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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Guilt-Free Guide to Getting Back on Track After a Completely Unproductive Day

Raise your hand if you are productive every single working day.

Didn’t think so. Look, it’s hard to be on the ball all the time. Some days you’re just feeling it more than others. You get in the zone—and you stay there until it’s time to pack up and go home. Other days, however, your efforts at fighting distraction (resulting from a personal issue, mere exhaustion, or what’s happening in the world) fail you completely.

And when it’s time to call it quits, you realize that you got nothing done! Your to-do list stares back at you, daring you to recover from this wasted day where no box has been checked and no item crossed off.

When you just can’t will your brain to focus or grasp the self-discipline you need to get the job done, you need to hit the ground running the next day. It’s possible to do without waking up at dawn and committing to a 16-hour workday. It’s not necessary to skip meals or your morning workout. You don’t have to cancel your plans on Saturday to work. You just need to keep the following dos and don’ts in mind, and the “lost” day will soon be forgotten.

To make that happens, here’s the productivity advice you need:

Do Keep to Yourself

So, it should go without saying that the day after a completely unproductive one should be ambitious. You don’t have to ignore your co-workers or bail on meetings where your presence is crucial, but it’s perfectly all right to have an anti-social day. Instead of engaging in banter at the coffee machine or offering your two cents in the random group chat room, stay close to the task at hand and pay attention to what absolutely must get done today.

If it’s within your power to reschedule a meeting that can wait, do it. Obviously, you don’t want to get in the habit of canceling plans and postponing team discussions, but if you’re typically organized and reliable, you probably won’t raise any eyebrows if you say: “I’m pretty slammed today/this week. Would you mind terribly if we pushed our meeting back?”

Speaking of obligations, if there’s anything non-work related on your calendar that can be rain-checked or put off, such as a doctor’s appointment or a networking coffee meeting, this is as good a time as any to clear your day.

Don’t Fret

The more time you spend worrying about how you didn’t get anything done yesterday, the less time you have to recuperate lost productivity. It’s stressful to have to deal with what feels like double the amount of work, but the sooner you get to it, the better. Beating yourself up won’t get anything on your list crossed off.

Instead of freaking out, take a close look at your must-dos and see if there’s anything that can be delegated or attended to later in the week. Your to-dos may be longer than usual, but chances are, not everything on there has to be done today or even this week.

Do Make Up for Lost Time

If you really want to hit the ground running, you’re going to have to severely limit distractions. This may mean turning your phone off so you’re not tempted to respond to text messages or scroll through social media apps. It may mean closing all tabs on your computer screen except for the one you need to accomplish the task at hand.

If you commute via public transportation and typically use the time for reading or listening to music, switch gears and take advantage of the time to answer emails, refine your list, or draft that proposal your boss is expecting any day now.

If that’s not an option for you, see where in your day you can carve out a half hour or longer. Maybe you eat lunch at your desk today. Or you go in a a bit earlier or stay an hour later than you normally would. You don’t have to work nonstop for 10 or more hours, but if you always stop at 5:30 and can stick around until 6:30, you’ll get more done and will probably feel less stressed and guilty about the time you wasted.

Speaking of guilt: That’s not something to fixate on either. If you’re running into this issue on a weekly basis, then that’s a different problem, but if you occasionally finish a day with nothing to show from it, well, tomorrow is a new one. Pick up the pieces after a good night’s sleep—the same way you would following a sick or personal day. Try not to obsess over what you didn’t do; instead, channel your energy into what you now need to do.

Photo of person focusing on work courtesy of Portra Images/Getty Images.