It’s OK to Have Unproductive Days

This productivity coach is here to liberate you from the feeling of failure when you don't accomplish what you'd planned. Pandemic or not.

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Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash
Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

It’s OK to have unproductive days.

Yep, you heard that right. And I’ll repeat it. It’s ok to have unproductive days. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we are all coping the very best that we can.

And you know what? Even when we’re not in the middle of a crisis, it’s still OK to have unproductive days.

Sometimes these days are planned. (Like last Friday, when I decided I would stop working at noon so that I could make popsicles with my kids and then let them attempt to teach me how to play video games. Spoiler: I was TERRIBLE at the video games, but I did make some fantastic popsicles with fruit that had been in the freezer since 2017).

Sometimes we just wake up knowing that we’re not feeling it today. Or maybe we don’t know it when we get out of bed, but we sure know it when, an hour into the day, we’re having trouble focusing and can’t quite find the motivation to get working. On those days, which, I’ll admit, for me, are rare, I tend to just name it. I’ll say out loud, “Well, today is just not going to be a productive day.”

And once I’ve named it, it sets me free. I’m able to let go of any negative feeling around the proclamation, lean into it and know that tomorrow, I’ll be back to being my productive self. Because I’ve given myself this gift today, the gift of not being productive and being totally OK about it.

It’s OK to be less productive than you had hoped

In the week of “shelter in place”, I was still hoping that I’d be almost as productive as I usually am. I mean, I already work from home. And we are getting A LOT of remote learning support from our kids’ school (we are super lucky). I knew I’d be slightly less productive with all these people (aka, my family), in the house, but I quickly realized I hadn’t calibrated correctly. I was going to have to set my expectations of productivity lower, much lower. So I did.

Normally, my kids are out of the house for school by 7:30. I’m usually at my desk by 8. But right now, no one’s going anywhere, and remote school doesn’t start until 9. Alarms are going off later. And I’m at my desk around 9 or 9:15 instead of 8. That morning hour is gone. For now. Instead of trying to force myself up before everyone else all in the name of productivity, I’m just sleeping an hour later. And not only is that OK. It’s glorious.

It’s OK for your plans not to work out

3 weeks ago, when hopes were high, you made a color-coded schedule for your kids. It didn’t work. That’s OK. This is not a failure. It just means your plan needs to be tweaked. I also made a color coded schedule. It half worked. At first, we had just put up a schedule the greyed out when my husband and I were in meetings, so the kids would know not to bother us. But in fact, as it turns out, our kids were in “meetings” too. And they needed a schedule of their own to tell US when not to bother them. So we changed it.

Those first few weeks, I was also trying to pack my own schedule as tightly as it is normally packed. I wasn’t leaving enough buffer for the casual conversations that now happen in my usually silent house. I’m not the only one here anymore, and there’s more action. Instead of not seeing my kids and husband at all during our normal lives, now I’m going in to check in and connect a few times a day. It’s nice. Less productive, but nice.


Define what productive means for you right now

I can’t define what productivity means for you. But I bet you can. I remember, back when I was on maternity leave many years ago, and I would get to the end of the day, a total blur, and I had one marker of productivity for myself. Had I unloaded the dishwasher? If so, it had been an extremely productive day. If not, well, we were all still alive, and that was really the baseline marker of achievement.

If there were ever a time to lower the bar, this is it.

Maybe, for now, productivity is sleeping enough, and making sure the bills are paid and the kids are fed. Maybe it’s about hitting work deadlines, but letting everything else go. Maybe, it’s about connecting with your far flung family daily. Each life is different. You get to define your own bar.

Pick just a few “must-dos” each day

Instead of looking at your super long list and feeling overwhelmed, instead, pick just a few “must-do” items each day, and focus on those. These are the things you’ll get done, come hell or high water.

You may think that everything on your list falls into the “urgent and important” category. But I can assure you it does not. Now is the time to get ruthless about prioritization. If you are having trouble prioritizing, flip your prioritization on its head. Look at your list and say, “if there‘s one thing I could cut from today, what would it be?”. Then do that until you’re left with only the things that absolutely must be done. Then focus on getting only these items done.

I’m not here to decide for you what these “must dos” are, because I don’t live your life. It very well could be that if your kids get food in their bellies, and you turn in that one work assignment with a deadline of tomorrow, you’ve done what you set out to do. You decide

Let everything else go

Now, I’m not saying doing do anything else from you list. I’m just saying, once you’ve done the “must dos”, I want you to feel accomplished and productive. If you get nothing else done, then that’s OK. Because you did the “must dos”. If you get those must do’s done, and the day’s not yet over and you’ve got a little energy left over, then look at your list again and decide if there’s one more thing you can tackle. OR just relax. Up to you.

Make task realism your goal

What can you ACTUALLY get done today? What do you have time for? When will you do your “must dos”? Will the things you’ve set out to do today actually fit in your calendar? (A calendar that requires more buffer time for the unexpected needs of other people in your house.)

Think about it this way: If you’re only getting 3 things done today, realistically, is it better to have 3 things on the list and get them all done, or have 10 things on the list and only get done 3? For me, the clear winner is the former. In both cases, 3 things were complete; the productive output has not changed. But in the first case we get to feel good about ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but that’s how I want to feel.

Experiment, iterate, repeat

Were you too ambitious today? That’s OK. Lower the bar for tomorrow. Did you have some extra time in your schedule today (lucky you!)? Do you want to use that time to do “productive” things? Or to take care of yourself? Things improve when we actively take notice.

Remember, every day, to ask yourself:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What will I try tomorrow to continue to improve?
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