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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Stay Motivated at Work Even When it Feels Like Everything's Going Wrong

Whether your presentation doesn’t go as planned, you learn that you’re not getting the raise you were hoping for, or your co-workers are in terrible spirits, tough days on the job are bound to happen every now and then. It’s just the way it goes.

But just how bad those days go can really depend on how you handle them.

Though we all know how difficult powering through a challenging day at work can be, motivating yourself to stay positive when things aren’t going as planned is a real workplace superpower that can help you rise above the rest of the pack. Read on to learn how you can turn lemons into lemonade for yourself while building major morale for everyone around you, too.

1. Stick to Your Schedule

Though unexpected events or information are often at the heart of a bad day, having a schedule in place can keep you focused on your goals and direction. In fact, starting in the early hours by implementing a solid morning routine is often cited as a smart tactic that can directly impact success. The reason why? Willpower has proven to be highest during AM hours, and powering through a productive morning can help you set the tone for the rest of the workday, no matter what should come your way.

This can be especially important when your work involves engaging with other people, or if there are outside factors that can make you feel easily sidetracked. “When I don’t have a set schedule for my day, I tend to feel unproductive and unmotivated—no matter what happens. So, when I encounter a difficult gatekeeper, it takes a toll on my attitude,” says Ben Garcia, an independent Agent with Aflac Insurance Company. “If you’re like me, setting a schedule will allow you to accomplish your tasks throughout the day and help you feel productive in every circumstance.”

You can also consider shifting your schedule to a format more conducive to riding the wave of a bad day. For example, start each morning by “eating your frog,” a term coined by success coach Brian Tracy that represents your toughest, worst, or most procrastination-inducing task. The last thing you’ll want to do after an upsetting call with a customer or a bad meeting with your boss is that task you’ve been dreading, so make sure you get it out of the way before your day gets away from you.

2. Be Resilient (and Don’t Take it Personally)

Some days simply require a thicker skin. You might get turned away, turned down, told no—maybe even repeatedly. Refusing to quit isn’t easy, but doing it can make a huge difference in reaching your goals.

In fact, taking strides to become more resilient can help you overcome the toughest moments in your career. As Sheryl Sandberg poignantly shared in her powerful commencement speech, “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”

Experts suggest that, though everyone is different, you can begin to build your resiliency muscle over time by viewing failures as opportunities to learn, maintaining a positive attitude, and being comfortable with not controlling everything. Andrew Zolli, who wrote a popular article about resilience for The New York Times, says you should build your muscle to the point that you can “roll with the waves instead of trying to stop the ocean.”

If you’re in a role that faces direct feedback and rejection, knowing how to roll with it and keep your head up can be extra important. Holly Johnson, an Aflac District Sales Coordinator, says she had to learn to be resilient right from the start in her role, where she spends day in and day out educating potential clients on how Aflac insurance policies can benefit them—and often getting the answer she doesn’t want. She notes, “I’ve learned that no doesn’t always mean ‘no.’ Just because you got five nos doesn’t mean the next one can’t be a yes. A ‘no’ might mean ‘I don’t know’ or even ‘not now.’”

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3. Find Perspective

Bad days have a way of making it feel like the world is crashing down—in fact, it’s been proven that troubling experiences affect us much more strongly than positive ones do. An experiment conducted by Harvard Business School professor and co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work Teresa M. Amabile showcases the power that a setback can have on how you feel about a day of work.

In the study, as explained by The New York Times, 238 professionals working on 26 creative projects answered questions over a few months to share how they felt about their day. Turns out, employees who felt like they were prevented from making progress had the worst days at work. On the flip side, participants who felt that they were moving forward (even with just a small step toward their goals) recorded good days at work. The takeaway? Finding a way to remember and work toward your measurable, overall goals (despite upset or interruptions) actually can help prevent you from deeming the day a complete downer.

For Julia Burns, a District Coordinator at Aflac, perspective is all about remembering why she took her role and why it’s important for her. “My ‘why’ and my vision board always help me re-discover my motivation during the most stressful of times,” Burns says, “It’s the core of my business and the reason I get up each day. It puts all of those happenings into perspective and reminds me exactly why I do what I do and why I love what I do.”

For others, remembering the big picture comes back to the idea of not letting little stressors or small mistakes get you down. Richard Carlson, author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, wisely wrote, “Even though we often mess up, most of us are doing the best that we know how with the circumstances that surround us.” In moments when everything seems to be going wrong, try to bring the things that have gone right to the front of your mind.

4. Surround Yourself With Positivity

As the Harvard Business Review reports, positive work cultures are more productive. So if you’re not getting good vibes from your team on a super challenging day, take a moment to remind yourself that setting the tone is your job too. Challenge yourself to find good things around you—and if they don’t exist, create them yourself.

To start, do your best to provide support to your teammates and treat them with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity, no matter the circumstances. Harvard research shows that doing so can immediately affect workplace positivity, which in turn is contagious. If you need another incentive to treat the most miserable person in the office well, it’s also been shown that demonstrating care for others can help lift your own spirits.

Another option that might work? Burns suggests, “Surround yourself with uplifting things. It could be motivational signs or quotes in your office, self-help books, uplifting music, a beautiful picture of your happy place. Anything that motivates you to drive your business and keep the future on your horizon. When you feel frustrated, look at your board and remember what you are working toward.”

Figure out what works for you and nail down your personal go-to strategy for staying motivated during tough times on the job. It might take a little bit of practice, but once you know how to lift your spirits back up and keep your momentum going, you’ll be golden. Not to mention, an inspiration to everyone around you.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Oscar Wong/Getty Images.