Last time I wrote about maximizing your productivity and making the most out of the energy you have on a productive day. Today I’m writing about not being productive at all and the art of letting go.

Have you had a day when it was impossible to complete even half of what you had planned an you felt really frustrated and guilty about it? I was having such a day recently, so I thought I’d give you a few tips that work for me.

How a bad day becomes worse

  You come to work, start working on your tasks just to realize at some point that you’re unable to concentrate and get down to work.

You get frustrated because you can’t achieve what you planned and it only makes it worse.

You feel guilty because your employer pays you by the hour and you haven’t accomplished anything in the past three hours.

You decide to compensate the lost time by scheduling a little more tasks for the afternoon.

You fail even worse and become more frustrated and more guilty.

You stay at the office longer to finish the scheduled tasks and don’t even manage to get close to completing them.

You give up because you’re exhausted and frustrated. You go to sleep late.

You come to work the next day late and tired, more frustrated and plan to do even more tasks to compensate for the day before.

The loop continues.

This can be very stressful especially when you get stuck for a longer period of time.

It’s actually not that bad, but it may also be deeper than you think

  This loop used to trouble me a lot each time it happened until I came across a post by Simple Programmer talking about feeling down at work that changed my way of thinking. One of the things he said was that your number one priority should be not compensating for the lost hours, but figuring out a way to get back to your normal state as soon as possible.

  This led me to the conclusion that having such a state from time to time is normal. Everyone has better and wors days, there is nothing wrong with you. Once in a while your mind will just revolt against you.

  But the reasons for that may vary a lot. It can happen because of your physiological state - maybe you ate something that you are alergic to, but don’t realise how much it influences your mental state? Maybe there is some problem you are constantly thinking about unconscously that you are trying to repress? Or maybe your job frustrates you. There is a great TEDx talk by Alan Watkins dealing with how subconscious processes affect the way you perform.

  Anyway, there are two things you can do to limit the influence of this problem on your work: learn how to deal with the low performance days and find out ways to limit how often those day happen to you.

Dealing with your bad day (breaking the loop)

  Attack it with a plan. First of all - the most important thing is to ensure conditions for you getting up to speed. Don’t feel guilty. Your employer will not judge you by one single day of your work (unless they’re insane), but will want you to get back to your regular performance as soon as possible - and that’s your task. Remember that just as you don’t get a bonus for performing better on a given day, you are allowed to have a less performant day from time to time.

  Have you seen “Westworld”? It’s a series about a town filled with robots that have AI built to provide fun to people. Each robot is on its “loop” - doing the same tasks over and over each day. Teddy is one of the robots that wants to leave the town with his girl, but what is constantly prohibiting him is some unfinished business he has to complete. This unfinished business is what keeps him within his loop every day. The only way he can break the loop is to let go. This is exactly the same thing you need to do.

  Minimise your expectations for the day. Cut off anything that is not absolutely necessary to complete by the end of the day. Unless you don’t end up with one or two tasks on your list, ask yourself if there is any specific terrible thing that will happen unless you complete them. Don’t try to fix everything - solve what you can tomorrow when you’re more effective. Delegate what you can. If it’s a task that you’ve been stuck on for the past couple of days - fail fast. Let someone else finish it for you and focus on something that will let you be productive.

  If possible, leave only the simplest tasks that you are sure you will be able to complete without any problem - these are easy wins. They will make you feel better about yourself and help you recover faster.

  Allow yourself to be weak. Every hero has a bad day from time to time. No one will judge you.

  Give yourself some slack. Finish earlier and do something that makes you happy. Something that does not make sense other than that you want to do that. Call your friends. But remember to go to sleep early. You don’t want to wake up late and start the next day by failing. Start the day with the first win already.

Get rid of the source of the problem

  There may be a lot of reasons to feel down, so it’s pretty much up to you to find out what’s causing them. But I think there are some common patterns.

  Form habits that will help you function better. These may be related to your sleep, like going to sleep early. Or to what and when you eat. Work out regularly - it will make you feel better both physically and mentally. Choose a sport that works best for you. If you’re not into hardcore running or crossfit, maybe join a yoga class. There is a great book about forming habits that changed the way I think about daily habits. I discovered that planning my day should start with going to sleep before 23 the previous day. If I just maintain that simple rule, I wake up rested without a problem. And when I start work early, I’m already in a good mood. Also, I can’t work unless I have a proper breakfast. I work out in the morning and that makes me feel more energetic at work.

  Take care of what information you consume. Just like having a balanced diet is neccessary for your body to work correctly, a balanced information intake is neccessary for your brain to function right. If you spend your time watching memes of cats all day, it may make you frustrated in the long term, because you are giving your brain constant shots of dopamine without giving it any valuable content. Reading a book on the contrary allows you to form new opinions, inspires you and changes the way you think about the world. It’s like with diet - you can have some fast-food, but make sure it’s only from time to time and that the majority of what you consume is valuable content. I like to dedicate 15-30min every day to read a book. It’s a very little effort and it’s inspired me to do a lot of cool things.

  Learn when your performance drops occur and plan ahead. If possible, plan more work on days when you are more performant and less when you’re not that great.

  If it’s your job that frustates you - try fixing it. Talk to your employer or people in your team about what frustrates you and how that can be changed. See if you can change your responsibilities for ones that you are really interested in. And if it’s impossible - maybe think about changing your job.

Everyone is different

  Remember that different tricks work for different people and in the end it’s all about getting to know yourself better. Start by figuring out one little thing to change in your daily routine, see how it works out for you and go from there.

  Have a great productive day and let me know in the comments what trick works best for you!