One key lesson the past two years has made abundantly clear is that, while we all like to think we can do 110% all of the time, the truth is even the most productive people can’t always be on their A game. And that’s OK.
Self-compassion and some well-deserved grace towards yourself are good things for both yourself and ultimately for the productivity of your team and organization. Pushing yourself too hard is how people become burned out and can lead to increased mental health concerns, physical health issues, and a host of other undesirable outcomes. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can (usually) just completely slack off and get nothing done for an extended period of time. After all, you’re probably getting paid to do work… so what do you do?
While this blog isn’t the most grounded in specific findings from people science, I’m writing it as someone who’s been told they are a pretty productive person most of the time...Here are some concrete tips I personally use when I’m not my most productive or motivated at work.
So, without further ado, here are a few things you can try out…
10 Tips to Increase your Productivity
Reframe your productivity slump as an opportunity to test out how to be productive. For me, I’ve randomly found through trial and error that a physical list on sticky note paper is the most effective. Why? No idea…. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of the physical feeling of a pen crossing off things. For other people it might be better to do a virtual list so you can drag and drop things to prioritize work differently based on how things are going. Do what works for you and try out some different methods/productivity tools! And remember that spending time now trying out a few methods isn’t wasted since it is helping you hone on how to be more productive in the future, so try a few different methods out! In other words, learning how to personally be more productive in of itself is being productive.
Set an easy goal with an objective metric (i.e., a number). While I can’t claim to be entirely original here (hmmm SMART goals anyone?), what I mean about with this tip is sometimes to even set arbitrary numbers that I’m sure I can hit. Setting stretch goals on those off days for me feel pretty overwhelming and aren’t the best for these situations. One example for me with these articles might be to commit to writing 500 words down. They may not add up to be good sentences, I may not even use them for anything… but if I can have those specific metrics set, I can concentrate on getting moving versus providing perfect quality work (fine tuning on things that need fine-tuned can wait and happen when you’re in your prime work mode if necessary).
Pick something more fun from your list. When you’re not feeling 100%, you may not have the motivation to complete the hardest thing on your to-do list. That’s OK. If can still get something done that feels easier, go for that one instead!
Alternatively, go do something super boring that is not work related. I know it sounds odd, but if I pick something even worse to go do, often I get annoyed by it and find my brain automatically switches back to figuring out pressing work things I need to get done. For me this can mean doing my worst hated chores around the house such as putting away clean dishes from the dishwasher. Worst case I get things done that I’d put off otherwise, best case it reminds me that I actually like most of what I do for work and gets my head back into a work-friendly frame of mind.
Switch things up. Sometimes a change in work setting or topics (even brief switches) can help stimulate you to get your work juices going. Feel like you’re banging your head against the same wall over and over again? Well… stop doing that and go do something else. Even when certain tasks have hard deadlines and really do need to be given priority - you can almost always still take some sort of short break from them. Even when a lot of your work location is fixed, you may still be able to switch it up a bit. Usually work sitting at a fixed desk? Put a box under your computer so you can stand up… or get out and walk around or head to a coffee shop.
Learn something new. Focusing on taking in new information versus always trying to get work out can be refreshing for me and often is a prime activity for my lower productivity days. With companies more and more realizing they need to constantly upskill/reskill workers, this type of activity is also likely super helpful to your organization so don’t feel bad “taking a break” from always having to generate content yourself.
Work with/without people around. For me as an introvert, I naturally am more productive when I get some time with no one around. Because of this, I know that when I’m not as fully engaged at work it helps me to schedule more alone time versus meetings. Obviously sometimes this isn’t fully possible, but I can do my best to move the needle and usually have at least some flexibility on where to put my energy. Conversely, I also know for the extroverts out there you’re likely the opposite and need to be around others even more. In that case, see what work you could do collaboratively with others and try and see if you can hop on those meetings versus trying to crank out solo work. Overall, it’s usually easier to work when you work in alignment with your preferences, which can be most impactful when working is difficult.
Drink some water. Hey, if you’re like most people, you probably need to drink more water anyway… ultimately, you’re probably saving your company money on health insurance since drinking more water is better for your health. Plus, dehydration is linked to a lot of things that may be directly causing you to feel more sluggish. And since, at least for me, drinking water is kinda boring (see tip 4 above), it can help prompt me to think of something more exciting like how to tackle a work issue or a to-do to add to my list I forgot about.
If you can, take a break from technology. While it’s an intimate part of how a lot of us do work in today’s world, technology overuse and constantly being “on” can be exhausting. Check out this awesome article for some specific ideas for how to make more long-term changes related to technology use/overuse. For short term activities when technology is too much, I try to read a educational book, brainstorm some ideas or diagram workflows on paper, or print out the designs we’ve been working on to stare at them in a different media form. Bonus points if you feel like you can turn off Teams/Slack messaging notifications on your phone during low-tech time! Research also supports trying to do something non-virtual as a way to decrease eye strain and fatigue throughout your day even when you are at your best.
Use a treat as a reward for yourself. This tip also works to motivate kids, significant others, and pets… but I like to turn the treat-for-work tip inwards on days my motivation for work is lacking. Try taking a specific treat you enjoy out (it doesn’t have to be anything too big or extravagant), setting a very specific task you need to get done, and hold yourself to not having your treat until that activity is done. One of my personal favorite motivators is dark chocolate (you can ask my cohort members how much of that stuff I consumed my first year in my PhD program!) 😊
Importantly – Sometimes These Suggestions Won’t Work
In those situations, remember to take a deep breath.
Normalize the Productivity Process - While it is tempting when you feel productivity slipping to start to become more frantic, spiraling (like the “omg, I’m not getting anything done, and I’m going to keep not getting things done for forever, and then I’m gonna get fired” spiral) is pretty unhelpful and probably unrealistic. Remember, you probably have examples of other times when your productivity has gone down in the past and then you’ve been able to turn it around. You can do it again. And other people also have times when their work productivity comes and wanes, it’s a normal part of working. Normalize the process and take a moment to center yourself.
Accept Unpleasant Emotions - For me, I also usually find myself going into these unhelpful mental spirals because I’m experiencing a strong emotion. It can be helpful to slow down the spiral of doom in my head if I take a moment to recognize and label what I’m feeling, and then remind myself that my emotions don’t control me. This often looks like me saying to myself (usually in my head, but you do you), “you’ve had a lot going on and you’re feeling sad, that’s OK and makes sense.”
Emotions are a lot less scary and overwhelming when they’re not in control. Remember to regularly practice labeling and accepting your emotions, this practice is at the core of a lot of psychotherapy and lessons from psychology research!
Consider Taking Time Off - And finally, on that last note, while all of these tips are things that have been hugely helpful to get me going on work when I’m not at my best, another key piece of advice is to also make sure to stay in-tune with yourself and to actually take dedicated time off from work when that’s necessary. You likely know that people in the U.S. have a long history of not taking enough PTO and early indicators suggest people are even less inclined to take PTO since the Covid pandemic started (for a full discussion on PTO, check out our article here). However, taking PTO and even scheduling unpaid time off from work can be crucial to keep yourself thriving and able to do work at all.
In short, take care of yourself. You deserve to flourish at work and your work (and life) will be better if you are doing well as a person.
When your productivity is slow at work, any and all movement is progress - try a few methods to switch up things if you’re in a rut. And remember, it is even more important to take care of yourself on the days when you’re not as productive!