You look at the clock and you get that sinking feeling in your stomach. It’s 1 pm and you haven’t done anything productive today. Maybe it was too much time spent reading the news, following your friend’s Europe vacation on Facebook, or gabbing on the phone with a friend. Whatever it is, you’ve spent several potentially productive hours doing something that adds nothing to your bottom line or usable knowledge. No one plans to have a lazy day, it just happens… sometimes too often.
In driving school, you learn defensive measures like avoiding rear end collision and recovering from driving onto a gravel shoulder. In life, we ought to learn how to avoid and recover from potentially disastrous productivity situations. This is especially important for those of us working with minimal supervision – for example the self-employed working from home. We know that the road to our life purpose and happiness passes through steady, hard work. That’s why Rescue and Recovery from low productivity is an essential skill.
Before we go further, let’s review some theory behind productivity:
- Work is rarely appealing before you start it. But once started, work has its own momentum and rhythm. Maybe even enjoyable. I don’t know why work behaves this way. I liken it to the “stink fruit” (also known as durian) which smells terrible on the outside but can be quite pleasant once it’s in your mouth.
- Tangible accomplishments make you feel good. Even if they’re tiny accomplishments.
- Productivity has momentum. Unproductivity also has momentum. So it’s hard to go directly from being unproductive to fabulously productive in under 5 seconds. That’s like trying to stop a bullet train on a dime and making it immediately reverse at bullet speed. Doesn’t work that way. You gotta gradually build up your productivity from zero to max.
So, how do you rescue an unproductive work day?
Here’s the basic process:
- Halt the current unproductive activity.
- Start a small task that you can easily succeed at, but still yields tangible results. This task doesn’t have to be directly work related.
- Progressively move up to bigger tasks.
- Transition to work-related tasks. Start small, and build up to more challenging tasks.
- Before you know it, you’re working on your most important projects.
Halt the current unproductive activity. Apply the brakes gently at first if you must – finish the current article, reply to the last Facebook wall post. Then close the browser tab or window. Move distractions aside and out of the way. This step is often the hardest because you’re fighting against momentum. Even though the activity doesn’t positively serve you, it’s built up inertia. Just as a bullet train has to come to a stop in order to reverse, you’ve gotta put a stop to your current trajectory.
Start a small task that you can easily succeed at, but still yields tangible results. Take out the garbage. Put a load of laundry into the washer. Mow the lawn. Physical tasks are great because they get you away from the computer and create a clean break from your previous activity. When you’ve been sitting in one spot for a long time, your body builds up inertia in its stationary position and doesn’t want to move. Physical tasks are also fairly easy to pick up and do on the fly, and don’t take much thinking or planning beforehand.
It’s important that your body moves, but you can vary the tasks and do something that’s productive for you. Search for that receipt you were looking for. Do some yoga in your living room. Play your piano. Productive fun can raise your mood and recharge your batteries.
Productivity has momentum. Once you complete a small task you’ll want to move on to something bigger. You’ve now got an accomplishment under your belt and a recent track record of productivity. Maybe you did something really small, like organizing the shoe collection by the front entrance. That’s ok! What’s important is that you’ve broken your previous inertia and moved in the direction of productive achievement. Continue on to progressively bigger tasks that are within your ability to complete them. Physical tasks that involve cleaning have the side benefit of clearing up and de-cluttering your home and your workspace, making it a more attractive place to work.
Transition to more work-related tasks. I find that anywhere from 30-90 minutes of routine physical tasks will hit that sweet spot of getting me into a productive rhythm. Now it’s time to make the switchover to work-related projects. Again, take on something small at first. Make that minor edit to your homepage. Pay some bills. Answer a couple emails that have fallen through the cracks.
Build up to progressively more complicated and challenging tasks, especially ones that you’ve been putting off. These tasks are rarely as bad as we think they’ll be, and you get a huge boost when the weight of a procrastinated task gets lifted from your shoulders. Plus, every time you complete something, further tasks feel more manageable, even ones you previously felt were tedious or complicated.
Before you know it, you’re working productively at your most important projects. If you reach this stage, your momentum can carry you through several productive hours. Doesn’t it feel great? Even if only part of a workday is productive and spent on those important projects, you can still feel satisfied because you’ve made real, tangible progress. If every work day includes a few good hours at your most important tasks, you’ll soon get to your sought-after destination
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