Office Productivity: How to Turn an Unproductive Day Around

“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” — Ovid, Roman poet

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” — Will Rogers, American humorist.

“Oh that it were my chief delight/To do the things that I ought!/Then let me try with all my might/To mind what I am taught.” Jane Taylor, English poet

Inevitably, you’ll experience days when time just seems to run away from you, or you hit an invisible wall and can’t get past it, or accomplishing anything is like pulling teeth: laborious, slow, and painful. Maybe you’re distracted, or you feel a bit under the weather, or you’re just mad at the world. Whatever the cause, it adds up to “one of those days” when nothing of value gets done.

You don’t have to accept that. Here are a few things you can do, whether individually or in combination, to turn an unproductive day around.

Take Stock
Often, the best way to recapture productive time is to spend a few minutes figuring out what your problem is, and then dealing with it. What’s gone wrong so far? What’s derailed you from your normal course? What should you have done instead? Even if this exercise doesn’t help you decide what to do next, it may show you what to avoid in the future. Learn from those mistakes, create the appropriate solutions, and use them to polish up your productivity next time.

Once you stop and think about it, you may realize that you’ve been in knee-jerk mode. Instead of calmly reasoning and following your action plan when faced with something, instead you’re responding without thinking. So shut everything down and step back. Think about what you need to accomplish, and what you need to do to get back on track.

If you’re in a foul mood, try to determine why and do what you can to fix it. That may not be possible, if for example you’re coming down with something or you’ve suffered a poor night’s sleep. So accept it and move on; don’t let it color your interactions with others, and don’t let it stop you from doing your work. Push through it, and it may just go away.

The Pause That Refreshes
When you’re on a roll, stopping to take a break (even a brief one) is usually the wrong thing to do, since it takes time to refocus afterward. When you’re banging your head against the wall of unproductivity, though, it’s exactly the right thing to do. Even if you don’t use the time to take stock and try to fix your day, it may help get you off your current path and onto a better one.

So stop and grab a cup of joe, and take a deep breath before you get started on your next task. Or take a quick “five minute vacation” somewhere quiet, where you’re unlikely to be interrupted. Sit down, close your eyes, and relax for half a minute. Focus on your breathing for a few seconds (we tend to breathe faster when stressed) and then start to breathe deeply and slowly. Explore how you’re feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally, and then breathe a bit longer before getting up and going back to work.

If you’re completely stymied, you can try a more active visualization exercise. For example: Close your eyes and pretend that Unproductivity is standing before you like a stone wall, blocking your way. Look at your hands and pretend they’re sledgehammers. One is labeled Competence, because you know you’re good at what you do, and the other is Intelligence, because you’re a smart cookie. Your task is obvious: you’ve got to batter down that wall. So start hitting it with the hammers until it cracks and breaks; then pull it apart until you have a hole big enough to push through, out to where you can bask in the bright sunlight of Productivity. When you open your eyes, feel warm, buoyant and confident—and get right to work.

Pick One Thing to Focus On and Go
Basically, this is the old strategy of putting your head down and just bulldozing forward. It’s a brute approach that often works, especially if you can combine it with the above exercises.

Challenge yourself to be productive. Push your distractions aside: turn off your email and phones, close your door, and select the one thing on your list that you need to get done the most. Block out everything else, and give yourself an hour to push on that task as hard as you can. If you don’t think you can manage that much, bribe yourself into being productive by saying, “I’ll work on this for fifteen minutes,” or “I’ll do just a few items,” and when you’re done, say, “Just a little bit more.” You may find that it’s easy, that you’ve gotten back into a productive groove; but even if you haven’t, do it anyway.

The Upshot
There’s no turning back time, but you can learn from your mistakes. Even if your day has been unproductive so far, refuse to let it overwhelm or dishearten you. Don’t give up, because there are ways that you can take the time you have left and get right back in the saddle. Try these, and see how they work for you.

Whatever you do with your unproductive day, don’t dwell on it. Put it behind you and move forward.



  1. This was just the article I needed. I have had an unproductive WEEK! Now I know how to fix it.