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When the day goes off the rails, how productive people get back on track

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Life doesn’t always go as planned. You have grand aspirations, but whether the culprit is sleep deprivation or general malaise, sometimes you just can’t get anything done. So is the day a loss? Not necessarily. Try these strategies for rescuing an unproductive day.

1. Re-focus and re-prioritize. Try to recognize when you’re spinning your wheels. When you keep drifting away from your scheduled tasks, do a quick reassessment. “Forget the original plan,” suggests Todd Henry, author of several books on productivity and creativity, including The Accidental Creative and Louder than Words. “What would success look like now, given my new constraints? Which problems are the most important? What would be the most valuable use of my now reduced time?” Much of life is negotiable, and “when you are constrained, you have to clarify your priorities quickly.”

One thing that helps with clarification: unplugging. Anthony Soohoo, CEO of home design site Dot & Bo, says that “If a day is going awry for one reason or another, the first thing I do is turn off my phone and email. Being intentional about email and calls frees me from getting bogged down by non-urgent matters.”

2. Get active. While exercising on a low-energy day seems counterintuitive, it’s actually brilliant. Kate Hanley, a mindset coach and author of the forthcoming book A Year of Daily Calm, says that “Putting your attention on your body quiets those distracting thoughts and helps you hear what’s most important to work on next.”

John Coyle, a former Olympic speed skater turned speaker, says that on non-productive days, “I go out for an easy workout—for me that means a bike ride of 45-60 minutes where I don’t push at all. I nearly always come back refreshed and ready to go.”


3. Go ahead and clean your desk. Yes, it may be avoiding something else, but progress is motivational in its own right. Sometimes scoring an easy victory puts you in the mood to keep going, especially if you praise yourself for your accomplishment. Hanley says, “I find one small thing I can easily knock out even in that agitated state, and then I do something indulgent to reward myself.” Maybe it’s a bit of online shopping or a walk to get a coffee, but whatever it is, enjoy it. “The most destructive part of a day that feels off the rails is how much we beat ourselves up for it,” she says.

4. Take a mini-vacation. If the day is relatively open, you could try cashing it in. Allyson Downey, CEO of weeSpring, a social shopping site that specializes in baby products, says, “I focus more on the long game.” Instead of banging her head against the wall, “Sometimes I’ll give myself an afternoon off to play with my kids, or I’ll spend some time outside in my garden, or sometimes I’ll just retreat to a sofa in my office for an hour or two and read a novel. It can feel a little self-indulgent, but if I’m not working effectively anyway, it’s better for me to spend that time doing something restorative.”

5. Take a deep breath. To be sure, sometimes you have obligations you have to meet. Says Downey, “When I have no choice but to keep pushing because of a deadline, deep breathing helps tremendously, as simple as it sounds.” It helps get her out of her head, and “I find that if I can be mindful about unclenching my jaw, relaxing my shoulders, and getting air into my lungs, I’m able to refocus my concentration.”

6. Take a nap. Coyle reports that during Olympic training, “many of us took a 90-minute nap every single day at about 2:30. Many years later and I still often feel that urge and usually awake with a clear mind and sharpened focus.” If you can’t afford a 90-minute nap, a short catnap (less than 20 minutes) can work wonders.

7. Structure life for derailment. Unhappiness stems from a mismatch between expectations and reality. You can tackle low-energy days by being reasonable about commitments. Todd Henry says he tries to limit his plans precisely for this reason. “I’d rather have a surprising amount of time and energy left in the last few hours, because that extra capacity means I am prepared if something sideswipes my day. If all goes as planned, then I can tackle even more than I anticipated. Either way, I win.”