Young businessman under stress with headache and migraine

Is there a way to stay productive even when you don’t feel like it?

Things are clicking along.

You’re getting a lot done. Your business is doing well. You just got a promotion at work. Your family is thriving.

And then something happens, and everything seems to come to a screeching halt.

It could be an illness, cutbacks at work, the loss of a loved one, or a huge disappointment of some sort. Maybe you’ve just been on the run for a while and you’re out of steam. Suddenly, you’re feeling anything but productive.

But you still have to get things done.

We all face our own slumps at one time or another. I know there are a lot of days when the last thing I want to do is type words on a blank page. But I’ve got deadlines on the calendar and clients I don’t want to disappoint. I can’t afford to just blow it all off.

So what then? What do we do when we have to be productive, but we just don’t feel like it?

The Elephant in the Room

Part of the problem when we run up against a wall with our productivity is that we’re unwilling or unable to take some time off.

You’ve likely heard that America is work-obsessed. We have fewer vacation days than other industrialized countries, and even those we often leave on the table. A 2014 study found that Americans left 429 million paid time off days unused.

Why do we do this? For a number of reasons. First, though many employers know that time off increases productivity and employee retention, they often don’t convey a positive attitude to employees that leave—in fact, they see them as less dedicated.

Second, we worry about the workload waiting for us when we return. It seems more of a hassle to leave than to just keep at it.

Then there is that nagging idea in the back of our heads—that taking time off is indulgent, lazy and definitely non-productive. According to Harvard Business School assistant professor Anat Keinan, Americans take this guilt to the extreme, viewing pleasurable pastimes as wasteful, irresponsible, and even immoral. The problem with this thinking, she says, is that eventually, we regret it.

“Why do we have to wait until we are 60 or 70 to realize what’s really important to us?” she says. She advises taking the long view before making a decision—ten years from now, will you regret not working harder, or not taking a break to spend time doing something you enjoy?

You probably already know that time off increases productivity. Perhaps in response to our desire to always be more productive, we now have studies showing that vacations can help us meet that goal. One by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), for example, found that employees who took vacations demonstrated higher levels of productivity, as well as increased moral and job satisfaction.

“The impact that taking a vacation has on one’s mental health is profound,” Francine Lederer, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who specializes in stress and relationship management, told ABC News. “Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation, even if it is a 24-hour time-out.”

“There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources,” Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University told Entrepreneur magazine. “When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You’re able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks.”

So…first tip for increasing productivity is to stop being productive, even if it’s only for one day.

5 Surprising Ways to Increase Productivity

In lieu of taking some time off, here are seven other ways to remain productive even when things aren’t going great.

1. Journal

If something difficult is going on in your life, it’s going to remain front and center in your brain unless you give it somewhere else to go.

Worried about finances? Stressed over a loved one’s health? Anxious about a recent disaster in the business? There’s no way you’ll get anything done until you deal with that primary emotion.

The good news is that there’s a really good way to do that and increase your productivity at the same time.

Write it down.

Journaling has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. A 2011 study, for example, found that writing down your thoughts and then throwing away the paper you wrote them on can help clear your mind. An earlier 2006 study found that participants who wrote down their thoughts about stressful situations experienced fewer symptoms of their chronic illnesses than did those who didn’t journal. And research from the University of Chicago reported that those who wrote about what was causing them fear increased performance on a high-stakes test.

On top of that, journaling, particularly when done at the end of the day, has been found to increase productivity. In a study by Harvard Business School researchers, employees who journaled before hitting the sack increased performance by nearly 23 percent over those who didn’t.

“One of the big reasons to keep a diary is to record small wins that otherwise might slip through your memory,” said Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile. “You can leverage the progress principle and allow yourself to get that boost from realizing you are making progress.”

2. Learn to relax quickly.

“It’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance,” writes Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, in the New York Times. “Even renewal requires practice.”

A lot of us aren’t so good at relaxing, but it’s a good skill to learn, not only for your productivity, but for your health. How long does it take you, for instance, to wind down? Do you need hours between work and sleep to really quiet your mind? Do you ever actually calm it down, or do you suffer from insomnia because it’s still racing by the time you hit the sheets?

Speeding up your winding down time can help your brain recover more quickly during the day, increasing your productivity. How do you do that? There are a number of ways. Here are just a few:

  • Meditate: Just ten minutes of meditation can supercharge your brain. According to a 2011 study, those who meditate regularly can switch off areas of the brain linked to anxiety, and other research has linked it with the ability to truly relax, so that when you return to work, you’re ready to go.
  • Take a nap: The key here is to block out the world somehow. Go to a quiet room, put shades over your eyes, plug in some relaxing music, and get comfortable. So-called “power naps” of 20 minutes or so have shown in studies to increase alertness and energy.
  • Go for a walk: Mental fatigue actually increases the longer you sit in your chair. A quick walk or jog, a few minutes jumping rope, or other types of exercise gets your blood pumping and your brain ready to work again. Surprisingly, these activities also help you relax quickly, because you’re settling down into your body and giving your brain a chance to take a hiatus. That’s why so many people find solutions to their problems during exercise—they’re giving their cognitive brains a break and allowing the deeper, creative side to work.
  • Zone out: You can accomplish this by staring out the window, looking at some mesmerizing pictures, or listening to music. Studies have shown that daydreaming increased creative insight—a sign that it helps the brain to relax.
  • Take a few deep breaths: Shallow breaths naturally increase anxiety, while deeper ones promote relaxation. Just five minutes of deep breathing can help you relax and return to your task with more focus.
3. Practice “chunking” and take more breaks.

How long do you spend on any single task? If it’s longer than 52 minutes before you take a break, it’s probably too long. The Draugiem Group did a study to see how their most productive employees managed to accomplish so much. Using a time-tracking app called “DeskTime,” they monitored work times. They found that the 10 percent of employees who were the most productive worked less than eight hours a day, and took regular breaks.

Specifically, they walked away from work every 52 minutes, and spent 17 minutes on a break. And they were real breaks, involving activities like chatting with coworkers, taking a walk, or reading a book. The key was that these times had nothing to do with work.

Today, a lot of people are trying what has been termed the “chunking” technique: work intensely for a short period of time, and take a real break.

Jurgen Appelo, CEO of Happy Melly and the author of Management 3.0, uses the chunking technique to increase productivity. He describes it this way:

“A chunk of work is any focused activity lasting between approx. ten minutes and one hour, with the average being less than 30 minutes.” He recommends splitting your day into chunks depending on what you have to accomplish, and taken real breaks in between.

I’ve tried this and found it to be really helpful, particularly when you’re trying to get started on something difficult. Tell yourself you will spent just 30 minutes on it—or even 15—just to get yourself over that hump, and odds are you’ll get involved enough to stick with it past that time. Even if you don’t, at least you will have gotten something done.

4. Stay committed to your healthy habits.

When we’re stressed or going through difficult times, often our commitment to healthy habits is the first thing to go. We skip our exercise routines. We grab junk food. We don’t get to bed on time.

Of course, these types of things wreak havoc on productivity.

Why do we do this? Somehow in our brains we have let ourselves that tending to our health and well being is optional. While we wouldn’t dare miss a day of work, we easily miss a workout or a meal, or take on projects that keep us up too late.

To give yourself the best chance of staying productive, make these things non-negotiable: eat healthy, exercise daily, and get at least 7-8 hours of sleep. Realize that this is going to be harder when you’re under stress. Your brain is naturally going to scream for sugary foods in an attempt to help you feel better, turn your exhaustion into workout-impossible fatigue, and do it’s best to keep you up at night.

Use the other techniques mentioned here to relax and keep your emotions in control, and pretend that these three healthy commitments are unbreakable. Take the long view, and remember that neglecting your health results in an immediate plunge in productivity.

5. Manage your energy, rather than your time.

Most of us think about how much time we have in the day, and try to get all we have to get done in a certain number of hours.

When you’re struggling with something difficult in your life, however, this is a bad idea. You can set up times to do things, but if you’re energy isn’t there, you’re going to have a hard time following through.

Tony Schwartz is credited with first coining the statement, “manage your energy, not your time.” The idea is to renew yourself often—as mentioned above in “taking more breaks”—but also to do your hardest work when you’re likely to have the most energy to do it.

You have only so much energy for each day. When is yours at its highest? For many people, that’s mid-morning, but everyone is different. Schedule your day around that peak time and you’re likely to get more done.

In addition to matching your tasks with your natural energy levels, this step also includes finding ways to increase your energy throughout the day. In addition to eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep, you can also do things like listen to upbeat music, read a good book, make sure to spend time each day on things that matter to you, express appreciation to others, and increase the novelty in your life. Take a different route to work, for example, try wearing an entirely different outfit than you usually would, or try something new, like learning a new instrument or craft.

Jolting your mind out of its usual rut always results in a jolt of energy, which you can then use to accomplish what you need to.

Do you have other ways to boost productivity when you’re feeling low? Please share them with our readers.

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Sources
Tanya Mohn, “Take a Vacation: It’s Good for Productivity and the Economy, According to a New Study,” Forbes, February 28, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2014/02/28/take-a-vacation-its-good-for-productivity-and-the-economy-according-to-a-new-study/.

“An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S.,” Oxford Economics, February 2014, http://www.projecttimeoff.com/sites/projecttimeoff.com/files/Oxford_UnusedTimeOff_FullReport.pdf.

Elizabeth Gudrais, “The Poor Payoff of Pleasure Postponed,” Harvard Magazine, October 2009, http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/09/the-poor-payoff-of-pleasure-postponed.

“SHRM/U.S. Travel Association: Vacation’s Impact on the Workplace,” SHRM, November 12, 2013, http://www.shrm.org/research/surveyfindings/articles/pages/shrm-us-travel-vacation-benefits.aspx.

Julia Gifford, “The Rule of 52 and 17: It’s Random, But it Ups Your Productivity,” The Muse, https://www.themuse.com/advice/the-rule-of-52-and-17-its-random-but-it-ups-your-productivity.

Savita Pahuja, “Jurgen Appelo Proposes Chunking Productivity Technique,” InfoQ.com, April 16, 2015, http://www.infoq.com/news/2015/04/chunking-productivity.

Tony Schwartz, “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive,” New York Times, February 9, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/opinion/sunday/relax-youll-be-more-productive.html?_r=0.

“How Meditation Benefits the Brain,” MedicalNewsToday, November 23, 2011, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/238093.php.

Lovato N, Lack L., “The effects of napping on cognitive function,” Prog Brain Res. 2010; 185:155-66, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21075238.

Lisa Tams, “Journaling to reduce stress,” Michigan State University Extension, May 1, 2013, http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/journaling_to_reduce_stress.

William Harms, “Writing about worries eases anxiety and improves test performance,” University of Chicago, January 13, 2011, http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2011/01/13/writing-about-worries-eases-anxiety-and-improves-test-performance.

Dave Greenbaum, “Journaling at the End of the Day Could Increase Your Productivity,” LifeHacker, June 15, 2014, http://lifehacker.com/journaling-at-the-end-of-the-day-could-increase-your-pr-1590024732.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

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