It seems like there’s no greater shame in the modern workplace than being unproductive. With more expectations, more emails, and more meetings, it’s more important than ever to protect your focus and be able to spend time on meaningful work.
But, as we’ve written before, being consistently productive is no easy task. We all slip from time to time. And rather than try and buckle down and work more, breaking out of an unproductive funk means taking some specific actions.
If you’re feeling unproductive and overwhelmed, stop beating yourself up and instead try this 2-step program to get you back on track.
First, remember there’s nothing wrong with being unproductive (when you want to be)
Before we get into how to bounce back from being unproductive, we need to get something out in the open. It’s completely fine to not be 100% productive 100% of the time.
Our society is obsessed with productivity. And because of that, it’s sometimes hard to remember that not everything you do has to be productive.
You’re allowed to have hobbies or spend time reading or watching TV or taking your dog for a walk or any other of the hundreds of activities that bring you joy (but aren’t considered 100% “productive”).
It’s important to have a work-life balance that makes sense for you. In fact, research has found there are all sorts of psychological benefits to giving your brain a break. Not only does a wandering mind boost creativity but it can also reduce stress and help you to recharge.
However, this doesn’t mean all unproductive moments are positive.
There are plenty of times during the workday where we know what we should be doing but put it off, get distracted, or realize we’ve been staring at the same blank screen for the past hour.
It’s these moments of being truly unproductive that we want to address with this 2-step framework.
Step 1: Understand why you’re not being productive (and what’s getting in your way)
If you want to lose weight, you track your diet. If you want to save money, you track your spending. If you want to be more productive, you track how you spend your time.
The first step to bouncing back from being unproductive is to figure out where your productive time is going in the first place.If you want to lose weight, you track your diet. If you want to save money, you track your spending. If you want to be more productive, you track how you spend your time. Click To Tweet
Using a tool like RescueTime can help you see exactly how you’re using your time so you can take back control over it. For example, one of my favorite things to do is to look at my “productivity curve” throughout the day.
As we’ve written in the past, we all go through natural highs and lows of energy, motivation, and focus throughout the day. Understanding your own curve lets you know when you need to be especially careful with your productivity.
Let’s start by looking at the unproductive time. First, I’m going to look at my Very distracting time by time of day report over a full month to see when during each day I’m most likely to be unproductive.
What’s important to note here is that I’m only looking at my working hours. This way, my data isn’t skewed by how I use my devices when I’m at home (and not concerned with being productive).
Next, I can dig into that unproductive time to see what exactly is distracting me.
Finally, I can set Goals and Alerts to tell me if I’m spending too much time on unproductive tasks when I shouldn’t be.
For example, I have a RescueTime Alert for when I’ve spent more than half an hour on email in the morning. (I’m usually most productive in the first few hours of the day and don’t want to waste it by getting sucked into my inbox!)
This is a great place to get a baseline of your unproductive time and habits. However, not everything can be found in your time data.
There are a number of other places you need to explore to fully understand the extent of your unproductive tendencies. Here are a few:
Have you developed unproductive habits?
Our lives are powered by habits. Unfortunately, not all of them are productive.
We all pick up unproductive habits over time. But it’s important to be aware of them so you know just how much they’re impacting your day.
As productivity coach and author Darius Foroux writes in his post on 5 unproductive habits that he’s quit, “Don’t try to copy what other successful people do. Instead, avoid what unsuccessful people do.”
To start, here are some unproductive habits he suggests you look at:
- Working too much. There’s a world of difference between being busy and being productive. Yet most of us treat them as the same thing. However, as we’ve written multiple times, productivity follows a law of diminishing returns. Once you cross your threshold, more time spent doesn’t help.
- Worrying too much. The modern world is noisy. We have more choices, more decisions, and more stress than ever. And it’s easy to get lost in the sound of “what ifs?” instead of following your own voice. Take a second to make sure you’re not hitting decision fatigue or another cognitive bias that causes you to worry too much and procrastinate.
- Hating rules and constraints. A lot of us (especially creative people) think we want total control over our lives. But in 95% of cases, we actually thrive when given constraints. If you find yourself constantly fighting the limitations in your life, remember the words of ad industry veteran and Mad Men co-producer Josh Weltman:
“Solving a problem requires a weird combination of freedom and constraint. Whenever I hear ‘Just have fun with it’ or ‘Think outside the box,’ I know from experience that things are about to turn into a colossal waste of time.”
Does it always feel like you’re running on empty?
As we already brought up, there are hours during the day where you’re more likely to be unproductive than others. Friday afternoon. The post-lunch dip. Monday mornings. These unproductive times usually follow what’s called our Circadian Rhythm—a 24-hour cycle of energy highs and lows that our body naturally goes through.
However, just because your body follows these rhythms, doesn’t mean you have to fight them to stay productive. In fact, you can be much more productive by working with them instead.
Here are a few ideas:
- Schedule low-impact work (like emails and scheduling) when your energy levels are naturally lower
- Book meetings and group work in the afternoon when you need a hit of energy
- Choose focused, heads-down work for when you’re most energized and productive
- Plan your goals for the following week on Friday afternoons
Are you facing a lack of motivation or burnout?
Of course, there are factors beyond your energy levels that could also impact your ability to be productive each day. If you’ve been working too much or have too many unproductive habits, you might even be facing burnout.
Burnout is a complex topic, but most researchers define it as the response to prolonged periods of stress at work. And one of the major signs of burnout syndrome is a lack of motivation, cynicism, a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. According to recent research, 28% of working Americans are currently dealing with burnout.
Yet while burnout can definitely be caused by overwork and unrealistic expectations of ourselves, it can just as easily be caused by a toxic workplace. As the co-editors of the Burnout Research e-journal ask:
“Highly stressful workplaces are often poorly designed, socially toxic, and exploitative environments. Why should such workplaces be given a free pass, when they are the sources of stress, while their inhabitants are being told that burnout is their own personal problem and responsibility?”
If you find yourself unable to get out of an unproductive funk, ask yourself if there’s something more. Not being able to do your work can sometimes be a symptom of something bigger that needs your attention.
Step 2: Ask these 8 questions when you’re feeling unproductive in work and life
Once you understand when and why you’re being unproductive, it’s time to snap yourself out of that state.
One of the best ways to become more productive is to understand why you want to do this work in the first place. Knowing what motivates you to do the work you do and what genuinely makes you feel good can often be all it takes to break out of feeling unproductive.
As you reflect on feeling unproductive, use these questions to guide you:
When you’re feeling unproductive and unmotivated in life
What are 3–5 topics or ideas that you consistently get excited about? And how can you do more of them each day?
If you had to drop one project or responsibility right now, what would it be? What else could you cut from your life right now, even if doing so might be painful?
What does an ideal day look like to you? How would you spend 80% of your time?
When you’re feeling unproductive and unmotivated during the workday
What is today’s most important task? Why is this one more important than the rest? Give three reasons why you’ve made this your priority.
What’s one small thing you could do right now and every day going forward that would get you closer to your goals? Especially your long-term goals?
How can you challenge yourself more with your current work? Challenging yourself and your abilities is a great way to find more Flow and stay motivated.
You can beat the unproductive blues. You just have to know where they come from first.
It’s fine to be unproductive from time to time. But when we go long stretches without doing what needs to get done it sets us up for making poor choices. We work longer hours. Stress out more. And commit to things we know we can’t do.
In the end, being unproductive isn’t some life-threatening disease. But leave it untreated for too long and it can quickly become something much more dangerous.