How to Escape a Workplace Productivity Rut

How to Escape a Workplace Productivity RutTo the casual observer, you might seem like a great performer—you’re keeping up with all your work with perfect consistency and maintaining an empty inbox. But you personally know you’re stuck in a productivity rut—a place where you get your work done, but only at a minimal level, and certainly without flair or inspiration. Your personal return on investment (PROI) in your job is very low, and you feel “stuck.” We’ve all been there at one time or another, for any of a number of reasons. Basically, you end up going through the motions, doing what you have to in a just-in-time fashion and staying busy without necessarily adding to your organization’s bottom line (whether fiduciary or otherwise).

Think back to your school days and the kind of grade such a level of effort might earn you there. Pretty much a “C,” right? The minimum expected. Average. Well, average won’t get you great marks on your workplace report card, either—i.e., your yearly performance review. And you can’t expect much in the way of raises, bonuses, or promotions as a result.

Once you’ve recognized you’re in a rut (due to your own efforts or your boss dropping a bomb on you), you’ll need to mix it up a bit. Take the time to consider your options, plot a plan of action to pull yourself up out of the ditch, and start looking for a winch. First re-examine your goals. Then identify the motivational triggers that have gotten you this far in your career. Last, trip the switch.

Start Small for Big Impact

You’ve heard all about the 80-20 rule (very few of your activities account for most of your impact as an employee). Indeed, you probably apply it to your workload every day, and normally, you should. But sometimes, trying to handle something large can seem overwhelming. So in keeping with the idea of mixing it up a bit, start small, and do something minor but important you’ve been putting off repeatedly.

Been staring at that annoying paperwork on your desk? Avoiding a call you need to make? Turn to it and get it done. Not enough? Review your master to-do list. Has something in particular been bugging you, something worth doing that hasn’t seemed especially pressing? Is there something out of the ordinary you can knock off your list to feel a quick sense of accomplishment? Some files you need to purge? A folder on your computer to organize? Take care of it, especially if you can do so quickly. When you let go of that particular stone, you’ll end up feeling a nice sense of relief and accomplishment, which might inspire you to tackle a more important task.

In a similar vein, you can use a method I’ve recommended before to prime your productivity pump: give yourself a certain small interval of time—five, ten, or fifteen minutes—to work on a specific task. By the time you hit your goal, you may have enough momentum to proceed without any further stimulation. Otherwise, tell yourself, “Just five minutes more” (or ten or fifteen) and push yourself to stick with it.

Even something as minimal as walking three times briskly around your building on your next break can refresh your attitude and pull you out of a down day. If that doesn’t work, you probably need an entire day off to recharge. Constant, unrelenting work can be soul crushing.

Mind Your P’s

Speaking of soul crushing: two of the prime causes of productivity ruts are Perfectionism and Procrastination. These damaging “P-Traps” occupy opposing ends of a kind of compulsion spectrum. In the first, you worry too much about getting everything just right; in the second, you don’t worry enough. I’ve known people who occupied both ends of the scale simultaneously, depending on the project. You may have done this yourself. You spent so much time on the “good” task, while another task went undone because you were “busy,” it seemed too hard, or the deadline seemed too distant.

While you may need to jump on something small for a while to jolt yourself back into action, as I suggested in the previous section, you also need to apportion your time very carefully in an effort to achieve productivity nirvana. If you find yourself obsessing over the details of a particular project, stop and think about your behavior. If you keep obsessing, you might wind yourself up so tight you’ll break. Calm down and just do the best you reasonably can in the time you have. At some point, just let it go. Some of my colleagues spend so much time “working on the new speech” but never give it, or “writing my book” but never publish it. It’s not fatalistic to realize you have to let go at some point, for the good of yourself and the project. After all, if you keep polishing something too long, you’ll eventually rub it away.

If on the other hand, you find yourself dragging your heels on a task, for whatever reason (its size, fear of failure, fear of success, time constraints, etc.), find a way to start working on it. If the project just seems too big, then examine it carefully until you find its logical fracture lines, hit it just right, and break it down into manageable pieces. Set internal milestones and deadlines, put your head down, and get going.

Incidentally: if you’ve been procrastinating on a task because it doesn’t address your goals, or because it properly belongs to someone else, then why is it on your plate? Now, I realize you can’t easily control what your boss might assign you, but most bosses will hear you out if you tell them you can’t see any use for a particular task. You may find out why you really do need to do it (or why your boss thinks so), or they might see your point and get rid of it. If the boss didn’t put the task on your list in the first place, then triage it to your master list and think about it again in a month. If someone screams, it may have value after all, and you can reconsider it then.

Overall, when it comes to minding the twin P’s of Perfectionism and Procrastination, you must strive to find that ideal equilibrium between doing too much work and doing too little. The fun part? The equilibrium point varies from task to task, which keeps you on your toes. This, in turn, makes imprisoning yourself in a productivity rut less likely.

Tweak Your Productivity Environment

Does your current work environment lull you into an unproductive stupor? Or is it so cluttered up with junk you find yourself constantly distracted? If you’ve never really thought about either possibility, do so now. As with your P’s, seek the proper balance between too much stimulation and too little.

Physical constraints matter. Beyond whether or not you consider it cool or warm enough (usually fixable with the right clothing or a little fan, perhaps), think about ergonomics. Is your chair comfortable and is your desk at the proper level? Can you reach everything you need easily? How about the computer screen—does the distance and brightness levels suit you? Do you find keyboarding comfortable, or do you risk carpal tunnel syndrome on a daily basis or an aching back? Does your cubicle/office have walls, or do you have to deal with the distraction of hallway distractions? Would noise-reducing earphones represent a good investment? Some studies claim that too much noise can reduce your personal productivity by up to two-thirds.

If you hate where you work, or if you just can’t achieve a decent level of comfort, you’ll never break out of your rut. Think deeply about the environments that best stimulate your productivity and try to emulate them in your workspace as much as possible.

Consider Your Health

Could your health have something to do with the rut you’ve been idling along in? We often get used to feeling a certain way, so you might not consciously realize you’ve fallen into the kind of health rut that leads to or reinforces a productivity rut. Subconsciously, though, your body knows you have insufficient energy to allow you to charge ahead… so there you stay. You’ve accepted “good enough,” because you can’t achieve better.

If this has happened to you, or you suspect it has, do what you can to recharge your internal batteries. Start with your sleep needs. No one knows better than you how much sleep you require; so have you been getting your recommended nightly allowance? No? Stop staying up late. Reserve your bed for sleeping, not watching TV, reading, or doing crossword puzzles. Don’t overeat or drink caffeinated beverages before bed. If you suffer from insomnia, look into the treatment options and do something about it before you fall apart. Human beings require sleep for part of the day/night cycle so our brains and bodies can perform routine maintenance. Don’t give up your precious winks just to get more done, or you’ll end up getting less done.

You can also boost your energy by eating well. Cut back on portions just a bit, eliminate the indulgences, and you’ll lose weight if you stick with it long enough. You may begin sleeping better, too. The process doesn’t have to prove difficult or depressing; just don’t fall for an illogical diet, or take it too far. Again, look for balance in everything, from basic food categories (carbs, fats, and proteins) to vitamins.

Get in shape, too! If you don’t have time for a traditional workout schedule, then engage in a little “subversive exercise.” As you talk on the phone, walk around your office or do a few leg lunges. Go to the copy machine upstairs rather than the one across the hall and trot up the stairs. Pick a bathroom on another floor when you need a bio-break and boycott the elevators. Not only will you get a much-needed bit of exercise, you’ll get a minor change of scenery. It may not represent much, but every little bit helps you dig out.

The Bottom Line

Too much comfort can prove dangerous, because it can lead to complacency. If you feel like you’ve been running too long in the same groove, with the ground wearing away beneath your feet, look closely at your personal results. Do they match your expectations? How about your boss’s? Or have you just been scraping by with the minimum expected, reasoning that good is good enough?

Well, it may not be if circumstances change, or if your superiors get tired of your ho-hum performance. If a productivity check reveals you haven’t been performing as well as you want to, don’t just roll along and let the walls of your rut climb higher and higher.

Whatever you do, get moving. The long-term solution for a productivity rut is purposeful action. Don’t let the inevitable snags stop you and don’t hesitate to move forward because something could go wrong. If you feel down, shift your attitude to something more positive. Take action now and get to work!

If you’d like further details on how to construct and maintain an effective workflow process that allows you to get everything done and still have a life outside of work, be sure to grab a copy of my new book, What To Do When There’s Too Much To Do, when it hits bookstores in 2012.