Keep On Truckin'
May 18, 2009 2:18 PM   Subscribe

How do I reboot myself when I feel like I'm getting nothing done at work?

Occasionally, I have a day at work (like today) where I don't get very much done because of distraction, or feeling overwhelmed by all the things on my to do list. (Knowing that I'm not going to be able to make all my deadlines can make it difficult to decide which deadlines to focus on.) I stay late at work to help compensate, but sometimes I feel that does nothing except make me more tired and stressed.

There's lots of advice on AskMe about how to deal with distraction and workflow—I've used it to good effect. But these kinds of days still happen from time to time, and it can be hard to rebound into productivity.

What can I do to keep one day of distraction and underproduction from turning into a string of them?
posted by ocherdraco to Work & Money (10 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Get the ball rolling by picking something small and getting it out of the way.

Shoot for something that you can do in 5 minutes or less, so that it doesn't seem like a huge hurdle. Maybe it's returning a phone call, maybe it's writing an email, maybe it's writing a paragraph of that report. Just do it to get some inertia behind you.

Over time you'll learn which sorts of tasks are best for getting you back into 'the zone'.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:30 PM on May 18, 2009

At the end of that distracted, overwhelmed day, pick a single thing off your to do list and say to yourself, "Self, this is the only thing I have to get done tomorrow." If you get lost trying to prioritize enough to pick one task, stop trying to prioritize and just PICK one! Getting the wrong thing done is still better than getting nothing done. The next day when you get to work, start in on that one task immediately, and keep working until it's done. When you feel like slacking, remind yourself that you're giving yourself permission to slack as soon as you finish that one thing.

Then, when you finish the thing, you can slack off. Or, if you're like me, you'll find that actually accomplishing something helps get your motivation back in gear, and you'll pick another task to work on. Either way, assign yourself one (or two) more tasks for the next day.

This only works if the task you pick is something that could reasonably be accomplished in less than a single day of work. If you don't have anything like that on your list, subdivide your tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks. I've occasionally picked something that should only take half an hour, when the depth of my overwhelmedness was extreme enough that half an hour of work in an 8-hour day felt like more than I could handle.
posted by vytae at 2:35 PM on May 18, 2009

Best answer: Some things that have worked for me in that situation include:

1) Get enough sleep. It's hard to get out of these ruts when you're tired as well.

2) Get angry about the situation. Decide you are going to go in tomorrow and kick the ass of your $&*$%&* to-do list by getting stuff done. Whatever you have to do to psych yourself up for a productive day.

3) Re-organize your to-do list. Get rid of stuff you know you are never going to do, or isn't that important. Or just re-prioritize. Feeling like you are a slave to your to-do list is a good way to get overwhelmed by it. Taking control of the list helps you feel like you're the one in charge, rather than the list being in charge.

4) Try to start the day by burning through all the boring little repetitive tasks as fast as you can. Just get them out of the way so you can relax a bit and focus on the more interesting and longer-term stuff.

5) If you are having a bad day productivity-wise, totally ignore the priorities you may have set and just pick something to work on that interests and motivates you at that moment. Just do something, anything, rather than doing nothing productive.

6) Get help. No, I don't mean "see a therapist" kind of help. I mean get other people involved in the work, but don't just dump it on them of course. Maybe you can delegate some tasks to others (or your boss can do so). Maybe you have been doing these things a long time and they've become boring, and to other people they will be new and exciting opportunities to learn. And for you they become opportunities to teach rather than to do. Or maybe you can get a team effort going to tackle something that feels overwhelming right now.

7) Try to figure out if you are stuck because one or more really important tasks are things you don't feel like doing at the moment, but you can't stop thinking about those things to move on to something else. For instance maybe you have a project that is not moving forward and it's going to take a probably unpleasant phone call to get anything to happen. You don't want to make that call, but you can't mentally move past that either. Once you figure out this is the problem, it's easier to just force yourself to do whatever it is so you can carry on with your other work.

That's all I can think of at the moment.
posted by FishBike at 2:43 PM on May 18, 2009 [6 favorites]

- Plan a break. Instead of letting the distractions overwhelm you when you're trying to get stuff done set aside 30 minutes of absolutely no work. Get out of the office, take a nap, read a bunch of articles, etc. But know that this is your break time and you don't have to be worrying about work. When the time is up head back in and focus.

- Split a big task into smaller achievable goals. I hate working on week-long [or more] tasks and feeling like they're going nowhere. I find making sub-tasks which only need half a day / one day of work much easier to concentrate on, and ticking them off as completed is a nice morale boost/reminder that I'm actually getting stuff done.
posted by xqwzts at 3:27 PM on May 18, 2009

Best answer: One thing I'll do is clean off my desk and file papers, and go back through my notebook deciding what to save and what to toss. It mentally clears a space, and it leaves me with a filtered stack of what is most important from the recent week's debris.

I'll start by throwing away the day as a total loss. Something like, "look, today's obviously a total wash anyway. So, fuck it. I might as well use the time to start doing X." Usually, when I'm stuck in this mode, I'm avoiding something, and this technique pre-acknowledges that something's going to go wrong (that I'll discover something bad in the data, do something I might screw up, take forever doing something I think should be done quickly, spend a day revisiting a decision or making a decision I didn't acknowledge needed its own decision process, or just not get anything else on the list done that day). So it helps to pre-emptively write the day off as a total loss.

I'll ask myself, "what one thing am I most avoiding here? what would create the most peace of mind if it was done?" and do that.

I'll trick myself into making a detailed "to do" list. Usually I've made one but left something off, or I'm too scared to make one. To trick myself, I use a couple of these prompts:
* "Maybe I can give this job over to [coworker]. 'Joe, I'm wondering if you could help with [this project]. If you can, here's what you'd do..."
* "This is impossible! I'm going to have to tell David there is no way I'll be able to get this done. My god, I have to..."
* "Suppose I was going to just sit down and do this. I'd have to..."

Anyway, good luck. I've been there.
posted by salvia at 4:59 PM on May 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

Make to-do lists filled with a lot of tiny tasks that you can cross out frequently instead of looking at a huge task and not wanting to even start it. Example, I work in a lab... instead of "1) get results for this sample" I write "1) prep sample, 2) run it, 3) document it in notebook, 4) email results" - if I think of doing it one little step at a time it doesn't sound so horrible. Plus if I get distracted by something else (work or not work-related) I know exactly where I was when working on this sample, it's easier to get back into it knowing that I'm up to step 3, for example.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 5:21 PM on May 18, 2009

One technique I like to use to feel like I'm accomplishing something is to look at my to-do list and pick a task that I can do from start to finish *right now* with no input from anyone else. No phone calls to ask questions, no emails to beg for files, no missing information to hunt down. Once I finish at least one of these tasks, the other tasks involving follow-up, research and chasing people look a little easier.

A nice side effect to this method is that when you finish one of these tasks and send the results to whoever needs them, it sometimes jog their memory that you also need their input for tasks X, Y and Z. They may even get the information to you in the "got it-thanks" message. That makes some of your next tasks into "can-do-right-now" tasks. Admittedly, this doesn't happen often (at least, not to me), but it's nice when it does.
posted by melissa at 7:27 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, folks. Each of these comments has something useful in it. FishBike's is the most comprehensive, and is what I'm going to pull out tomorrow morning to motivate myself and work myself through the day. And, salvia, you always have excellent advice—this post would have been worth it if the only answer given had been this: I'll ask myself, "what one thing am I most avoiding here? what would create the most peace of mind if it was done?" and do that. That's really what I need to do, not only on days like today, but in general, so the backed up days don't happen so often.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:06 PM on May 18, 2009

Just a thought but how about having a visual system?

I have a fringe of post-its attached to my monitor. On the right side is tasks pending, along the bottom is tasks for today, on the right is tasks ticked and done. I have big orange post-its for tasks that involve input from others, I have little tiny yellow post-its for tasks I can do alone. One task per post-it.

During the day I prioritise the tasks and shift them arounthe monitor as need be. I can choose what to do next from what's hanging out under my screen. If someone calls or emails a request while I'm in the middle of something I stick it on a post -it and arrange accordingly - but ONLY if I can do it THIS WEEK. Anything for later on does not get a post-it. Tasks for later on go into my wider things-to-do-at-some-point list in my desk diary, to be promoted to post-it status only when there is space on my monitor to accommodate. If a task has changed, it gets a new post-it.

I'm a pretty visual person so this really works for me. I don't have to hold stuff in my head, but it's right there if I need to think about it. It's also fun - kind of task-tetris. It may sound a bit odd but my productivity has rocketed since I've been doing this. It's very motivating to peel off the layer of 'finished' post-its at the end of the week.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:53 PM on May 19, 2009

Response by poster: To follow up: as the summer went on, this kind of day kept happening, more and more frequently. It was causing me a lot of stress and anxiety, and eventually I talked to my doctor about it. Long story short, I got diagnosed with ADD (which I asked about in another question, later). It's good to have an explanation of why strategies themselves weren't cutting it, and now that I'm on medication, I can actually put some of these into practice and get results. Thanks again.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:08 PM on October 12, 2009

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