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Yesterday I had one of those days you get once in a while. You are less productive it is hard to focus on work related subjects or just any subjects at all and you cannot wait the day to be over. The day seems to go past very slow and you are simply not productive while you really want to be as there is enough work.

My co-workers were waiting on work to get done, but I couldn't focus on the (relatively easy) problem, which wasn't too hard of a problem. Should I tell them I have a bad day and it might take longer than usual? It might seem like a bad thing to do as it might come off as being lazy, but I think everyone has such days once in a while.

Also when I have these days I tend to be (thinking about) slacking off more, which really doesn't help my focus. I don't want to slack off more than it is acceptable in the office, but I cannot seem to stop thinking about checking my mobile more often than I should. While I don't do this, it does leave me unfocused.

So in short:

How to deal with these less productive days?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Michael Grubey, enderland, jcmeloni, gnat, jmac Jul 21 at 14:30

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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@jmorc "How is this related to the workplace." Because it is an issue in the workplace and I want to know how to deal with it in the workplace. See Joe Strazzere's great answer. –  Ajaxkevi Jul 18 at 9:23
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Funny how I'm reading this because I'm having a slow day... –  SaturnsEye Jul 18 at 11:46
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@jmac Define not answerable? The question has 13 answers. –  Ajaxkevi Jul 21 at 15:06
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@Ajax, it is definitely answerable, it's just not specific or practical -- everyone has these days. They come with the territory of working. Why does something special need to be done with them in your case? Why is this a special problem that needs solving? Without clearly specifying what your problem is in this case, the answers are unlikely to be anything more than, "This is what I do when I am feeling lazy / baby kept me up / had a hangover", and that isn't so useful. Hope that explains it, if not, bring it to The Workplace Meta. Thanks in advance! –  jmac Jul 21 at 15:17

12 Answers 12

up vote 49 down vote accepted

How to deal with days in which you feel less productive?

Since everyone has very productive along with less productive days, you deal with it by not worrying. You just do the best you can every day, be less productive some days, and be super productive other days.

When I get in each morning, I look over my list of tasks and meetings for the day. I attempt to arrange them so that I tackle the really important tasks first, and the less important tasks later.

Since I'm very much a morning person, I tend to be very productive early. Later in the day, I may continue to be very productive, but usually not as intensely as in the morning.

Arranging my tasks this way allows me to ensure that the important stuff gets dealt with to the best of my abilities no matter what.

If you find yourself repeatedly feeling less-than-productive, you might want to take a few quiet moments to reflect on that fact.

  • Do these down periods happen at certain times in the day?
  • Do they happen at certain days of the week?
  • Are there specific triggering events?

Understanding more about what might be behind these moods might allow you to deal with the root cause, and not just the symptoms. Dealing with the cause is often far more effective in the long run.

I have found that after certain monthly meetings, I tend to feel a bit deflated and less productive. Knowing this, I try to adjust my schedule so that I can use this down period for research and other routine tasks which don't require intense concentration. After performing a few hours of more menial tasks, I find that I can shake off the mood and get back to my usual productivity.

Occasionally, I'll have a day such as you describe which is very non-productive. Sometimes, I'll get all the really important work done, and then just leave. I find some way to clear my head, sometimes taking a walk, often just doing something other than work that needs my immediate attention. I pick things up either later from home, or just wait until the next day. Fortunately, in my shop I have that flexibility.

Overall, what you describe happens to everyone. Don't sweat it.

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+1 for suggesting a root cause analysis. I personally know that I'm less productive if I don't get enough sleep (like last night :-( ), so I'm careful about my quality of sleep. –  Stephan Kolassa Jul 17 at 12:32
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Awesome answer!! Typical business man :-) Thanks for your motivation! –  heinkasner Jul 21 at 12:10

The best tip i could give you is: Carry on. Everybody has a bad day sometimes. We're all humans and not machines. The management should not expect 100% productivity on every day from every employee and plan accordingly.

If you want you could also leave early if it's possible on your workplace to do so. I always keep some overtime to do exactly this.

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mri is German. "Over-hour" is a literal translation of Überstunden, extra time worked in the past which is accrued and can be "taken" in the form of leaving earlier on other days. Very common in Germany, much more so in many work environments than extra pay. If you are punching clocks, you will usually have an Überstunden account. –  Stephan Kolassa Jul 17 at 12:58
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From the description, I believe another term for it would be "flex time / flexible time". –  Juha Untinen Jul 19 at 17:14

Like mri mentioned less productive days happens with everybody. But there is still room for improvement. Here are small suggestions which I use when the bug bites me.

  1. Forget the work and take a small walk- This serves as a break and a refreshing agent.

  2. Getting in Focus. After the walk jot down a small (3-task) to-do list in a prioritized order and work on the first task.

  3. Postpone email checking/browsing until you complete one of the tasks.

  4. Take a break.

  5. Iterate until the list is complete.

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When you have a flexible time arrangement and you are not in danger of missing a deadline, just go home and work the hours on another day when you are more motivated.

Should this be not an option, all you can do is try to motivate yourself by following the many advises on Personal Productivity Stackexchange.

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It is just a case of procrastination or a bad day?

There is a procrastination research group with lots of strategies to fight it.

My favorites are:

  • Be nice to yourself. Thinking about how little have you done will make things worse. Just start again.
  • Do not overcompensate in any way that affect your sleeping hours or health. Lack of sleep is my number one root cause. Some coffee my help. Too much will be a problem.
  • Check your mind. As stated in the GTD methodology mental open loops can reduce your energy. If you have a difficult decision to make, issues at home or just some powerful emotions you will need to face them sooner or later. Write things down and promise yourself to do something about it after work. Ask yourself "I am resisting anything?
  • Use the pomodore technique. 25 minutes or high concentration without distractions at all. Then compulsory breaks.
  • Remove distractions. I have edited my /etc/host file in windows to remove temptation like facebook, news, etc. Have your mobile phone where it is hard in your pocket so that it is harder to check this incoming what's up.
  • Tell your self: "I will just work on this task for 5 minutes".
  • Divide your tasks.
  • Smile, find positive things like "I am training my will to work on bad days"
  • If you have an habit of distracting identify your triggers and modify your behavior. For example, if you check your mobile phone every time you feel blocked or anxious try to take a deep breath or to write down the problem instead. It is easier to modify and existing habit than to eliminate it.
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I think having a less productive day at work is not a big problem. Everyone gets that from time to time and at most companies I worked at management kind of expected that you're not productive a full 8 hours a day.

I once saw a study (will post a link if I find it) where it was mentioned that most software developpers working 8 hours a day are producing working code 2 hours a day in average. So don't worry too much, try to carry on and try to get you to do something that makes sense.

At those days I usually tend to do the stuff that affects my work but isn't productive. For example: having a look at what my co-workers are doing, which problems they're facing with their projects and try to help them with some input, grabbing a book about stuff I'm working with and so on. Just try to make the best out of it.

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If a software developer produces code only two hours a day, that does not mean that the rest of the time was unproductive. You have to read and understand requirements and specifications, discuss possible approaches, write/run/understand tests, document and so forth. –  Stephan Kolassa Jul 17 at 11:06

You've not said what type of job you're in; my answer may or may not apply to your situation. That said, here's my take on it:

In my job there are parts that I really enjoy (coding, building things) and parts that I don't enjoy as much (e.g. repetetive stuff that's still not quite automatable, time reporting, etc).

When I have a low day, but something is time-critical, then obviously I'd work on that thing. But if I have the flexibility to choose between several duties, I'll pick the boring ones. Because on a low day, even the fun parts won't be fun and I won't be very productive with them. By focusing on the less fun things, I'll be able to get them out of the way and the next day, which will hopefully be better, I'll have both the space and the focus to really get the fun things done, and done well.

Another issue I have is that I'm not very sociable - I tend to dive into my work and only emerge for bathroom and food breaks. I don't spend much time in the coffee room. On a low day, though, I do spend time there - because I don't get much work done, and socializing with coworkers is also something that needs to be done since it improves cohesion and you function better in the group and so on. I have a tendency to feel as though sitting and talking is wasting time, but on a low day it doesn't matter so much. And it happens that talking to people will bring me out of the funk; someone may have an interesting problem that I can solve or they'll just be funny and make me laugh and feel better.

So those are my tips - do things you already dislike, and do things you don't normally do but that still need doing.

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Sounds like a facebook day! .... ok just kidding. On my slow days I like to read articles to improve my skills. You can also look for way to improve things in your company whether it be a process or an environmental issue. I am a developer so it is hard to have an unproductive day unless it is filled with context switching and meetings. If you are mischievous you could go around playing pranks on your co-workers for your own personal amusement... tape on the mouse laser is always a fun one :P

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Don't fret it too much. In management we joke that our employees are our single most valuable, but least reliable resource. (don't take that too seriously)

The idea is we cannot survive without our staff, they are what make a company work, however; people have their off days, get sick, have kids that get sick, get flat tires, die, etc. You count on your people, you just have to, but you also realize the odds of everyone on your staff being at 100% on any given day is so low it likely qualifies as a statistical impossibility (barring if you've got a REALLY small staff)

You should only be concerned if your "off days" are the norm rather than the exception.

Still, you want to improve. (this is a good sign) You need to figure out what's putting the drain on you? Is your work unfulfilling? How long has it been since you took a real vacation? Are you getting enough sleep? Is there a problem in your personal life sapping you of energy? When was the last time you saw a doctor, perhaps this is a symptom of a bigger problem? When was the last time you truly got out and did something fun? When was the last time you spent time with your friends and family? Are you lonely?

Seriously there are MILLIONS of reasons a person could feel drained. They can be emotional, psychological, physical, etc. You need to figure out WHY you're feeling unproductive, then figure out if you can realistically do something about it.

Generally if I can't come up with an obvious reason I'm being unproductive, I consider it a que to go on vacation. Most of the time if it's hard to identify you're just in burn out from the daily grind.

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There are some very excellent answers above for dealing with a single solitary unproductive day. The general consensus is that everyone has occasional days where they cannot seem to focus or get anything done.

However, if you find that you are having a couple days in a row or a pattern of day in any large block of time you may want to examine the causes. I would ask myself the following questions.

  1. Is anything in my work environment that is bothering you? (culture, coworkers, ect.)
  2. Is there anything at home that is bothering you?
  3. Are you enjoying the work that you do?
  4. Are you under a lot of stress for another reason? Related, are you getting enough sleep?
  5. Do you believe the project you are working on is going in the right direction?
  6. Do you believe your career is going in the right direction?
  7. Are you learning in your job? Are you bored?

I find that when something on this list rings true my general productivity dips. Once you pinpoint the problem the solution needs to be worked out, but any solution involves being more aware of your productivity and insulating your career's security by implementing short and long term fixes so that you do not come into conflict with your superiors.

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There are two different situations - being less productive and not willing to do a task (I am sure you can find more, but these two are most common for me).

Being less productive means that whatever you do, does not work out well. Anything, even some simple tasks (like doing laundry etc.). You often forget what you were doing, lack of focus and other issues. In this case try to avoid any work, relax, spend time with your friends/family, increase physical activity (walk, run, gym) if health allows, get an early sleep and try again the next day. Another thing that helps is advising other person how to deal with unproductive days, which is what I am doing right now. ;-)

If you don't feel like doing the task you were assigned, most common reasons are:

  1. You don't have enough information to complete it. In this case, try to ask people, google or company documentation for clues. People are most useful in my opinion.
  2. You have a gut feeling the task is useless (will need to be redone anyway, or no-one would care regardless of how you do it, how soon you do it etc.). There is nothing you can do about it, the more you feel it, the more it means you need to be changing your job. If it's just once in a blue moon, may be just a bad day of yours.
  3. You don't like doing these types of tasks. Example - you are a developer, asked to QA some stuff. If you find that you often asked to do someone else's job, talk to your manager. If it does not help, start writing a resume.
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If you have enough flexibility to do, I'd suggest doing things that need to be done eventually, and which don't require your full mental capacity, but don't have any hard deadlines.

I generally have a few days worth of minor items that are more tedious than difficult at any time; and burn it down whenever I'm having an off day and there's not a major deadline in the near future. That list also tends to be slowly attritioned when I finish a regular task on Friday afternoon and don't want to start something major that I know will take at least a day to complete just before going home.

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