically, of course).

Trying to explain to her what I needed to do forced me to get out of my own head and find a way to make it make sense. If you try this, let your co-worker chime in if she has something to say. Her valuable input may be just what you need to get the wheels turning. Plus, requesting a colleague’s input may make even make you more likable.

This tactic of brainstorming out loud can work when you’re alone, too. Several times while writing an article, I’ve found myself stumped. The idea seemed good when I started writing, but after a few sentences I can’t remember what I really wanted to say about the topic.

So, I step away from my laptop and I pretend I’m giving a speech to an auditorium full of people. If I had to talk about this project or product to someone, what would I say? How would I show it? Basically, I pretend I’m giving a (really good) TED talk.

Turn Off All Other Distractions

When you’ve figured out what your next steps are and are ready to return to the task at hand, turn off all other distractions. If you’re using a computer, for instance, close any web pages you don’t need. Either exit your email completely, or set it up so there are no sounds or pop-ups associated with a new email or chat.

In an interview with Daniel McGinn, Senior Editor of The Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project and author of Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live and The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, says “You hear that little Pavlovian beep, and you cannot resist it. So you turn to the email and lose track of the initial task, and it takes you time to reconnect to it afterward. Researchers have found that over time and with practice, people get better at task shifting, but they never get remotely as good as they’d be if they did one thing at a time.”

Imagine you’re watching a movie with a group of friends, and you have to keep pausing it because you can’t hear over the side conversations. That two-hour movie all of a sudden becomes four hours. Or, you just stop watching it all together.

You can’t control your friends in person, but you can control your email notifications and how many times you end up scrolling through Facebook. Eliminating the possibility for interruptions will help you devote all your attention to what needs to get done.

Last of all, have confidence in yourself that you will get it done. Because you can, and you will. Sometimes you just have to hit the reset button or ask for help, and there’s no shame in either of those things.