Reclaiming an Unproductive Day
Acknowledging days when we're just not feeling very efficient can help us shift and plug back into purposeful activity
We've all had days where our get-up-and-go got-up-and-went. Ideally, this doesn't happen often, but occasionally, an unproductive day happens. Those are the days that the clock keeps moving forward while we keep falling behind.These needn't be categorized as bad days. Ebbs of productivity can be a problem for any older adult.
Craig Taylor is retired after more than thirty years of employment as a Chicago city public school counselor. Following completion of his service career, corresponding around the time of the death of his wife, Taylor moved closer to his daughter's family in North Carolina and found managing an abundance of time to be as challenging as managing the scarcity of time.
"Despite my best intentions, I have days that I'm just pooped, burned out or have a case of the 'don't-want-to-do-its.'"
At 70 years of age, he says, "I am busier now in my silver years than I was at the peak of my counseling career. I was a high achiever then, and I still am. I juggle too many things over the course of the day. Despite my best intentions, I have days that I'm just pooped, burned out or have a case of the 'don't-want-to-do-its.' Invariably at the end of one of these days, I feel guilty and frustrated that I've gotten so little accomplished."
Taylor is like many others who become self-punitive for concluding his day with an intact to-do list and nothing to show for it. Recognizing unfocused distractions and procrastinations is essential for reclaiming an unproductive day. Such negative thoughts compromise the ability to begin or complete productive work. Honest acknowledgement of those days where performance is not at its peak allows for a psychological shift to plug back into purposeful activity.
Some days are particularly trying for any number of reasons, all of which contribute to the dreaded sense of procrastination. Unfinished tasks fall prey to the psychology concept of the Zeigarnik Effect, which states that people tend to remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks.
Some days are particularly trying for any number of reasons, all of which contribute to the dreaded sense of procrastination.
Knowledge of the effect can be put into effective use in everyday living; it is especially well suited for helping overcome procrastination. Big tasks that seem overwhelming are often deferred. The Zeigarnik Effect suggests that the key to overcoming procrastination is simply to get started. The first step may be small and seemingly insubstantial.
Research suggests that it is best to do something easy, understanding that the key lies in starting the task, not that it has been completed. The shift in thinking from completion to starting promotes the sense of accomplishment.
Getting Back on Track
Career coaches and psychologists offer help. The tips are oriented to setting goals and prioritizing rather than employing a punitive put-your-nose-to-the grindstone mentality. Time management experts teach a classic, proven productivity strategy called the Pomodoro technique. The rubric is a system that encourages people to work with the time they have – rather than against it.
The basic steps are:
- Choose a single task to focus on.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes and work only on the selected task.
- After 25 minutes, take a five-minute break.
- Repeat steps 1- 3 four times.
- Take a longer break of about 15 to 30 minutes.
Using the Pomodoro technique, the work is broken into a 25-minute focus period followed by five-minute breaks. Each of these focus periods, plus a break period, is called a Pomodoro, named after the tomato-shaped timer first used to test the method.
"I give myself a bit of grace for my humanity and realize that there are many times that I'm not working at peak performance."
As noted, an unproductive day is marked by procrastination. Recognizing the signs of a lack of accomplishment tends to cause catastrophic thoughts, such as "I feel stupid" or "Nothing is going according to plan." Rather than indulging these negative thoughts, reframe self-talk toward more balanced and realistic considerations. This can be accomplished by a brief change of scenery and a resetting of the work environment.
Taylor says, "If I'm not productively efficient, I'll go for a walk, set my top priority and recognize that I am defeating myself with harmful feelings about my inability to begin, much less complete, productive work. I give myself a bit of grace for my humanity and realize that there are many times that I'm not working at peak performance."
Taylor uses another time management technique once he has bounced into a better place. "It is a good idea to step back and add structure to my day. This helps me to avoid creating a pattern of unproductive days. As I continue to adjust to retirement, I've found that there is comfort in routine. I try to keep a loose but routine daily schedule. I keep the same bedtime and rising time. I have a general idea of what tasks are allocated to which days."
"As I continue to adjust to retirement, I've found that there is comfort in routine. I try to keep a loose but routine daily schedule."
It is important to hold things in perspective and not be too rigid. Orient to setting goals and priorities, then triage them by identifying what absolutely requires attention on a particular day. Such an identification process tends to whittle down a long to-do list, making the day more manageable.
Years ago, stress experts found that removing pressure and burden increases the capacity for task focus and productivity. Once plugged back in, that to-do list may be revisited for another round of prioritization. Most time management experts suggest a general framework rather than overmanaging a schedule.
As Taylor said, "I try to take a bigger picture. I have my list made for day and week, not hour by hour when I was employed as a school counselor. I do need the general framework, or time passes by without me even noticing it."